I love you but... the truth about grumpy parents
It’s always fun to look at life through a social media lens:
friends on vacation in sunnier climes;
perfect children dressed in white, photographed in soft-focus.
Until, that is, your eyes dart up from the screen to be confronted by children on the rampage through the house, trip-hazard cubbies and Lego pieces strewn over the carpet like landmines.
Carefully-prepared meals are jettisoned in favour of the Maccas drive-through, and the calming effect of tech lures you away from fun family time shared over a board game.
Parenting is an unbelievable privilege and a gift. But it’s also exhausting. Parenting children with additional problems like low mood, or inattention, or hyperactivity, or aggression, only makes it more so.
Year in, year out, it can also lead to physical and emotional burnout. Our parenting suffers too: we are on a hair-trigger, and the calm parenting strategies we read about can be hard to access in the heat of the moment.
Our kids look to us to model how to handle life’s complexities. We need to demonstrate, through our actions, how to nurture ourselves, each other and the world around us. Healthy communities, our environment and our food all contribute to our ability to handle pressure and parent our children effectively and compassionately.
But how do we do this often enough to establish this as ‘normal’ for our kids? Of course, it’s not about being perfect. Attempting to shelter our kids from the rough-and-tumble of everyday life won’t do them any favours. It’s a bit like building a healthy emotional muscle: we need resistance, challenging experiences and tension to develop the ability to respond appropriately to complex situations.
What’s most important?
First of all, to yourself. Sure, none of us is perfect. I can’t be the only mother to regret snapping at my kids when they’ve interrupted me once too often, or when their fear of trying something new is expressed as a burst of aggression?
The world won’t indulge them as they try to navigate their path through life, so when we apologise for our own misjudgment, we are helping to train them into discerning right from wrong. Our kids love us more than anyone else in the world. If we speak honestly and humbly about our actions, we are helping them to develop an internal ‘emotional compass’.
Over time, this will help them direct their own course of action when faced with challenging situations. Choosing to go with the popular kid, or sitting with the child who’s eating his lunch on the bench alone? Taking the last, prized lolly from the party bag, or offering it to your sister (this one’s pretty challenging, I know!)?
In situations like these, we are asking our child to rely on their own sense of right and wrong - or, perhaps more accurately, better or worse. This is described as intrinsic motivation: there’s not (or, at least there shouldn’t) be a prize. Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté in their powerful book “Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers” reminds us to begin trusting, from a child’s early age, our child’s desire to do good and to please us. “If the desire to be good for us is not treasured and nurtured, the child will lose his motivation to keep trying to measure up. It is children’s desire to be good for us that warrants our trust, not their ability to perform to our expectations.”
It’s a great idea to apply this same generosity to ourselves as parents. Keep special mementos close to hand: hand drawn cards, photos (when they smile for the camera!) or even a pair of tiny shoes remind us of the precious life we have been entrusted with.
For me, another key challenge is managing my time. I think Nir Eyal’s book “Indistractible” was written for me, but unfortunately I’ve been too distracted to finish it yet!
Nir shares a powerful understanding of how discomfort tends to pull us away from the task at hand. Let’s be honest, I find it hard to motivate myself to start tackling a pile of bills, or put the laundry away. Not much glamour there! How much easier just to quickly check my messages for a laugh with a friend, or attend to an ‘urgent’ not ‘emergency’. There’s a flash of dopamine that comes with the element of surprise, and it quickly becomes addictive.
Instead, Eyal counsels us to focus on the end result - the feeling we have AFTER the task is completed. Being honest with ourselves in making a commitment to do the job, and then completing it, offers its own source of pleasure. It becomes a habit in itself.
I notice the same patterns of behaviour in my kids. Faced with a chore they dislike, they will invest enormous energy into avoiding it, or challenging their obligation. I’m also finding that I have to remind them to encourage themselves after they finish the work: it’s often as simple as giving themselves a pat on the back!
There’s that familiar friend intrinsic motivation at work again. If they can build a ‘feedback loop’ that connects ‘challenge’ with ‘sticking with it’ then with ‘reward’, they will find it ever easier to adapt that loop to ever more complex challenges of teenage and adult life, without us needing to constantly engineer a new and enticing range of rewards, or calibrate an appropriately unpalatable punishment for tasks left undone.
It’s my fervent hope that I can teach these skills to my kids well enough that they’ll be able to act as examples to me! The more effective I am at sticking to my tasks, the more confident and calmer I become. It certainly gives me more resilience when I know I’ve finished the job I set out to do.
But how do we decide where to place our attention? It’s wonderful to dream, to use our imaginations to create a parallel universe that offers an escape from day-to-day drudgery. These dreams can provide a powerful insight into how we might create a better life for ourselves and those we love, but they can also hem us in further if we don’t turn them into fuel for creating change.
Essentially, we need to understand how to turn these dreams into concrete, actionable steps, or goals.
First of all, we need to define very clearly what it is exactly that we aspire to.
Using an example close to my heart, we might recognise that our families would be healthier and happier if the food consistently was closer to what nature offers: put it another way, something our great-grandparents might recognise!
Packaged biscuits, crisps and sugary drinks all have a direct impact on the body’s ability to heal itself, to withstand infection and, importantly, to fuel the brain for learning and stabilise our moods.
Something I found helpful was to commit to replacing bought snacks with home-made foods, often using whole grains, healthy oils and fruit. Sweet biscuits were replaced by drop-dead simple ‘bliss balls’ (nuts can be omitted if they’re for school); crisps were substituted for wholegrain crackers and cheese. Not having the packaged food in my trolley, or my pantry, meant that we minimised any cravings during the transition. The fact we all felt more energetic and still had the feeling of eating a ‘treat’ meant that the pain was non-existent. Because we bought ingredients in bulk, it wasn’t any more expensive, either.
The discipline came with not shopping when we were hungry, or tired (and ideally avoiding shopping with the kids altogether. Pester power is no joke!). It also meant I had to commit to spending a few minutes each week preparing these snacks in bulk ready for hungry tummies at the end of the school day. There’s a great sense of achievement, though, in looking at the yummy little treasures all lined up in their boxes in the fridge!
Remember, change is always easier if you are part of a supportive community. One idea would be to share your new commitment with other friends who are keen to make similar changes. Recipe swaps, community cooking and a ‘new normal’ for lunchboxes all strengthen the likelihood of lasting change.
IF YOU’RE WRONG… DON’T WORRY!
When I try to make any kind of change, I inevitably feel inadequate, scared, and often just plain wrong.
What I’ve learned, though, is that’s an inevitable part of trying to make things better, either for ourselves or for those we love.
There’s just no way to keep doing the same thing and then adapt to a world that’s ever-changing. The consequence is that we get stuck in a rut. Unacknowledged, this can lead to us becoming brittle and closed to new opportunities and experiences. We know it, deep down, but the path out seems impossible.
Our education system, our consumerist culture, and the ‘win or lose’ narrative that dominates the media all contributes to this mindset. The fear of mistakes begins early: spelling tests and maths exams, gold stars and reward charts all encourage us to develop new skills and a sense that the world can be answered in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Unfortunately, over time, this can harden into a paralysing fear of making mistakes; of being inadequate; of missing the mark.
Instead, if we’re willing to stick with the discomfort for a while, this feeling of ‘wrongness’ can turn into a great and life-changing gift.
Being willing to sit with this discomfort can offer us a great gift of new possibilities in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It could suggest new ways of engaging in a challenging relationship, or the chance to rediscover parts of ourselves we have long forgotten.
In every case, though, the necessary first step is clear-eyed acknowledgment of what is making us unhappy, where we have fallen short, and the dreams we have let die too soon.
The power of imagination is important here. Once we see what needs to change, it’s a great help to spend time considering in detail what the benefits of our new approach might be. How would life look if this problem was addressed successfully? Or even if we took the first steps towards changing a destructive habit, or apologising for a wrong?
A crucial step here is to begin to separate ‘who’ you are from what you ‘do’. To take yourself seriously enough to believe that you are worth the work, and that you do truly have the ability to create meaningful change. Our world rewards the quick fix, the instant makeover. Instead, this process necessitates slowing down, turning away from distraction, and having the courage to acknowledge that life affords us the enormous privilege of choice far more often than we realise - if we choose to accept it.
In doing this for ourselves, imagine the freedom we give our children to explore their own talents and abilities, knowing that if they make a mistake or fall short of the standard they are free to own it, try again, and find out what does work!
This blog is not written from some ivory tower. Over the past few years, I’ve been challenged as a parent, wife, friend and community member in ways that have forced me to reflect very deeply on what I believe makes the difference between a life lived on other people’s terms, and one that reflects who God made me to be.
It’s painful to step away from the expectations of those around us: our society rewards conformity in many different ways.
Increasingly, though, I believe that change is coming, and it’s being driven by those in the margins. The people who don’t ‘fit’; the ideas that don’t emerge through consensus. There’s too much at stake: our earth is staggering under the weight of excessive consumerism, loneliness is at epidemic proportions, and our young people are struggling with mental illness and disconnection.
Mindful Nutrients is committed to building a company that inspires change in the areas we believe are crucial to supporting children, especially those struggling with learning difficulties and mood disorders. Through our products, programs and affiliations, we are committed to contributing in a meaningful way to responding to the needs of our community.
The first step on this journey has been the release of our ‘superpowder’, achieve+ junior. This is an evidence-based nutrient drink mix that has been shown to support children’s focus, mood and learning. It doesn’t impact kids’ appetites, and the benefits compound over time. We are excited to be recommended by leading practitioners here in Australia, and you can also order online at any time through www.mindfulnutrients.com
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