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Finding Balance: Navigating Conflicting Parenting Emotions



Parenthood can be a remarkable journey filled with moments of joy, wonder, and love. Yet, it can also be emotionally challenging. From the exuberance of a child’s laughter to the frustration of a tantrum, parents experience a wide range of emotions every day. Many parents find the hardest part of parenting is managing their own emotions when their children are having a meltdown. 


While it’s natural to feel overwhelmed at times, learning to manage these emotions is crucial for fostering a loving and healthy parent-child relationship that helps children learn how to handle their own challenging emotions as they grow. 


Understanding Caregiving and Personal Motives


All parents want to give their children the gift of lifelong happiness and fulfillment, but the demands of work, the stresses of daily life, and/or the emotional baggage parents carry from their own childhood can make it difficult for them as parents to provide consistent care to their children. So how can parents juggle these competing emotions? 


First, it’s important to understand the difference between caregiving  motives and personal motives


Caregiving motives are your desires  to respond to your child’s needs. Examples of these motives are when a child is hungry and the parent provides their favorite lunch, a child scrapes their knee and the parent provides comfort, or when a teen is struggling with their math homework and the parent offers their help. 


When you act on your caregiving  motives, you give your child the special happiness that comes from knowing that she has inspired you to respond in a consistent and caring manner to her needs for love, care, and attention. Over time, this feeling of being loved and cared for translates into an inner happiness that will protect her emotional health from life’s ups and downs, enable her to become a good caregiver to herself, to be in caring relationships, make healthy and constructive decisions, and generally to live a well-adjusted life. 


Personal motives are your personal needs and desires like hobbies, friendships, relationships, self care-taking needs, work demands, the tasks of daily life, as well as expectations of oneself and others. Personal needs are important and key to a parent’s own happiness and well-being. 


Therefore, it is inevitable in life that a parent’s personal motives will conflict with their caregiving motives. When this happens parents can feel frustrated, angry, irritated, or other upsetting emotions. An example might be when a parent has plans to workout, but their child comes home from school upset about their day. While responding with irritation or simply ignoring their child’s needs so that they can go for a run might satisfy their personal need to workout, it will come at a cost to their child’s well-being.  


Instead of trying to change your child’s behavior by expressing your frustrated feelings or disapproval, it’s more effective to think about what your child needs in the moment. When you do so, it’s possible to replace your anger and frustration with compassion for what your child is feeling. Doing so will lay the foundation for a positive and loving lifetime relationship with your child as they grow older. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “While satisfying the emotional needs of children is time consuming, there is no good alternative to this commitment and there is no room for shortcuts or half measures.”


Here are some strategies to practice for when your child’s needs are intersecting with your personal needs: 


  • Practice Mindfulness – Mindfulness involves being present in the moment without judgment. When parents practice mindfulness, they become more objectively aware of their emotions, their child’s emotions, and better equipped to manage both of them. 


  • Acknowledge Your Emotions - This is the first step in being able to respond to your child in a healthy and growth-promoting manner while keeping your relationship intact. You may be feeling irritated, frustrated, tired, angry, or sad. All of these emotions are normal and appropriate when parenting, but when parents share these emotions with their children, they are not helping their child with whatever they are struggling with and risk that their child internalizes their parents responses to them.


  • Practice Self-Compassion – Parenthood is demanding, and no one is perfect. Acknowledge that you will make mistakes along the way and be kind to yourself when you do. This practice will also provide a model to your children for when they make mistakes. 


  • Understand Triggers – Reflect on what situations trigger strong emotions for you. It could be fatigue, stress from work, a messy house, traffic, unresolved issues from one’s own childhood, or feeling overwhelmed by parental responsibilities. Identifying these triggers can help you anticipate emotional reactions and better be able to put them to the side for when your child needs you.


  • See Your Child’s Perspective - When your child is struggling, demonstrating behavior that is troubling, or acting out, etc., ask yourself “What does my child need in the moment?” Comfort, acknowledgement, compassion, understanding, and kindness are the tools that will help your child feel better. 


  • Get Them Talking - The most healthy way to cope with upset feelings is by talking about them. You will aid your child’s ability to handle life’s stressors and disappointments by modeling how to talk about feelings. When you both have calmed down, either later that day or the next day, you can circle back and discuss what you’ve observed in a neutral, non-judgmental manner and then ask open-ended questions. It could sound like, “Yesterday I noticed that you were really upset. I wonder what happened?” Your child may or may not be ready or willing to talk about it, and it’s key for parents to be okay with this, as forcing children to talk negates the point of connection - you need two willing parties. If your child is ready to open up, you can encourage the dialogue with requests like, “Tell me more,” while offering your sympathies, “That sounds really hard.”


  • Defer to Caretaking Motives - When possible, defer to your caretaking motives and ask yourself what your child needs in the moment. When parents are able to respond to their child’s needs it not only helps their child’s inner well-being, but it works to help alleviate future tantrums or other troubling behavior. When parents are unable to respond in a caretaking manner, it can strengthen their child’s troubling emotions and cause the behaviors to continue or increase. 


  • Seek Support –  When you are feeling overwhelmed, reserve your feelings for your partner, friends, family members, or support groups. Professional counseling or therapy can also provide a safe environment to explore and process complex emotions related to parenting. 


  • Set Realistic Expectations – Unrealistic expectations can set parents up for disappointment and frustration and cause children to feel poorly about themselves even if they are behaving appropriately for their age. Accept that most behavior children display is normal and appropriate for their age - even when acting out. When parents are able to differentiate between their personal motives vs. their caregiving motives, they will better be able to respond to their child in ways that are the most growth promoting.


The Smart Love approach provides guidance for the most challenging parenting moments and shows that you can parent most effectively when you show compassion for both your child and yourself. Remember, it’s not about being a perfect parent – it’s about being a present and emotionally attuned one. 



Sources

Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying Your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999. 


I’d Like to Melt Down When My Kids Do: Here’s how I keep it together, The New York Times, Brianna Sharpe, April 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/parenting/mom-anger.html


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