Have there ever been times when you have looked at your child and just felt so different from them? Have you ever been left wondering what tree did they did in fact fall from?
Writer, activist and Psychiatrist, Andrew Solomon has recognised the commonality of these feelings amongst parents and families in his book ‘Far From The Tree’ and discusses how negotiating difference within families is a universal phenomenon.
While the diversity and uniqueness of all humans provides the rich tapestry of the world we live in, feeling very different to our own children can be a challenge to embrace and can cause friction in families. Common challenges include negotiating routines and family structures, finding things all family members enjoy doing together and questioning your parenting abilities and capabilities. Often parents at the Clinic stress that it is not the love for their child that is lacking but the ability to accept their child and enjoy their uniqueness that poses the challenge.
Acceptance in parenting can be conceptualised as being able to see and acknowledge the uniqueness in your child, without pressing for this to change, as Andrew Solomon states, it is “finding the light in your child and seeing it there” (Solomon, 2014). This doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to shape our children’s behaviour, educational outcomes, sporting ability etc, but rather, we accept and validate with warmth their unique personality, we love them for being them. Studies consistently tell us that children who feel accepted by their parents have a better more secure relationship with their parents, a heightened sense of family connectedness, higher self esteem and fewer psychosocial challenges, such as anxiety and depression (Ansari & Qureshi, 2013; Dwairy, 2010). The heartening news is that acceptance is something which can be learnt and developed over time. At the Quirky Kid Clinic, we use some practical strategies to facilitate acceptance within families.
Assess your own expectations
One of the biggest blocks to being able to accept your child is holding onto unrealistic expectations of your child and yourself. Some common expectations include “my child should be academic”, “to be successful my child must focus and work hard”, “it is not normal to be so fussy”, “I am a bad parent if I don’t like spending time with my child”. Statements that include “should”, “must”, “meant”, “not normal”, “bad parent” will invoke stress, anxiety and often anger, and typically do not reflect the true reality of the situation. Most parents can agree that having a happy child that achieves within their capabilities, academically, socially, physically and emotionally, is their hope and dream. Just because your child is not like you doesn’t mean that they are not valuable and certainly doesn’t mean that you have failed in your role as a parent in any way. Replace these statements with more helpful and realistic statements, like “my child may not be academic but they have other skills”, “being successful is finding a happy balance”, “most children can be fussy”, “all people are unique and so is my child” and “I am a normal parent experiencing common thoughts among parents”. Most parents don’t have mini-clones of themselves and most experience the challenges of raising unique children at some stage.
Become a child- scientist
Acceptance is fostered through understanding and knowing. Get to know what makes your child tick, what they love doing, what interests them, who they feel close to, what they want you to be doing with them. A helpful way to elicit this information is to discuss these questions during parallel communication times (ie. when you’re talking but not face to face) such as in the car, taking a walk, playing a game or at bedtime). For younger children, drawing can be helpful. A lovely activity to do together is draw a world and put all the people that are in their world onto the picture (you can write or draw). Using stickers, you can then identify people who love them (heart stickers), people who are good to talk to (dot stickers), people who are good to have fun with (star stickers) and people who help them (triangle stickers) (Lowenstein, 1999). Use this information to develop and strengthen your child’s support network.
Take turns in doing things together that you and your child enjoy and make time in your schedules to have fun together. Make space in your house to cater for your child, whether it be a spot for lego, music, games or special interest books. It can also be helpful to have a family friend whom you can enlist as a support person for your child and who can also take an interest in your child’s life.
Become a mindful parent
Mindful parenting focuses on developing awareness around interactions with your child through focusing your attention on your child’s needs in a particular moment whilst regulating your own emotions (Duncan, Coatsworth, D & Greenberg, M., 2009). Being in tune with your child is likely to help your child feel accepted and valued. While mindful parenting sounds difficult to achieve, there are some steps you can take to help develop your skills in this area.
- Listen with your full attention: focus on what your child is communicating to you, what words are they using? what facial expressions do they have? look them in the eye, down at their level and show them that you can hear them. Active listening helps parents understand the needs and meaning behind behaviour.
- Communicate: reflect back to the child what you hear them saying. Try and not make judgements here, just reflect what you can see and hear. For example, “you are feeling very angry because your brother used your special cup”. This can help your child build awareness of their own behaviours and acknowledge you are listening and hearing them.
- Help your child label their emotions: it is important for children to be aware of the emotions they are feeling as it can really help them make conscious choices about how to respond to them. For example, parents may say “ it looks like you are angry because I can see your fists tensing up, your face looking red and you are shouting”.
- Demonstrate self regulation and compassion: Pausing before your own reaction and teaching your child to do the same (eg. count to 10 before reacting or blowing out 3 breaths to blow off the anger) can help to limit unplanned and heated arguments or words that can impact negatively on children and parents. Showing empathetic concern towards your child shows them that you love them despite the situation and demonstrates your acceptance despite the behaviour. Following on from this process, behaviour can then be addressed through using calming strategies, timeout and removal of privileges in a calm and planned manner.
Warmth and Praise
Feeling accepted comes from feeling validated as a person. Warmly validating your child on a daily basis can improve relationships, behaviour and family connectedness. Some helpful ways to validate your child include:
- making a photo wall of all the things you like about them and what they do. For example, taking photos of them hugging their sister, playing their lego and of family outings can help your child know that you notice and feel happy about special things they do or may be interested in. You can write in captions and put the date on the photos to elicit more meaningful memories of the special time/ activity/ quality.
- use plenty of specific praise: tell your child you love them and praise specifically every day. For example, “I loved how you noticed when mummy felt unwell and thought to get her some tissues”. This tells the child exactly what things you have noticed and loved about them.
- make a Brag Book (Lowenstein, 1999): at the end of every day, write one praise point in your child’s book that you can read together before bed. Again, make the praise specific. This book can be a concrete reminder to your child that you love and accept them.
Ansari, B. & Qureshi, S. (2013). Parental Acceptance and Rejection in Relation with Self Esteem in Adolescents. Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business, 4 (11), 552-557.
Duncan, L. Coatsworth, J. & Greenberg, M. (2009). A Model of Mindful Parenting: Implications for Parent-Child Relationships and Prevention Research. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 12 (3), 255-70.
Dwairy, M. (2010). Parental Acceptance-Rejection: a Fourth Cross-Cultural Research on Parenting and Psychological Adjustment with Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19 (1), 30-35.
Lowenstein, L. (1999). Creative Interventions for Troubled Children and Youth. Higell Book Printing.
Soloman, A. (2014). Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. Scribner.
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