Parents Need to Grow Up Too

 By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Is anyone really ready to be a parent? There’s a shared experience among most new parents; a sense of disbelief that the hospital staff will simply let you walk out with a newborn child. It’s like giving a set of car keys to someone who hasn’t learned how to drive. Yet our parenting has a profound impact not only on our children’s development but also on our own. The challenges of parenthood provide us with an opportunity to grow as individuals. Like our children, we also have developmental tasks. From the first moment, we have no option but to be role models. How and what we model is totally up to us. The same is true of the relationships we develop with our children. If our primary focus is disciplining undesirable behavior, then our long-term relationship with our children will be negatively impacted. It takes conscious effort to focus more on the positive within our children and within ourselves. This brings us back to the developmental task of parenting. Our own level of emotional development impacts the relationship we develop with our children. The more emotional, social, and behavioral issues that we are struggling with, the less capable we will be to develop a healthy relationship with our child (or others). Thus parenting provides us with the opportunity to mature and address issues that we may have previously avoided. But the choice is ours. If we choose not to deal with our own anger problems, for example, we will likely have a higher level of conflict with our already challenging adolescent. If we regularly drink alcohol, our ability to positively impact our child’s view on substance abuse may be compromised. Sometimes our toughest challenge as parents is not our children’s behavior, but our own.

As parents it’s natural to focus on and correct children’s behavior. We rarely consider, however, how our own day-to-day behavior impacts that of our children. Children are extremely sensitive to their parents’ subtle moods, actions, and words. They internalize these characteristics as they develop their own identity and approach to the world. Of course our children bring their own emotional, behavioral, and social issues, in addition to what they learn from us and others. But even if they have significant issues from birth that are uniquely their own, our behavior will still have a significant impact.

Consider channeling your desire to be a good parent into taking better care of yourself by identifying and addressing your own issues and challenges. The better adjusted and happier you are, the healthier your parent-child relationship will be.

Healthy Family Conflict

By Jan Hittelman

While conflict can have a toxic affect on family functioning, it is a normal interpersonal occurrence in any relationship. The goal is not just to try and minimize it, but more importantly to develop and implement effective conflict resolution strategies for when it occurs.

• Allow for a respectful exchange of opinions: While the parents have the final say, it is important that children have an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings prior to making any final decision. This will also increase the chances that children will honor the decision, knowing their opinions were first considered.
• Where possible, offer different resolution options for discussion: A good problem solving approach includes generating a number of possible solutions, evaluating the probable outcome of each, and then choosing the best course of action. It is important to model effective problem solving so that children learn to use these skills in their own life.
• Consider short-term “experiments”: Try to arrive at an agreed upon potential solution and then agree to implement it for a short period of time to allow family members to evaluate the outcome and determine if a different approach is needed.
• Normalize the experience: Given that conflict is often a normal byproduct of any relationship, don’t shy away from dealing with it. Moreover, avoiding conflicts is rarely an effective long-term solution.
• Focus on the process, not just the issue: While it is important that children comply with parental requests in the moment, teaching them how to develop good conflict resolution skills will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
• Walk the walk: Children model what they’ve been taught. Consider your own approaches to conflict with others in your life. It’s not uncommon, for example, that children with anger management problems have a parent with anger issues as well.
• Get help when needed: If despite your best efforts, significant family conflict continues, seek the support of a mental health professional with family counseling expertise.

Anger’s Impact

 By Jan Hittelman

Recent reports of spousal assault, murder and horrific child abuse serve as a stark reminder that unaddressed anger management problems can contribute to serious consequences. Even for those whose anger management problems are less severe, the impact on family, workplace and community relationships can also be devastating. Anger is a very common referral issue for children, adolescents, and adults. The truth is that many of us struggle with anger issues within ourselves as well as family members.

Given that there are easy-to-learn effective anger control techniques, one wonders why we don’t teach coping skills in school right along with reading, writing and arithmetic.

It is important for us all to learn to express our emotions in an appropriate way. This is often at the heart of anger problems; an increasing number of unexpressed feelings that, like a pressure cooker, eventually burst. Typically the person knows intellectually that they should not act-out but it provides a needed release of those pent-up feelings. One reason that the techniques are effective is that the angry person usually feels great regret for their behaviors after they calm down, which can potentially fuel their motivation to change if provided with a way to do so.

While individuals with significant anger management problems should seek professional assistance, here are some basic strategies that can help us all to better manage our anger:

• Use the “F word” more: It is important to express and not bury our feelings. Try to be more aware of your emotions and use the word “feel” more when discussing challenging issues with others.
• Evaluate your thinking: We incorrectly assume that what others say or do results in our feeling angry. It is actually how we evaluate others’ actions that lead to our emotional response, which is good news because we can potentially assess those thoughts and make sure that they’re logical, rational and fair.
• Address stress: Everyone is stressed, some more than others. It is important to have healthy ways to reduce stress. Whether it’s meditation, exercise, or taking the time to read a good book, it is important that we take care of ourselves and make the time to relax. Otherwise our emotional and physical health are at risk.
• Take responsibility for your behavior: Anger is a normal emotion and we’re entitled to our feelings. When we take our anger out on others that’s our fault and not theirs. Don’t project blame on others for your angry behavior.

Dealing more effectively with our negative emotions can improve the quality not just of our own lives, but that of our families, community, and society as a whole.

Unconditional Love

By Dr. Jan Hittelman

There has never been a doubt in my mind that becoming a father was one of the most profound experiences of my life. In a moment my world vision changed forever. Current events were suddenly so much more important because they would impact what would become my daughter’s life. As a young man, if it didn’t affect me directly, I didn’t give it much thought. Everything changes because of that unconditional love that is born in your heart when your child’s heart starts beating. This is a pure inborn love that is likely genetically predetermined to ensure the survival of the species. Either way it is clear, strong and lifelong.

During infancy and the first years of life, we develop a deep bond with our children. A bond that is usually impossible to break. When this process is disrupted early in life and there is an ongoing absence of caregiver warmth and nurturance, there can be significant psychological and even physiological trauma. The resulting psychological condition is referred to as Reactive Attachment Disorder. This can result in lifelong social and emotional challenges.
As parents we may occasionally stray from that initial pure love and get distracted by the details of life that get in the way; everything from dealing with our own issues to getting our children to do their homework. Before you know it, we may be contributing to our children’s disappointment in being denied that unconditional love. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain over time.

I wonder if we all secretly wish to experience that unconditional love from our children, parents, family and friends. Is it unrealistic to expect this level of pure love from others? Unfortunately it probably is. If we’re lucky, we experience these precious moments from time to time in our relationships. The more frequently this occurs, the more fortunate we are.

There are many theorists who believe that in order to truly experience unconditional love, you must first provide it to yourself through self-acceptance. Too often we beat our selves up and become highly self-critical, carrying the weight of guilt, shame and self-blame. By becoming more self-accepting and self-nurturing, we can more easily give and receive love unconditionally. Consider going easier on yourself; try to hit the brakes when you’re being self-critical. Allow yourself to focus more on what you’re doing well and take a moment to experience that feeling of satisfaction. Even if our parents did not always provide us with the love that we desired, we can still be that loving parent to ourselves and fill that void.

All-encompassing ongoing unconditional love is an ideal that perhaps can never be fully realized. What is possible, however, is to make a more conscious effort to give unconditional love to others and be more self-accepting of ourselves. All that is necessary is a true awareness of this process and the motivation to put some effort into it. Now that you know, what will you do?

Using Empowerment to Reduce Conflict

 By Dr. Jan Hittelman

As the summer winds down, it is time to be thinking about the upcoming school year and how we can set our family up for success. Too often, the school year brings renewed conflicts about homework, studying, curfew, chores, screen time, the morning routine, etc.

Now is the perfect time to be proactive regarding the issues that your family struggles with and develop an effective strategy for the upcoming school year. Regardless of the age of your child or the specific challenges that you face, using an empowerment strategy is key to reducing conflict. As parents, we are often reluctant to give our child a voice in the discipline plan because we fear that we will lose control. Ironically, the opposite is true. Until your child is invested in the discipline plan, he or she will likely fight your rules and resist your authority. If, on the other hand, your child has some ownership of the decisions, they will take far more responsibility for their behavior and be less able to project blame on you for being the bossy tyrant.

To utilize an empowerment strategy with your child, consider the following steps:
1. Identify the specific behavior that you want to work on. Try to choose just one behavior to start and make sure that it is something your child is capable of doing if motivated.
2. At a positive moment, engage your child in the discussion. Let your child know that you don’t like fighting about this issue and are eager to hear their opinion on why it happens and how you can work together to improve it.
3. Whenever possible, use your child’s suggestions by creating an “experiment” to see how it works. Make sure to put the agreement in writing and have everyone sign it.
4. After you put the plan into action, take every opportunity to provide positive feedback regarding your child’s efforts.
5. If the agreed upon system is not working, create another opportunity at a positive moment, to rethink the system together and improve it. Instead of getting angry, try to calmly work together to brainstorm alternative solutions.
6. Once you have identified a mutually agreed upon revised approach, follow the steps above.

Remember that the end goals are not just getting homework done or going to bed on time, but more importantly teaching your child to take responsibility for their behavior and helping them learn how to solve their own problems, while at the same time modeling effective conflict resolution skills. An empowerment strategy is the best way to accomplish these goals.

Setting Your Child Up for Success

By Dr. Jan Hittelman

There’s a lot that parents can do to be proactive in helping their child be successful in school. Putting the optimal structure in place early in the school year will minimize problems that may not fully surface for several months. Too often parents discover significant academic/behavioral issues as a function of that first or second report card. We then shift to a more reactive approach and often experience an uphill challenge to improve things before the end of the school year. Consider the following strategies:

• Maintain good parent-teacher communication: Teachers have a very demanding job addressing the needs of many students in their classroom. While they would enjoy ongoing communication with every parent, it easier said than done. As a parent you want to be respectful of this while still letting the teacher know that you want to support his/her efforts with your child and would appreciate occasional feedback (both positive and negative) regarding your child’s classroom performance. The teacher will then guide you in terms of the preferred communication method (e.g. email, phone, etc.). If you run into any challenges with this method, respectfully let the teacher know ASAP.
• Increase Parent-Child Communication about School: We typically screw this up by having primarily negatively generated conversations led by the ever popular: “Did you do your homework yet?” Create opportunities for family members to talk about their day, sharing their ups and downs. Parents should model this behavior, being thoughtful about what is appropriate to share based on your child’s age. Try to be more of a compassionate listener first and an advisor second. Encourage your child to express their positive and negative feelings about their daily experiences. Let your children know that you appreciate their sharing their school day with you.
• Help Your Child Be Motivated for Success: As individuals we vary in terms of achievement motivation. For children who have challenges learning, this can be even more problematic. As parents we often “expect” our children to do well and offer little praise and positive feedback. For elementary-age children your greatest reward is not things, money, or food, but your time and attention. Try to connect school effort with fun interaction together (e.g. playing a game, doing an art project, going for a walk, etc.).
• Make the Shift from Dependent to Independent Learner: By the time your child graduates from elementary school, it is ideal if he/she is taking ownership of their schoolwork and requiring less parental oversight. This process should be an evolving one, sensitive to your child’s unique learning issues and personality. Too often parents are fighting with their children about homework and other school issues well into high school. It should be their concern not yours. Otherwise their success in college and to some degree in life will be in jeopardy.

By maintaining ongoing open communication between you and your child as well as their teachers and nurturing your child’s motivation and responsibility, you will be setting your child up for success.