Parenting Essentials: Avoiding Unnecessary Stress and Pain

Parent and child sit on chairs having a serious conversationThe lives of parents tend to be filled with rough edges and tough moments. Health issues, safety concerns, and financial difficulties can contribute to the stress of parenting. The temperament of our children can compound our frustration. It’s also not uncommon for parents to experience unresolved conflicts from their own childhood. These often surface when we first become parents (Fraiberg, et al).

Given these common sources of stress and frustration, it might make sense to consider whether you might be adding any “extra” pain to what is often an already difficult experience. When I say “extra,” I mean any additional frustrations on top of unavoidable pain.

Parents may inadvertently add frustration to their lives if they don’t understand and implement skillful ways of addressing feelings and behaviors. Some parenting manuals are better than others. The better ones, if implemented well, can reduce extra layers of pain. But no parenting manual can change the fact that parenting tends to be tough.

Here are some of the principles I consider to be the most essential to parenting.

Intentional versus Reactive Parenting

Without a clear philosophy around parenting, parents can easily flounder and become reactive, as opposed to intentional and responsive (Siegel and Bryson). It’s important for parents to take time to get clear on where they stand on how to approach their children.

The following ideas are in line with the authoritative parenting approach. Authoritative parents provide children with emotional support but also clear, reasonable, and consistent boundaries and expectations. As a result, children are more likely to be able to form secure attachments, develop into psychologically healthy adults, and develop positive relationships with their parents and others. (Baumrind). This approach avoids the extremes of authoritarian or permissive/uninvolved parenting styles.

A Unified Front

Sometimes parents are not on the same page when it comes to parenting approaches. This can lead to mixed messages for children and parents being played against each other. It’s vital for parents to present a unified front in order to avoid confusing their children.

If you’re not on the same page as your co-parent, consider reaching out to a skilled couples counselor. When parents aren’t working together, this can signify an issue in your relationship. If left unresolved, this issue may have a negative impact on children as well as the relationship.


Most parents hope for their children to grow up behaving with decency, emotional openness, affection, non-defensiveness, and other positive attributes. It’s crucial for parents to model these qualities and behaviors for their children.

The tongue-in-cheek expression, “Do as I say, not as I do,” illustrates the understanding that youth pay a lot more attention to what their parents do than what they say. The way you conduct yourself in the presence of your children is likely to have a deep and lifelong impact on them.

The Parental Prime Directive: What’s Best for My Child?

It’s not uncommon for parents to see their children as extensions of their own selves. This may lead parents to try to get their own needs met through their children. But when parents do this, it puts tremendous pressure on youth. It can also stifle their emotional development.

Parents might do try to get their needs met through children in different ways, including:

  • Relating to their child as a friend
  • Pressuring them to pursue a life direction that gratifies the parent, but not the child

A child is not an extension of their parents, and it is not a child’s job to meet their parent’s needs. It is the job of the parent to, first and foremost, consider the best interests of the child.

Addressing Negative Behaviors

When addressing a child’s behavior, it’s important to keep in mind that some behaviors are developmentally appropriate. A teenager distancing from their parents to try on their own sense of autonomy and independence is normal and should be supported, within reason. Other, more destructive behaviors, such as temper tantrums or refusing to listen, can be understood as expressions of underlying emotions.

Most parents hope for their children to grow up behaving with decency, emotional openness, affection, non-defensiveness, and other positive attributes. It’s crucial for parents to model these qualities and behaviors for their children.

If you want to teach your children a valuable lesson, help them differentiate their feelings from their behaviors. This can sound like, “I can see that you are angry, and I am sure you have good reasons to be angry. But you’re dealing with your anger by ignoring me and refusing to do your chores, and that is not all right.” In other words, support and validate the way your child is feeling. But at the same time, help them see that the way they deal with their feelings is sometimes unacceptable.

When your child experiences strong emotions, they may not be open to reason or explanations for why what they did was wrong. Begin by reflecting back and mirroring to the youth their emotions. After you do this a few times, your child will likely begin to calm down.

If your child is moderately upset, reflect their emotions 3-4 times. If they are very upset, reflect 6-7 times. Only when your child is calm will they be open and receptive to reasons and explanations. In short, lead with mirroring feelings (Karp).

Take an Interest, and Avoid Double Standards

Children need their parents to take an interest in their subjective worlds: their thoughts, feelings, interests, likes, and dislikes. Examples can include questions such as:

  • “How was your day at school?”
  • “What did you learn today?”
  • “What do you need right now?”
  • “What do you like the most about your math teacher?”

If you find yourself talking more about yourself, stop, reset, and take an interest in your child. Try to find friends and other outlets to gratify your own needs for attention.

Some families enact double standards, where a parent is allowed to deal with their frustrations by yelling and cursing but children are expected to keep anger in check. This ties into the need to model the behavior you want your children to adopt. If you model double standards, your children will likely grow up and enact double standards in their relationships with others.

Rules and Consequences

In order to foster healthy psychological development, it’s crucial to approach consequences with thoughtfulness and skill. Parents sometimes make the mistake of invoking consequences in a spirit of punishment as opposed to in a spirit of wanting what is best for the child. For example, they may feel like they want to teach the youth a needed life lesson. But if parents invoke a consequence with a tone that says, “I am angry and disappointed in you, and here is your punishment,” the only lesson children will learn is resentment. They may also learn to deal with negative feelings by being hurtful.

A more skillful way to approach consequences might sound like this: “I can see you need more structure in your life. How about no cell phone for 24 hours?” Or “You didn’t follow through with what you said you’d do. How can you show me you’ll make this right?”

As far as rules go, pick a few important ones. It’s important to not have too many rules. Discuss these rules with your children, as well as any consequences for rule-breaking, depending on which rules get broken. Ask your children for their input and ideas. Factor their ideas into your decision-making. As the parent you have final say. But asking your children to share their ideas will increase the odds they will buy into the project.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Consequences should never come out of the blue. They should be predictable and consistent and further what is in your child’s best interest.
  • Start small so you have room to go up. If you begin by grounding your child for an entire summer, for example, you don’t have room to go up should they break more serious rules (M. Skorman, personal communication, January 20, 2016).
  • A consequence should last no more than 24 hours.
  • It’s also important to allow your children to have their feelings throughout this process. Even when it is in their best interest to be grounded or put in time-out, and even if they have agreed to the consequences beforehand, they will often still feel upset about having to experience consequences.
  • Strengthen your bond with your child by supporting their feelings. Even a child’s feelings of anger toward a parent are normal and need to be validated. “You can hate every minute of doing the dishes, but you still need to do them,” you might say. Or, “I know you’re really angry with me right now, but you’ll have to be angry while you finish your homework.”

If you notice resistance from your child or are experiencing difficulties in any of these areas, a skilled family or child therapist may be able to help you address and resolve these challenges. When a parent addresses their own unresolved issues in therapy, both parent and child are likely to benefit.

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  1. Baumrind, D. (2008). Parenting for character: Five experts, five practices. csee.
  2. Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (2003). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Parent-Infant Psychodynamics, 14(3). 87-117.
  3. Karp, H. (2008, August 26). The happiest toddler on the block: How to eliminate tantrums and raise a patient, respectful, and cooperative one- to four-year-old. New York, New York: Bantam.
  4. Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline workbook: Exercises, activities, and practical strategies to calm the chaos and nurture developing minds. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Johannes Kieding, LCSW, Topic Expert

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