Changing Your Parenting Energy: How getting in tune with your feelings can help you overcome overwhelm and self-doubt.
Energy. One little word with so many meanings. According to Dictionary.com, energy can be defined as:
- Available power
- An adequate amount of power
- A feeling of tension caused or seeming to be caused by an excess of such power
- An exertion of such power
- The ability to act, lead others, effect, etc., forcefully
When talking about 'parenting energy,' I specifically mean that last one: the ability to act, lead others and to affect others (our kids) forcefully. And when I say 'forcefully,' what I really mean is 'effectively.' When I think of effective leaders, I think of qualities such as integrity, leading by example, empowerment, compassion and effective communication.
As someone who has been working with families in their homes for almost 30 years, I've encountered a lot of different parenting energies. I'm going to break them down to their simplest forms: confident, demanding and defeated.
The confident parent energy is self-assured. Not to say that they don't experience overwhelm or doubt at times, but overall, they have a clear vision of what outcomes are desired for the child and family as a whole as well as the steps/actions that are needed to get there. Parents with this energy are effective communicators with their children. Their home environments are calm, warm and happy. They struggle with the same challenges as other parents, but their response is one of introspection and consideration taking time to consider each from all angles and then developing a plan of action.
The demanding parent energy is highly reactive and short tempered. These parents, for lack of a better term, get triggered by the slightest challenge. They often respond with anger and frustration making effective communication a challenge. These household often feel chaotic. Family members often are walking on eggshells cautiously trying to avoid upsetting the apple cart. I want to dig deeper into this, but let me first move on to the last parent energy...
The defeated parent energy is just that, defeated. These household can feel chaotic as well but in more a neglectful or disorganized way. I should add that when I say 'neglectful,' I don't mean in an abusive way -- more environmentally or emotionally. The result is often kids running roughshod with the parent sitting back helplessly not know what, how or where to start to make things better.
Before I go on, let me be clear that I am not saying the two latter energies are present 100% of the day. Rather, these energies are present during times of stress. There are MANY similarities between the defeated and demanding parent energy. Both tend to be a result of feelings of overwhelm, fear, anxiety and stress. Both feel like they are hanging on by a string. Both tend to struggle with anxiety or depression. When we are stressed, our body has two responses: fight or flight. The demanding parent energy is the fight response; the defeated is flight. And, I hate to tell you thing, but it all stems from your experiences as a child.
Let me be clear, any situation that happened as a child that left you feeling stressed or unsafe, can be considered trauma. I think the term trauma gets thrown around a lot nowadays and it is often times associated with horrific events/experiences such as war, abuse and violence. All of these absolutely can cause trauma, but so can other experiences. Growing up in a home with a lot of yelling, feeling unimportant or isolated, feeling unseen by a parent, put downs by peers or adults and being bullied are just a few examples of experiences that can cause trauma.
Now people can have some of these types of experiences and not have any residual negative outcomes. This is the case if they had the proper emotional support from loving and caring adults to help them process said events. When young children don't get this, they have to figure out how to keep themselves safe (eg, fight or flight) and this gets encoded in their brain. From infancy, our responsiveness as parents is the key in helping our children develop the brain circuitry needed to be able to handle the rigors of life in a healthy way.
If you struggle with the demanding or defeated parenting energy, you may be wondering what you can do to make the shift to having more confident parenting energy. Here's the good news: Change is possible! It will mean re-wiring your your response to situations that cause you distress by getting in tune with your feelings. What we are feeling in our bodies, influences our thoughts and subsequently our actions. All those experiences you may have had as a child are registered in your body.
As a therapist, I always find it intriguing when I ask my clients 'what are you feeling right now' and they respond with thoughts. It can take seven rounds of 'that is a thought, what are you feeling?' before they actually respond with a feeling. And, in some cases, they can't. That is a clear demonstration of the mind-body disconnect -- if I have to feel these feelings, I feel unsafe. That wiring started in childhood and, if we don't heal ourselves as an adult, our children will invariably feel the effects. The case for self-care could not be more clear! We must, as parents, do the work on healing ourselves if we want to be the parent our children need!
I want to share some strategies for healing those own wounds, but before I do, I want you to hear this clearly: YOU HAVE BEEN DOING AN AMAZING JOB! You have been doing the best you can with what you've got! This is not the time to beat yourself up about things you have said, done or maybe not done as a parent. That is in the rearview mirror. We need to focus on looking at the road ahead. It is going to be hard work and there will be days where you feel like you can't go on, but I assure you, you are WAY stronger than you believe yourself to be! I have been the demanding parent. I have been the defeated parent. I knew it wasn't what I wanted for me or for my kids so I did the hard work of change and so have the many parents I have worked with over the years. If we can do it, you can too.
Before we get into the steps, I highly recommend getting a journal. Journaling can be a powerful tool for change and being able to reflect back on those rough days to remember the 'why' can provide the motivation needed to move forward. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and let's do this. Here are your action steps:
- Identify your triggers. When does that energy show up? Is it when your child is crying? Maybe when your talk to your parent on the phone? Or, perhaps it is when you are alone? Do a brain dump and right down every situation, place, etc., that sets off that alarm and the subsequent response you want to eliminate. No editing, no correcting, just write.
- Recognize your body signals. Where do you feel it? For example, when I'm triggered, I feel it smack dab in the middle of my chest. You may feel flushed or notice that you start tapping your foot. You need to get in tune with your bodies response to this trigger. Without this, you cannot move on to the next step.
- Identify the feeling behind the trigger. What emotion is being triggered? Dig deep! If you say, frustration or anger, you need to dig deeper. Anger often is a mask for vulnerability or fear. Remember, you need to be completely honest with yourself -- no sugar coating it. What are you REALLY feeling.
- Focus on calming your body. The next step is to identify strategies that you can use to calm your body. What things do you find relaxing or soothing? Maybe it's working out or going for walk. For others, it may be talking to a friend, doing a jigsaw puzzle or listening to a favorite song. You want to pick something that you already associate with calm and relaxation. I personally like to do self-talk, e.g., 'you are safe' followed by taking 5 deep breathes or meditation. The challenge here is that those tricky thoughts are going to want to slip in there convincing your body to stay in distress. You need to focus on your calming strategy and push those thoughts out. When they slip in for me, I just say 'breathe' over and over until I am able to re-focus on calming my body. You are building your mental muscle by doing this and it will get easier with more practice.
- Feel the emotion you want to feel. Once you have calmed your body and no longer experiencing the physical signs of distress, the next step is to identify the feeling you want to experience. Maybe that is calm or happiness. Whatever it is, you need to identify and focus on creating that feeling. For many, the easiest way to do this is to create a visual image of a place or experience that aligns with this emotion. For example, I associate the feeling of calm with sitting by the ocean at our favorite place in the Florida Keys. Find your 'happy place' or experience and focus on feeling that feeling.
- Identify the thoughts you want to hear in your head when triggered. I like to do this by creating self affirmations, e.g., I am calm, I can handle anything I put my mind to, I am a loving and caring person, etc. Identify and write down your positive self talk. Put it on a sticky note on the frig and on the bathroom mirror. Type it in your calendar and set an alarm to have it go off every morning as you start your day. Write in your journal every morning or evening or both! This is who you REALLY are and you need to program your body to understand that.
By recognizing the messages from your body and identifying the feelings behind it, you can change your thoughts and ultimately your reactions. Here is my most important tip: Practice these strategies daily! You are building new pathways and connections between your body and brain and that takes repetition. Practicing these strategies as a part of your day, e.g, journaling, self-affirmations, visualization, etc., will make it easier for you to use them successfully during moments of crisis.
In closing I want to say that I have worked with thousands of demanding and defeated parents over the last thirty years (and have been there myself!) and one thing I know to be true: they love their children with every fiber of their being and want to be the best possible parent that they can. They just feel stuck and need tools to make those changes. It is my deepest hope that this post will provide comfort, insight and hope to anyone out there who may be struggling. Just know that you are not alone in this struggle or on this journey.