Parenthood

Welcoming a new baby means becoming responsible for every aspect of someone else's life. With this experience comes a variety of emotions; from now on, parenting means operating in highly emotional circumstances and we need to learn how to manage our reactions to what is happening with our child.

Our parenting strategies might be partially a conscious choice, but they are strongly influenced by who we are, our history and the context in which we are bringing up the children.

For example: if we find ourselves overprotecting our children, we generally do it because it's our emotional reaction to an anticipated threat. To see our children struggling seems unbearable. The obvious reason for trying to clear all the obstacles from our children's path is that we want the best for them. However, the underlying dynamic might be more complex. We might also be overprotective in areas where we ourselves had hard times as children, or we might have strong need for controlling the world around us (and the children within it) to manage our anxiety and make life as predictable as possible.

For complex emotional reasons, our good intentions to help our children sometimes turn out to be not so helpful.

Experiment and protection

Finding the balance between providing enough space for our children to explore, take risks, learn and develop while protecting our children isn't an easy task. It means that we sometimes need to act against our own anxieties and instincts. A simple example is learning how to climb stairs; that involves the risk of falling down and we need to find a right moment and safe way to let our children practice this skill. If we overprotect our children and they don't learn, they will be at a greater risk later in childhood, when they attempt this feat without any of the skills necessary. They will also internalise their parents' anxiety about risk-taking with many other consequences.

Frustration

This also applies to letting our children experience frustration and defeat, so they can learn how to deal with life challenges in the future and find their own solutions to overcoming problems. It's a very empowering experience, which builds a child's confidence in the world.

Boundaries

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Finally, it's also about the boundaries within which children can explore the world, test new things and draw their own lessons and conclusions. There are some things that are clearly too dangerous to try or explore. The example from adolescent age might be the use of hard drugs - we don't want our children to experiment with such a risk and we expect them to use their reasoning instead of practically testing dangerous things. In these cases children need to hear our strong and firm voice, which allows both parents and children stay in touch with the reality principle and remain safe.

There are three key questions we can ask ourselves that may help deal with these difficult issues:

1. Is it age appropriate?

Knowing your child, and the context in which he/she is growing up, you can assess how best to help them in each situation: Does it mean letting the two-year-old try and put their shoes on? Is it allowing the 13-year-old to go to school unprepared and face the consequences? Is it expecting a four-year-old to wait for something for more than 10 seconds?

2Is your initial reaction and judgement more about the child's welfare or about your own emotions?

When seeing your child struggling with something: what is your emotional experience? Does it bring any memories of you as a child in similar circumstances? What was your parents reaction to you experiencing frustration and trying new things?

3. If you were observing how another parent was behaving towards their child, would you think they were a) overprotective, b) taking too many risks, c) acting with care and thoughtfulness in the child's best interest?

This third person perspective may help you to decide what would you like to do differently.

Agata Western is a Psychologist at Balancing Parents, mum and trainer specialising in life-long learning and personal development. She facilitates parenting workshops, which promote the understanding of emotional experience of parenting. Next workshop: Galway, June 5

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