Sleep! Sleep was my longed for, lesser spotted partner in parenting for about six years. Six years is a long time to be tired and be expected to function. I spent a great deal of that blurry time trying to find ways to get my baby to sleep and to stay asleep for extended periods. At various stages and in various combinations, I tried: reading my baby's signals, sticking to a rigid routine, music, silence, rocking, patting, controlled crying and co-sleeping.
I could be seen tiptoeing, barely touching the ground on exit from my sleeping baby's room, only to spew hatred and vitriol towards a creaking floorboard. I was not at my best. In retrospect, I recognise that that extended period of sleep deprivation could be characterised by many desperate attempts to control the uncontrollable. Regardless of whether we are generally chilled, go-with-the-flow types or more controlling, my-way-or-the-highway types, parenting -- from babies to beyond -- provides a host of opportunities in which our control issues get tested.
In her book Children Need Boundaries, Anne Cawood shares that there are four aspects to human behaviour that we cannot enforce. These are: going to the toilet, eating, sleeping and studying. Barring medical intervention for going to the toilet, eating and sleeping, all four aspects are things we cannot, and I repeat, cannot control. Yet many of us try with all our might to do just that, going into battle with our kids to eradicate or change behaviours into something we deem fit (or have been told is fit for our child).
As soon as things turn into a battle, things become loaded, and entrenched patterns start to form. The mere mention of an exam, for example, in a home where studying has become a battle, can bring with it knotted stomachs, clenched jaws, and attacking and defensive words from both children and parents.
When things have become loaded, we anticipate things falling apart, and our words and behaviour unintentionally contribute to ensuring that a negative cycle is maintained. It is always helpful to try to take 10 steps back from the battle, to think about what is being triggered in us and why.
Using an authoritative style encourages us to empathically connect with our children, helping to identify and acknowledge their felt reality.
- Have I failed as a parent if I cannot control this aspect of my child?
- Other parents seem to have got this right; what am I doing wrong?
- Am I not liking my child because of this?
- Am I obsessing about this?
- Do I think it will always be this way and will affect their future?
- What is and was my relationship with any of these four aspects?
- Am I trying to emulate or steer clear of how I was parented around these issues?
- Does my child's behaviour around these aspects evoke shame / fear / anger in me?
Thinking through these kinds of questions and getting help where needed can help us separate what is really our stuff and where it is coming from, placing us in a better position to assess and manage things. So, does that mean we just look inward and throw caution to the wind with our sleep deprived, under/overeating, pooing-outside-the-toilet, study-avoidant children? Tempting... but no.
Our style of parenting has an impact on how we manage things with our kids. On the one end of the spectrum, we have a permissive style of parenting. Here, parents defer to what they perceive to be children's needs and pander to these without a hint of a boundary. Things like, "Don't worry about finishing what I made for supper, I'll make you whatever you want," can be heard from a permissive parent. On the other end of the spectrum are authoritarian parents.
Here, parents are more inclined to demand blind obedience, saying things like,"I'm not interested that you are scared at night, I am closing the door now and you go to sleep." Sometimes we tend to flit between the two spectrums, starting off permissively and then descending into an authoritarian rage.
What we really want to be working towards as our preferential style of parenting, is an authoritative style which provides a more balanced and effective alternative. This is a style that both considers where children are at, and the real difficulties they may face, and at the same time ensures that they know boundaries and have limits set for them that are fair and rational.
Parents with an authoritative style help children feel safer, supported and more contained. An authoritative parent can be heard to say things like, "I can see you are exhausted, do you want to get the homework done now, or chill for a bit first -- but it still needs to get done?"
The reality is that kids generally do well if they can do well, and when they are exhibiting challenging behaviour, there is something underlying that behaviour.
Using an authoritative style encourages us to empathically connect with our children, helping to identify and acknowledge their felt reality. The child struggling to poo in the toilet needs space to express that it is scary or sore for him.
The child struggling to study needs space to identify and express that she feels frustrated / stupid / pressured / worries about failing / is bored, etc. The reality is that kids generally do well if they can do well, and when they are exhibiting challenging behaviour, there is something underlying that behaviour -- for example, anxious feelings, a cry for attention, or sometimes, a need to control an aspect of their world in which other aspects feel shaky.
When our inroad is empathy, we are better equipped to problem-solve collaboratively with our children about how to best support them through a challenge. This may mean letting go of some control! It may mean trying their way, thinking things through together, and importantly, finding ways to take the battle out of the equation.
Sleep and I have had a treasured reunion. Whilst I am now kinder towards creaking floorboards, I know that the parenting dance of taking control and letting go is one that will continue, and I do not dance it alone. Hopefully, we can just think through our moves (and mixed metaphors) a little better.