Keeping Your Cool As a Parent Part 1:
Who’s Responsible for Who?

This presentation material is taken from
"Scream Free Parenting," by Hal Runkel

As parents I bet we’ve all asked ourselves the same questions. If I want what’s best for my child, and I want a great relationship with this little person, why do I act badly so often? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be more patient and loving? Parents everywhere are facing the toughest challenge of their lives: trying to create a loving family environment filled with mutual respect and cooperation. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed and under appreciated, you’re not alone. We could all use some help.

Not all of us rant or yell at our kids or struggle to keep our cool. But we all tend to feel anxious about our kids and their choices. We can get so focused on our children and their choices that we don’t realize when the anxiety takes over and we get reactive. Our emotions take over. When we’re unable to control our emotions, we may react by screaming or by manipulating. We may disconnect from the situation by giving up or giving in. We may neglect, avoid, or even withhold love. We do all this in an effort to regain a position of control over our children. All of these reactions are responses to anxiety about our children.

Notice, we’re not talking about when our child can’t control his or her emotions. Parenting isn’t about children, it’s about parents. Your number one leadership role in your family is that of a calming authority. When you lose it in whatever mode you tend to react, that’s your cue to calm your own anxiety. You have to take care of yourself first if you’re going to be able to remain fully connected and involved with your kids. The catch is remaining both calm and connected even when your child isn’t calm.

The way we communicate with our children has a profound impact on how they develop. We all know that a trusting secure relationship helps our children do well in most areas of their lives. So it’s essential that we learn how to calm our emotional reactivity to our children. We know that, and yet we still find ourselves yelling or silently seething in response to the kids’ behavior. When communication with our child is disrupted by our inability to control our emotions, our chid’s reaction will probably be withdrawal or aggressive acting out. These reactions can vary from subtle to extreme. This is when we get frustrated, knowing we’re part of the problem but unsure what to do differently.

What’s going on here? After all, we want nothing more than to have a loving family. When things are going well communication can be pure joy. There’s that mutual collaboration and cooperation that’s so satisfying among people who love each other. When you have this kind of interaction between you and your child, you both feel good. You’re both respectful and responsive to each other.You both feel loved.

So what’s happening when anxiety takes over and we feel overwhelmed? There can be many reasons we feel overwhelmed by emotional reactions. For instance, unresolved issues from our past can get triggered. Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting, says a big contributor to our anxiety as parents is the most damaging lie about parenting: We are responsible for our children.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute. Why is that a lie?” Most of us feel like we’re responsible for our children. Most of us would define parenting something like this: “It’s our job as parents to get our children to think, feel, and especially behave like a good person.” And in reality we can’t overestimate the influence we have on the next generation. But we have a far greater responsibility to our children than we have for our children. If we’re responsible for our children, then we have a really big problem.

How long was it before you realized your child had a mind of her own? Even in infancy our kids begin to exercise their ability to make decisions about what they will and won’t do. They begin to choose how they feel, how they think, and how they behave. They can choose to make different choices than we want them to make. If you’re responsible for your children, you have to figure out how to program them to make the “right” choices. But our children are born with the power of choice. We want our children to grow up to be self-directed human beings.

When you feel responsible for the choices your children make, they’ll soon realize on some level that they’re in a no-win situation. Either they kill their own decision-making spirit in an attempt to reduce their parents’ anxiety, or they rebel against their parents’ authority. We don’t do our children justice when we feel responsible for them being good people. We cripple the possibility of children learning to act for themselves and to think critically about their choices.

But there’s a way to say yes to our profound influence on our children’s lives without taking total responsibility for those lives. This option emphasizes a radical focus: a focus on calming our own anxiety. Calming our own anxiety is the only way to retain a position of influence with our children. By learning to calm your own anxiety instead of relying on changing your child’s behavior to calm your anxiety, you’re free to be more mature in your parenting.

The bottom line is that you need to be in control of the things you can control, and that starts with you. You’re responsible to your children, your spouse, your friends and family members. You’re accountable to them for how you think, feel, and behave towards them.

It may be helpful to you to make a reminder note and post it several places, including in the car. “I am responsible to my child for how I relate to my child.” Again, the focus is on you because you’re the only one you can ultimately control. If you make sure you behave, even when your kids misbehave, then you have a greater chance of positively influencing the situation.

So what can you do? You can take back control of your own emotions. You can make your number one priority to hold your own emotional responses in your own hands. I’m not saying that choices to break the rules need to go undisciplined. But for you to have the lasting influence on your child’s choices you want so badly, you first have to calm down. You have to calm your own anxiety, refusing to transfer it over to your child and make a situation worse.

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

Copyright 2011, Jacque Ristau

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