With an endless supply of parenting information out there, i.e. books, articles, blogs, podcasts, videos, and grandparents, it’s no wonder new parents can feel confused and overwhelmed. I see many parents fretting over behaviors that they have no control over and that are not their fault, leaving them feeling frustrated and guilty. That’s where a little information and detachment can save the day.
It can start with a colicky infant, wailing and thrashing about despite parent’s best efforts. Stranger anxiety and having a strong preference for one parent to hold them comes later in the first year. Intense temper tantrums often erupt by 18-24 months, throwing the whole house into a tizzy. Power struggles and loud “NO’s!” arrive in the toddler years, followed by another round of fears around age 5-6.
When the teen years approach, another round of dissonance, fits, and power struggles can reappear after some quiet grade school years. Adolescents start to share less of their feelings and experiences, and demand more alone time away from the family. They often spend more time texting friends than conversing with their family, leaving parents feeling disconnected and frustrated.
What do all of these behaviors have in common? First of all, they are normal, occurring in families of all sizes and shapes. Perhaps most importantly, they are not the parent’s fault.
I like to look at the causes of such behaviors as pieces of a pie. One piece is the child’s temperament, the behavioral style they were born with that influences how they behave and are affected by their environment. For example, intense, strong-minded kids bring a lot of gusto to everything that they do, including stranger anxiety, tantrums, and bids for autonomy.
Another piece of the pie is the normal developmental and behavioral stages kids go through during childhood and adolescence. Kids tend to fall apart and feel out of sorts just before and during important leaps in their development, best explained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton’s touchpoints model. Anticipatory guidance about what stages are coming up demystifies the erratic behaviors kids embody during these times, creating the space for parents to stay calm and rational.
The final slice of the pie is how parents manage the child’s temperament and stages. Parents who get flustered and plug into their child’s behaviors usually end up making them worse. Guilt, fear, confusion, and anger cause mom and dad to get overly concerned and do too much, and their intensity adds to the child’s already overflowing emotions, resulting in everyone spiraling out of control. I teach parents that when their toddler or teen’s emotions start to go up, their own feelings need to go down a notch, allowing them to stay calm and effective. Understanding the normal reasons why their child is displaying these behaviors makes it easier to stay detached and to peacefully support children through each stage.
I do encourage parents to educate themselves by reading and taking parenting classes. I also want them to trust their intuition about the specific needs of their unique child. Armed with the knowledge of their child’s temperament and the particulars of each stage they are going through, parents can remain detached and effective in dealing with each stage as it arises.