As soon as you knew you were having children, you probably began to dream about who they were going to be, how they might be like you, and hoped they would be successful in life. You may have wanted your child to be into football or academics, but then reality set in. You found that your son didn’t really like sports, and your daughter didn’t have much interest in school. The truth is, one day many of us wake up and realize that our children are just different than what we expected.
It can almost feel like a grieving process when you learn that your child is not who you thought he was going to be. You might have to give up certain dreams you had for him and miss that person you imagined he was going to become. But it’s important for you to understand that it takes a long time to find out who your child really is. Once you embrace that, a different kind of love develops. The preconceived notions of who you thought your child should be fall away and you are able to see him clearly for the person he is.
“As a parent, it’s key to figure out what ‘language’ your child understands and then use it. If not, you’re missing out on connecting with him…”
My husband James and I always reminded the parents we worked with to, “Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had.” This is a lesson we all need to learn as we raise our kids. Accepting your child is the basis for developing, communicating, and reinforcing expectations for appropriate behavior. And it’s how you’ll learn to respond to him in the way that’s most meaningful and effective.
Are You and Your Child Speaking the Same Language?
No matter how challenging your child’s behaviors are—and how frustrated you are with her—you need to be able to respond in a way that’s effective. Think about how that might change the way you communicate. If you’re missing how your child takes in information, it might make you feel as if the two of you are speaking different languages. In your head, you’re becoming more and more frustrated, thinking, “I’m saying all the right things, but she’s just not getting it!” This has a compounding effect, because that lack of connection means she’s also not changing her behavior.
As a parent, it’s crucial to figure out what “language” your child understands and then use it. If not, you’re missing out on connecting with her, and she’ll misunderstand what you’re trying to tell her. The sad truth is that if you can’t find a meaningful way to communicate, you likely won’t have a strong relationship with your child. It’s our responsibility as parents to communicate as well as possible, and to set clear expectations and clear consequences for our kids’ behavior.
Here are some tips for “parenting the child you have.”
1. Be clear. Be very clear about what behavior you expect, what your individual child’s needs are, and how best to respond to those needs. Does your child have memory problems, and does he consequently need one- or two-step directions? Is your child a visual learner who does better with pictures or charts than written or spoken words? Many younger kids need you to spend time with them in activities, and some kids need more of your attention than others; it’s not good or bad, it’s just who they are. You can make a plan to spend time with them and slowly encourage them to do things on their own. Is your middle school child very disorganized? If so, they will probably fail miserably at picking up and organizing their room. You may have to arrange the room with easy-to-remember places for their things with a limited amount of toys and games that just create clutter for your child. Your teen may be incredibly independent, pretty stubborn, and persuasive at talking you out of giving consequences. Understand that about her, but don’t fall for it. Instead, give a brief description of what you expect, what the behavior was that was problematic and what the consequences are…and then hold firm. You do that because that’s just what she needs. The bottom line is that kids are all different and you need to be able to tailor your responses to who they are.
2. Look for the “aha” moments. Once you start having and building on this insight into who your child is, you will be better able to realistically set expectations and follow through effectively. You will get to know them in a new way and become a better listener. Sometimes those moments will come when you aren’t ready for them (when your young teen tells you he never really liked playing baseball, but did it for you or your spouse). Other times, you’ll be pleasantly surprised (your quiet child who tells you she has a passion for farming, even though you live in an urban area). Either way, good or bad, we don’t want to miss these moments because they help us understand who our children are, and what type of adult they will become.
3. Grieving and letting go are just part of the process. As parents, we all need to let go of unrealistic expectations for our children at one time or another. Once you realize that your child is not exactly who you wished them to be–that they don’t like biking or hiking like you do, that they’re better at drawing than biology, that they aren’t going to be a hockey player but instead want to figure skate–you may have to let go of a part of your dream for them. There is sadness to this process. Again we are reminded that parenting is a difficult job–in fact, one of the hardest jobs we will ever have.
4. It’s a continuing process. As parents, we may work on this acceptance of our kids for years as they go through elementary, middle and high school, on to college (or not) and into adulthood. The combination of acceptance of who your child is and letting go of who they are not may go on for years. This process will be less difficult if you can not only accept, but also embrace, who they are. Remember, also, that kids are always changing as they grow. We need to remember to keep a perspective about developmental changes. The child whose shyness is crippling in first grade may always be a bit anxious socially, but it doesn’t mean she won’t have friends and be able to join in activities. She may just need more support and encouragement than other children.The middle-schooler who bounces off the walls due to ADHD may find his passion in building and become a master carpenter. Understand that there is a core of who your child is, but behaviors and accomplishments may change over time.
5. You still have to set limits. Embracing who your child is does not mean that you ignore misbehavior. Instead, you tailor your response to that behavior in a way that is more meaningful to them and ultimately more effective. Remember, you know your child best–and you know best how to guide, coach and teach them.
The Positive Side Effect: Self-Acceptance
As you give up your dream of who your child should have been and accept them for who they are, you begin to really appreciate them as an emerging individual. A much deeper love is able to grow with this appreciation. You are better able to match your response to your child’s behavior, and ultimately become a more effective parent.
A by-product of accepting your kids is the fact that they then become better at accepting themselves. How many of us have heard stories of people whose parents never accepted their choice in not going into a certain field, in dropping out of a sport, in choosing a boyfriend or girlfriend, in coloring their hair? On the other hand, how many of us know stories of great acceptance of children’s likes and dislikes, quirks, limitations, and choices? These stories generally focus on the connection between acceptance, feeling loved, and ultimately becoming a responsible person. This is what we want for our kids, and it all starts with acceptance.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.