the importance of connection in parenting

connection in parenting — obviously important, difficult to achieve

We spoke to a parenting coach today through an organisation called ReachOut, and it was very helpful — she validated and confirmed a lot of what we’ve been learning about some changes we’d like to make in our approach to parenting, as well as gently challenging some of those ideas.

For example, I had started to understand and experiment with using “I” statements if I want to intervene with Zane’s behaviour. Say, “I don’t like it when you swing the cat by her tail,” instead of “Don’t do that!” This is more of a boundary statement than a disciplinary action or a criticism.

We were advised recently by our counsellor that discipline is not my role: I am not his bio-father, Zane is therefore not individuating from me but from Nikki, his bio-mother; and my attempts at discipline without much of a relationship through other interactions were mostly just contributing to conflict.

The coach agreed that using “I” statements is a healthy way to assert a boundary without crossing … well, the boundary between discipline and boundary-setting. But after talking about where my relationship is at with Zane, the coach encouraged me to pull back even from making “I” statements at this stage, until Zane and I have got our relationship into a condition where boundaries will be respected.

That means starting with validation of feelings, which I choose to emphasise here with italics because (shoot me, I’m human) this is the first time I have had it pointed out to me that validating feelings is an important aspect of connection-building in relationships.

It’s not that I don’t value feelings, obviously, it’s just that it feels contrived to me — to say things like, “I recognise that you’re frustrated” if Zane is behaving in a way that seems frustrated. Of course I recognise — I’m not completely emotionally ignorant — but maybe I need to make that recognition more explicit so that Zane feels like his behaviour is being heard before I start trying to modify it so that it will sit well with my boundaries.

I’ve started drafting an essay about this, so I won’t go too deep here into the moral quagmire of subjects like trying to modify behaviour in a parenting situation. It’s enough to say at the moment that I have something new to try in my approach to having a relationship with Zane — an approach that is based on more than just the authoritarian modelling of my own father.

The coaching program seems really great and I highly recommend it to anyone who is having trouble having healthy engagement with their kids. (There are no affiliate links here — just yarning, because I am deeply grateful that these services are available and I want to share them with others, so here’s a link to ReachOut again in case you missed it.)

The program helps you develop an action plan for trialling new ways of relating with your kid, and I value this aspect of the approach especially — the coach made it very clear at the start, that this is coaching, not counselling. We already have a counsellor, and over the years we’ve tried to get this kind of explicit guidance through that service, but haven’t had much success. Counsellors are great for getting things off your chest, for learning about your inner environment and how that impacts your thoughts, feelings and actions. A coach doesn’t go so much into this, but gets a summary from what you’ve learnt through counselling, and proposes an alternative course of action in consultation with you.

If your current approach is not working and there’s trouble at home but you have some insight into why and you just need the support in choosing an alternative approach, it might be coaching that you’re needing. We didn’t know this until we … well, yeah, until we reached out.

The first step for me is to start spending more time with Zane (I know that’s a bit of a no-brainer … you can’t build connection without spending quality time, but I can’t unpack right now the reasons I find this difficult). Changing it up to use “I” statements instead of issuing dictates is one thing, and a fine thing to modify in my own behaviour, but either approach is going to be ineffective if there isn’t connection first: he’s going to reject my dictates if there isn’t mutual respect through connection; but he’s just as likely to not care about the wishes expressed by my “I” statements if there’s not connection.

So the approach for now is to just focus on validation of feelings and to pull back from setting boundaries until there is a better connection between us.

To be honest I feel really very nervous about this — I’m already feeling a lack of agency around boundary-setting as I re-orient myself to my new place in the family dynamic after stepping back from the disciplining role. I get more into this in that essay I’m drafting, so for now there is this:

the coach has put me on to some really interesting resources about emotional regulation, for those times when I’m having trouble with reactivity around teen behaviour I don’t like, such as when a boundary has been crossed.

I’m really pleased that one of these resources is based on the Buddhist practice of tonglen, because I’ve heard about that before but have not looked much into it.

After a quick glance at this article the coach gave us, I see that the tonglen practice intersects with something else I’m drafting for the lojong series here on Kokoro 心 Heart, so I’m excited about the parallels there. It always helps me feel I’m on the right track when these kinds of intersections start happening.

If you know about the tonglen or have something you’d like to share about your parenting journey, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


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