One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: What is the best parenting program I can do to help or better manage my child?
The best parenting program to manage kids better
There are amazing resources available to parents (see listed below) that I refer to often and use myself. But what I really want to say to most parents is this: The best way you can help your child is by helping yourself first.
Anxiety in parents
When we’re anxious parents, we almost always raise anxious children. Our anxiety drives us to over respond: to illness, injury, cleanliness, routine, social interaction, etc. Sometimes we try to manage our anxiety with the pursuit of perfection, which sends salient messages to our children that imperfect is not okay and failure is not okay. And then our worry can become contagious.
Always watching our children through lenses of worry also tells them that they are not okay and that the world is unsafe. And in turn, our children respond to us with separation anxiety as they begin to learn that if we don’t think they’re okay and that the world is dangerous, then they are unsafe without us.
Depression in parents
Similarly, as parents, when we feel depressed, we’re likely to disengage from the outside world that has become disappointing, painful, overwhelming, and that tells us we are hopeless and worthless. Depression makes us pessimistic and discourages us from trying.
Unfortunately, our children are in that outside world, and our depression excludes them also. Our black cloud becomes their worldview, and they learn to focus on the failures and the information that they are also worthless.
Addiction in parents
When we suffer from addiction, we tell our children that whatever we can’t release from is the most important priority in our lives. Even above them. And we inadvertently teach them that they should put this addiction first in their own adult lives, and to manage stress we need to release by using a form of addiction.
When we have been significantly harmed in our own childhood, we often become disorganised in our attachment to others through early learning that the people we loved or trusted are harmful. Childhood physical and sexual abuse can make it extremely difficult to parent outside of a posttraumatic stress response.
As such, we can be unsure about how to attach to our children in a secure manner, and we can respond to them with inconsistent, heightened or disorganised emotions. Our own hyperarousal can frighten them even though our intention is to protect them. In turn, our children can become fearful and disregulated in their own behaviour and can display higher rates of externalised behaviour, such as aggression, toward others and us.
Why looking after YOU is the best way to help your kids
As such, how we parent plays a critical role in our children’s mental health. We’re not responsible for all of their mental health presentations, as our children can be exposed to exogenous stressors and traumas, as can we. But how they process and respond to the world is largely determined by how we understand and interpret the world ourselves.
The research evolving about our children’s emotional literacy developing in the third trimester of pregnancy speaks to the attunement between mother and child. That is, before our babies are born, they’re learning about their emotions via us.
When they come into the world, how we respond to them continues this learning. And how they see us move through the world, sends salient messages to them about how to cope, manage stress, respond to conflict, interpret danger, problem solve, resiliency, etc.
Prioritising our own mental health as parents isn’t about being perfect. For example, going for a walk or gentle exercise is often discussed to as a way of helping busy parents cope with parenting. This doesn’t imply that you need to achieve a perfect BMI to parent well.
Getting external help can … help!
Just like this, seeing a psychologist is not about fundamentally changing who you are or achieving a perfect mental health. Therapy is more often about developing an awareness of yourself, your unique psychology and your pattern of responding.
With psychological engagement, we can start to understand why we parent in the manner we do and seek to make small changes in the way we respond to our children or in the way we subconsciously teach them to react to others and experiences.
As a parent and a psychologist, I often consider how difficult it is to parent in a manner that is different from our own childhood experience of being parented. This is perhaps how we conceptualise mental health as intergenerational.
As an imperfect parent, I know how hard I have to work to not pass down all of the ghosts from my own childhood. And as a psychologist, I recognise that many times child therapy is pointless when parental mental health is neglected.
So taking care of you is my primary recommendation for helping you take care of your children.
- Maggie Dent’s: ‘Boys, Boys, Boys’ seminar, texts, resources and online ‘Maggie Moments’ (Youtube)
- Steve Biddulph’s seminars and texts
- Triple P
- Circle of Security
- 1, 2, 3 Magic
- Positive Parenting Solutions webinars
- Hand in Hand Parenting
- Montessori Parenting
- Dan Siegal’s ‘Whole Brain Child’ resources
In addition to a multitude of private and Medicare child psychologists and independent providers of targeted interventions (such as ACT for Kids, AEOIU, Braveheart, etc.) for individual and group based parenting.
Please note many more excellent providers exist than listed here.
“The Best Parenting Program to Manage Kids” is a guest post from Dr Rachell Kingsbury – Guidance Counsellor (Clin. Psych & Clin. Neuropsych MAPS) and mum of two boys.