By: Cristina Trette, MA, LMFT
Back when I was parenting my three children at the ages 1, 3, and 5, I had the very best intentions and loved them deeply. Yet day after day, I found myself melting down with their tantrums, feeling frazzled with sibling fights, and white knuckling transitions (from dinner to bath, school to home, and park to car). I tried with all my might to do parenting well. Yet I was struggling.
Clearly, part of the challenge was the age they were at. I think most parents with multiple kiddos under 5 are in the trenches, even if just slightly. But looking back, I can see that many factors were contributing to how hard it was — the biggest factor being I was overfocused on their behavior.
In many ways, I was probably like most parents. I wanted my kids to become kind, self-sufficient, confident, and contributing adults. I wanted to raise good humans. Yet, I immersed myself in parenting as if it were a competitive sport and their behavior was evidence of my performance. If they were well-behaved, that meant I was doing good work. When their behavior was poor, I vowed to learn more and try harder. Over time, my instincts to connect and guide were replaced with techniques and interventions I had learned in books. I became so consumed with their behavior that I started to lose sight of the relationships I was creating with them (and with myself).
Thankfully, by the time my youngest was 2, I landed in a parenting course facilitated by Susie Walton, who later became a mentor. I walked in expecting to learn more techniques. I wanted to know exactly what to say and do when my child whined, tantrumed, pushed their brother, and more. Yet Susie did not give me techniques. Instead, her parenting lessons guided me to focus on the relationships I was creating with my children.
When I began to focus more on relationships and less on behaviors, parenting became more graceful. I dropped the stickers and charts. I stopped yelling, punishing, overpowering, lecturing, scolding, shaming, and comparing (at least most of the time). I started to become more balanced and regulated. As I shifted, the kids became more balanced and regulated too.
Behaviors are a reflection of our inner experience. When dysregulated behaviors show up, this is a signal that something within us, or our kids, needs attention. If we try to stop the behavior, without uncovering and tending to what is driving behavior, we are likely to squash one problem behavior only to discover it gets replaced with another problem behavior. Yet when we approach behaviors through the lens of a secure relationship, understanding emotions, modeling coping skills, and developing healthy boundaries, parents and children are more likely to create lasting transformation and change.
Over the last decade, like all dedicated family therapists, I have committed to working on myself and how I am in all my relationships. Today, I aim to interact with my kids in a manner that reflects their innate value even when their behaviors need tending to. I focus on listening, validating, empathizing, attuning, comforting, and nurturing. I also focus on holding boundaries, structure, routines, clear expectations and guidelines.
I am far from perfect. I have moments that I revert back to old patterns. Yet, when we veer off course, we talk through it, make adjustments, confirm agreements, and get back on track.
My kids are 11, 14, and 16 now. I am presently in one of the hardest parenting seasons to date. What has gotten me through this time is my ability to keep shining a light on the relationships I am forming with my kids, which serves as a template for all relationships they will have throughout their life.
Hello. I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I help others create thriving relationships, joyful families, and vibrant wellbeing.