What is Consciously Parenting?
by Rebecca Thompson, M.S.
The baby was curled up on my chest, sound asleep: the sweet contentment of a baby with a tummy full of mother’s milk. I relished the moment of motherly bliss when all truly felt right with the world as I rocked my tiny baby. As he grew, I looked forward to those special, quiet times of synchrony and loving feelings toward this new little one in my life.
Perhaps other situations come to mind that bring a smile: a 6 year-old’s grin, missing those two front teeth, or the pride that swells up when your child learns a new skill. It is easy to feel loving in moments like those. But how loving do you feel when your baby is colicky? Or your toddler has just woken up again for the tenth or fiftieth time that night? Or when your 7-year-old is tormenting his younger sibling again? Or when your tween is yelling back at you?
Conssciously Parenting is about respecting the needs of your child and responding with love to your child. This is incredibly easy to do when your child is expressing loving feelings and behaviors, but what happens when your child is not? What do you do when you are pushed to the edge of what you can handle and aren’t feeling loving toward your child? Responding with love and respect is probably the last thing on your mind then!
I believe that we all want to parent from a loving, conscious place. Oftentimes, we just don’t know what to do or what it looks like to do this in moments of stress. Let’s start with what we know and expand our understanding.
Most parenting books and resources focus specifically on a child’s behaviors. If child does A (yells at you), give consequence B (time-out) and A (child yelling) will stop. Behavioral approaches originated from the work on B.F. Skinner, who worked with laboratory animals- not people or children. Children are much more complex than animals and we are discovering that using a behavioral approach misses much about what is going on with the child. With many children, the behavioral approaches actually escalate the behaviors or make them much worse! However, most of us don’t know any other way to look at the situations that come up in our parenting. It is what we see all around us. It is what we know. It is a part of who we have been as a society and how we have looked at our children.
If you imagine an iceberg, behaviors are the part that is visible above the surface of the water. You can chop away at the top for years and never completely eliminate that iceberg because 85% of it is under the surface; as the top of the iceberg is chipped away, more iceberg rises up to become the new surface. With our children it may appear that as we eliminate one behavior, a new behavior pops up to replace it. What’s under the surface of your child’s behavior? The reasons for the behavior must be addressed if we want to truly make a change.
So, how can we look at this differently? Let’s return to the example used above of a child yelling. First, a child who is yelling is outside of a connected, loving state, which I believe is a child’s natural state. Children naturally want to please their parents and want to connect with you, even if it doesn’t look like it at that moment. A child who is not calm is dysregulated, the opposite of the baby from the opening paragraph. Our job as parent is primarily to teach the child to return to a state of calm, so that eventually he will be able to do it for himself as needed. A child who is dysregulated cannot learn about appropriate behavior. He will only learn that he is loved conditionally (depending upon his behaviors) or unconditionally (for who he is regardless of his behavior) based upon how we respond to the behavior.
This doesn’t mean that we’re going to forever ignore the behavior. It just means that in that moment, we are going to focus on meeting our child where he is emotionally. Instead of stopping the expression of feelings, we’re going to validate it. “Wow! It really upset you that your sister took away your toy! I’d be mad, too!” We need to realize that the child is just upset, validate the feelings, then help him return to a state of calm. The catch is that we have to remain calm and connected ourselves in order to do this. It doesn’t mean that we always have to be calm. That’s unrealistic. But we can strive for that place in ourselves, modeling our own challenges with it to our children, lighting the way for them to learn how to regulate themselves, too.
Later, when everyone is calm, we can talk about more appropriate ways to handle it when we’re upset. When we do this when everyone is calm, he is able to process what you’re saying and come up with solutions for next time.
Have you ever been really upset? Be honest now! Has someone tried to reason with you when you were upset? Did it work? Were you happy to hear that there are better ways of handling your anger? Probably not. How do you think you would feel if you were asked to leave the room by yourself when you were upset and weren’t able to calm yourself down? Truly putting yourself in your child’s shoes and seeing your child where he is in that moment will help you to respond from a loving place.
“But he’s 8 acting like he’s 3! I can’t let him act like that! How will he ever learn?” It takes realizing that, in a state of stress, children (and adults, too) return to an earlier emotional age. That’s where your child felt safe and he is returning to that developmental zone of comfort. When you can look at your child where he is emotionally, knowing that meeting him there will allow him to move back into his chronological age, you can more easily respond in a way that will help him.
Consciously Parenting focuses on the relationship. We all need relationships to survive and our children especially need us to learn how to navigate in this world. When our relationship with them is in a loving place, their behaviors also become loving. We have the power to make our homes peaceful and loving; we’ve had the power all along. It takes shifting to look at our children’s behaviors as communications, rather than manipulation or attempts to control the household or to gain our attention.
Sometimes our children communicate through their behaviors that they NEED our attention because that’s what children do- they NEED our attention. It is not want. Children are naturally dependent and it is our job to meet their needs, not the other way around. When we want our child to “be quiet,” it is often about our own needs. It doesn’t mean that our child can do whatever they want whenever they want to do it, but it means that we are mindful of our children’s attempts to communicate with us. When we can hear the quieter messages, it doesn’t have to get louder in order for our child to feel heard.
The relationship is the key to consciously parenting. Get to know your child. Really get to know him! Spend time with your child one-on-one every day doing something he wants to do with you. Put down the cell phone. Turn off the computer. Focus on the precious child who is here in your life right now. As you experience more moments of calm, you will have more loving feelings toward your child; then, you will begin to see more loving feelings and behaviors from your child. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.
Consciously Parenting requires you to be mindful and conscious as a parent in your interactions. When you are reacting to something that your child has done, look inward to see what that is bringing up for you to work through. When you understand yourself and your reactions, you will be able to respond to your child in that moment from a loving place.
For most parents, Consciously Parenting requires a paradigm shift, or a different way of looking at the child and his behaviors. Be patient with yourself. Use the resources here to support you on your journey wherever you happen to be in this moment. Eventually, you will see that each moment is an opportunity for you to move forward as a parent and a person and is truly a blessing!
Rebecca Thompson, M.S., is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project. Rebecca has been actively educating parents and facilitating parent groups and workshops that encourage conscious decision-making in family life since 1998. As the mother of two boys, she has personal as well as professional experience navigating the terrain of parenting. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, with specialized training in attachment and trauma. Click here to read her blog.