I had a very difficult childhood. My parents divorced when I was little and my father soon left the picture.
I lived with my mother. I had a hard time because she wasn’t what you would call “on top of us.” She became severely depressed and let us fend for ourselves; we basically had to raise ourselves. I never, ever want to do that to my kids.
I’m a parent now and I’m having a really hard time. I am very aware of letting my kids down, and I don’t want my kids ever to have me not be there when they need me.
My sister-in-law thinks that I am not structured enough, not giving discipline and not setting up boundaries, but if I do that, then my kids won’t experience my love.
I wanted to know your opinion on this.
Dear Mushy Mom,
Yeah, you are in a tough spot. You know too well what it’s like to be a vulnerable little kid, knowing that you are on your own. You know how important it is to give a child security and proper attachment.
Well, I have exciting news for you: in order to raise a child who is securely attached, you need to successfully respond to their needs only 33% of the time. Whew, what a load off my mind that was for me, when I came across that stat a few years ago. (But then I had to find something else to fuel my guilt — after all, I do want to be a real Jewish Mother…)
So what that means is, the majority of the time — 67 percent, to be precise — you can mess up. You could actually let your children down and not have to pay for it later in therapy bills.
Another thing to keep in mind is that — no matter how hard you try — you could not replicate what your mother did to you. You are hyper-aware of the damage such parenting could do and you are not taking your kids off your radar because of that. Please remind yourself of that very often: Your children know in their bones that you are there for them.
Now let’s see if we can ensure that they will know equally well that you protect them.
Let’s start by prioritizing what’s expected of you: Physical needs first, emotional needs second. Both must be tended to, but if your kid is sad and hungry, feed the belly first, feed the heart second. He’s tired and seeking attention? Sorry, but it’s sleep for that one and attention will have to take a rain check.
Now, the harder part: What about when protecting them physically tramples on them emotionally?
Let’s check it out: You find your adorable 4 year-old in the kitchen, learning how to “cook.” You discover this by the sound of running water and a trail or two of little wet footprints. He is so cute and inventive, right? Wrong! Well, OK. I’m sure he’s cute and at the top of his kindergarten class, but this is not the time to gush over him.
“But he’s not really doing anything dangerous,” you say? You are correct in that there are no sharp objects and he has not yet discovered that water-filled pots belong on an open flame. However, he can slip and fall, or have a heavy pot fall on him. He is also making the environment hazardous to others with all those puddles.
So here is where the discipline comes in. You simply need to stop this game and help him clean it up. That is setting a boundary. If he repeats it next week, it requires discipline — calm, consistent, predictable discipline, to help him know you are there for him. You are even allowed to say (not bellow), “Mommy is very angry.” And if you do bellow, you can always repair and teach the art of apologies.
Something that may help you is Haim Ginott’s method, laid out in the classic book, How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk. It shows how to set strong boundaries in a soft way.
Also, when your child is sad, do you feel like that’s a call for you to swoop in and take away the hurt? It kind of is. You can’t take away the cause of the hurt, and you shouldn’t try to distract him from being sad. Instead, dive in there and be with him in the sadness. Brain imaging studies show that having you with him in the pain will lessen the pain.
Say no, see him get upset and then let him see that you are still there, helping him make sense of it all.
Aviva Rizel, MA, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Aviva maintains a busy private practice in Cedarhurst, NY where she sees couples, families and individuals. She previously served as the Clinical Director of The Five Towns Marriage Initiative. She is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), the most effective, research-based model for strengthening couples’ connections. Aviva is also active in educating therapists and laypeople about EFT. Mrs. Rizel and her husband, Meir Rizel, MS, a Mental Health Counselor, enjoy co-lecturing across the tri-state area together almost as much as they enjoy raising their three children together in Far Rockaway, NY. To reach Aviva, email AvivaRizel.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 347-292-8482 To find out more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, go to iceeft.com.