Being a good parent is hard, emotional work. When children won’t cheerfully do something that is important for them to do — like holding your hand in a parking lot or going potty before a car trip — it is stressful to listen to them cry pathetically or say “I hate you” when you make them do it anyway. It is not always easy to smile, hold the course and avoid losing control and doing or saying something you later regret. Particularly if you are in a hurry. Particularly if you are in public.
When children cry and keep getting out of bed at nap time or bedtime, it is no fun to quietly but firmly keep taking them back, telling them clearly it is time to rest. It is tiring to say, “I will sit with you and help you feel safe for 10 or 15 minutes” every time and then still hear the wails when you leave.
When children are sick and won’t take their medicine, the worry that you feel can make you feel angry, but it doesn’t help to explode. It is challenging to take a deep breath, lay a foundation for cooperation and spend some time breaking the task into small amounts or being creative about helping children find their choices within the expectation.
It is hard to say “Where shall we do it?” or “Who do you want to help you?” or “Shall we put it in applesauce or pudding?” when you just want it to happen.
It is hard to decide when to be tough and unyielding about a situation and when to flex and loosen up temporarily so that the child can save face and do whatever it is a little later. The challenge of figuring out what will work best with your child when you really need them to acquire a skill, or cooperate with something for their own good, is a major parent stressor. The work of struggling through the decision process, then following through even though it doesn’t feel like the child is working with you, is tiring and frustrating. Add to that any issues simmering from your own childhood and you are also filled with anxiety about impacting your child’s whole life if you make a mistake.
It is particularly hard if you are tired physically or haven’t had a break from the struggle lately. Your tension constricts your creativity, your sense of humor and ultimately your perspective. Two-, 3- and 4-year-olds are not supposed to know all the things you do about dangers, sleep needs and health imperatives and will not thank you for many years (if ever) for figuring out how to get them to cooperate. So part of the emotional work you need to do is to spend some time with other people who admire you and think you know something to regain your equilibrium and self-confidence.
We all very much want to have lots of warm, happy times with our children. We feel guilty and worry about what our children will remember about mom or dad when we are being tough. It may be comforting to realize that most of the memories parents have of times they resented their own parents, and felt bullied or coerced into something, are rooted in pre-adolescence and adolescence. Preschoolers do not grow up to fume because their parents let them cry it out when learning to sleep in their own beds. Still, we forget that sometimes.
The key to effective parenting is to stay warm when being firm as much as possible.
Smart parenting involves taking the space to strategize and using what you know about your child. The emotional work is to realize that children are childish and do not want what they do not want when they do not want it. The strength of their protests is not the indication of your worth as a person or parent.
When children are difficult they are trying to do something for themselves, not something to you. The good parent builds the stamina for the emotional work by spending time away from their children and using their resources to get help and support from others when stuck. Use your partner, your mother, your neighbor or a good preschool teacher not just to talk to, but occasionally to cry to, and sometimes to babysit so you can take some time by yourself to decompress.