Good Intentions in Parenting… and the Road to Hell and Back
Be aware and proactive.
"If I only knew then what I know now." I can't tell you how many times I've heard that from parents (and how many times I said it myself). We tend to put up with a lot until we just can't stand it anymore, and find our family in a jam, or worse. We have the best of intentions, but those intentions can lead us astray, away from what's really in our family’s best interest. You've heard the expression, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." There is a way back, and there's also a way to avoid going there altogether. Let’s get started.
One of the things I learned during my child's trial-by-fire teen years was that caring and good intentions weren't enough. They were actually part of the problem. It took some work to come to terms with where I had gone wrong, and to accept that I was still a good person. This quote sums it up: "Intentions! You can have them. They can be pure and good. In your mind you will execute them in a very precise manner with the purest of hearts. Then something happens and shoots it all to hell. Does that make a person any less good? I don't think it does." (Michelle Gable) Here’s how it goes. Your family is doing all right, there are no crises looming. You're all chugging along. And then one day you wake up and ask yourself, "How did we get here?' Now there are some issues: disrespect, slipping grades, defiant behaviors, drinking, breaking curfew, depression.
How did you get there? There are many reasons you can find yourself on the bad road of good intentions, such as a desire for peace and quiet, over-giving to your children, or excessive pressure about grades. You may not trust them to make good decisions, or it’s difficult to watch them experience sadness or disappointment. You’re afraid they’ll make mistakes that can’t be fixed, and so you fix things for them. It can also be difficult to accept that life isn't fitting the image you had when you started your family. That ideal image is tough to let go. (I also want to be clear that you are not responsible for everything your children do. They made choices along the way; however, they had some help from you in becoming who they are now.) You want things to go smoothly… but that’s not always the best approach to take.
Here are two examples of my own good intentions gone awry with my kids.
After my son was back on track, he explained to me how my intervening actually sent the message that I didn’t believe in him. This was before I ‘woke up’ to my misguided good intentions. He had learning issues that required some modifications in class. During his turbulent high school years, at the yearly re-evaluation meeting, I asked for some expectations to be lowered in the hopes that he would experience more success. What he heard was, “You can’t do it. You’re not capable.” This was a real eye-opener for me. Without using those words, I had said all that. I had contributed to lowering his self-esteem, exactly the opposite of what I wanted to accomplish.
My daughter also had to set me straight. She had moved overseas to study and required our assistance co-signing a lease. As the move-in date drew closer, I asked her several times if she had received the signed leases from her roommates’ parents. What a surprise when she replied, “Mom, I wasn’t worried before… but now you’re making me nervous, and wondering if I should be worried.” Again, my anxiety, my feeling that things were out of my control, was sending the message that she couldn’t handle things on her own, and increased her anxiety. These were not my finest moments.
We parents send messages we aren’t aware of, through our words, actions, emotional responses and body language. We are constantly communicating to our children how we see ourselves, the world, and our place in it.
How do you find your way back and do right by your kids? 1) Pay attention to that little voice or sensation in your body, the one that's telling you something isn't quite right. What’s going on with your child? What does that bring up for you? You have a great deal of wisdom, and it is sometimes pushed aside by your fears. That little voice is telling you to pay attention, to take a look at what’s going on.
2) Accept that there is a situation or behavior that needs attention and action. Not all problems turn into a crisis, but they may still warrant closer examination. And remember, intervention is the best prevention. This means that taking an action has the potential to prevent a situation from getting worse. Keep in mind that your action is not to fix it for your child. It may be to listen, guide, encourage, set a boundary or limit, or ask someone else for help.
3) Share it with someone you trust - a spouse or partner, another family member or a professional who can guide you through it. I know firsthand how difficult it is to put words to it; to admit that there's something too big to handle yourself; that maybe you made mistakes; and the embarrassment that you and your kids are struggling when everyone else seems to have it together (which they don't, because everybody has something they're dealing with).
I remember that when I found the courage to voice my deepest fears and regrets, they took on a life of their own and became real. They were no longer my secret. That was scary, and yet a good thing. Once I put it out there, there was no turning back. I had to act... which leads us to #4.
4) Take action, even imperfect action. Nothing changes until you do. If you wait until you're standing at the edge of a cliff, your options are limited. So do something, sooner rather than later. Resist the perfection demon, the one that says you must have everything planned out, all the steps lined up and ready to go. Many people get stuck here, and lose sight of the bigger picture of what needs to be accomplished. You need a first step. The rest will follow.
This is the way back. Don't wait for a little unpleasantness to turn into a big problem. Examine your motivation for getting involved. Be aware and proactive. Share and take a step to break those unproductive habits and attitudes, so you can all be your best, unique, amazing selves.
How were success and failure handled during your growing-up years?
What were some of the ‘failures’ you experienced, and what did you learn from them?
Think of a time when you intervened to ‘fix’ a situation for your child. What was your motivation? What did he learn about how to deal with life’s challenges?
Make a list of your child’s strengths. Ask your child what he thinks his strengths are. Compare your lists and celebrate!
Have a conversation. Ask your child what messages he’s heard from you. What does he want from you when he faces a challenge? Sometimes all he needs is to vent so he can clear his head and begin to problem-solve. Other times he needs help. Talk about it.
Fern Weis is a Parent Coach and Family Recovery Life Coach. She works with parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations, from the homework wars to addiction recovery, and all points in between. Fern helps parents release guilt, end enabling, and confidently prepare their children to thrive and be successful through life's challenges. FernWeis.com | 201-747-9642