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Parenting Is Not For Wimps!

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Excerpts from: Parenting A Child With Attachment Problems Invites Us To Revisit The Parenting We Rec

Few endeavors challenge our sense of personal competence, or lack thereof, as much as being called upon to parent. Children with attachment problems are especially good at finding the places in us that don't feel strong, or those we might need to repair.

If we accept the notion that our parenting skills are those which our parents used unless we've intentionally taken steps to alter them, then the first step in changing what we pass on to the children is to identify what our parents did that was helpful, what was unhelpful, and what was missing.

The next step is finding ways to replace what was unhelpful and/or add what was missing.

Making changes "stick" usually involves delving into our experiences as children. Not for wimps! This means we have to move out of whatever denial we might be in regarding some of the things our parents did or didn't do. We need to understand how their parenting practices impacted us.

Children ordinarily do a spectacular job of protecting their parents, even when they become adults. "They meant well." "Their growing up wasn't a picnic either." Clients have described their mothers and fathers as loving and good, saying such things as: "She made cookies for us;" "He took me fishing;" and "I know she loved me." While this protection is in place, improvements in the way we do our parenting are unlikely.

The door of possibility opens when parents begin to describe ways their parents failed to protect them, ways they were neglected and/or abused, ways their parents used or ignored them in order to get their own needs met.

When I was in a tough parenting spot and my mother's unhelpful words came out of my mouth, I began to know I had come upon a pace in my history that needed some attention. In this situation with my child, is what I am saying now what would have been helpful for me to have heard as a child? If not, how do I learn what to say or do instead?

A persistent voice of guilt never failed to remind me that I had taken parenting courses, every one I could find, and wasn't able to sustain changes for the better. My attempts usually fell apart at the seams. I learned communication skills and how to set and enforce consequences. I learned how to listen to my children empathetically. I was successful in class, but not in following through at home. It took therapy to help me realize that I had two huge blocks that stood between me and my desire to change. I lacked a strong coalition with my husband. He undermined me and I undermined him.

The other block involved what I call being "unconscious" about the parenting I received. Coming to grips with the negative impact it had on me, having my feelings acknowledged, grieving what I missed and forgiving them and myself were all part of the process.

But it wasn't enough to identify what to change. The next step was to find ways to do it.

When Jean Clarke and I met, we discovered a mutual desire to help people like me, who grew up with some parenting I wanted to avoid passing on to my children. As we began to research the material which would go into our book GROWING UP AGAIN: PARENTING OURSELVES, PARENTING OUR CHILDREN, she asked me what would have helped me make the changes I wanted to make.

I replied, "I know how to recognize that I'm uncomfortable or frustrated with (AND what usually doesn't work), but I don't know what to do instead." And I needed specifics. I also needed the support of someone who cared that I succeed. I didn't need a hundred pages of theory.

Jean and I developed two charts to explain helpful and unhelpful parent behaviors. (See the note at the end of this article.) The charts cover the two primary aspects of parenting: structuring and nurturing. Structure and Nurture, with the glue of a good relationship holding them together, are the ingredients of a great parent sandwich.


Structure is establishing rules (limits) and enforcing consequences. It also includes teaching the skills that enable children to be successful in their culture. This means not only teaching such skills as reading, spelling, how to cooperate, how to complete tasks, etc. It means teaching morals and values.

For infants and very young children, structure means meeting their physical and emotional needs in a consistently positive way. Later on, structure includes teaching children how to think for themselves; how to do tasks skillfully; to collect and assess information; to identify and evaluate options; to set goals; to organize; to begin and complete tasks; to manage tools, time, ideas and feelings; to be responsible; to honor commitments; and, to develop morals and values.

Parents teach children how to break tasks into manageable pieces and arrange them in meaningful order. They teach children problem-solving.

In terms of personal boundaries, parents teach children how to say YES to healthful activities and relationships and NO to destructive ones. As adults teach rules and skills and right from wrong, children, over time, learn how to keep themselves safe, to do things well, to think clearly, to meet their own needs wisely and to live respectfully with others.

Clear, consistent Structure is affirming to adults and children. It lets us know we are loved, important and capable. If we didn't receive positive structure in childhood, we can learn to provide it for ourselves as we provide it for the children in our care.

Successful structure is built from a combination of rules and skills. There are ample resources available to learn more about learning and teaching skills. Making and enforcing boundaries (rules) can be more challenging!

Rules establish clear boundaries. Rules tell us what is healthy and what is not; what is good for us and what is not; what is safe and what puts us at risk. Rules can be handled in different ways -- some which have detrimental consequences to the parent and the child. In order to identify which rule-making and enforcing is helpful and which is not, consult the Structure Chart (mentioned at the end of this article).

Rigidity and Abandonment are opposite in terms of strictness, but similar in terms of the common responses and decisions made by children. Criticism and marshmallowing appear very different but interestingly, have remarkably similar consequences for the child.

Whenever you may notice you are structuring yourself or children from one of these four positions, it may be a sign that you have come upon a place that signals unhelpful or downright distressing parenting. Welcome these signals as diagnostic of a problem area you now have the power and intent to do what is necessary to change. Feeling powerful includes feeling entitled to seek help to make those changes.

To get out of negative parenting habits requires being observant but not blaming. When the words and behaviors of the four outside positions automatically buy uncomfortably come out of your mouth or hand, look to the options offered in the two center columns: Non-negotiable and Negotiable. They are the two ways of setting rules and boundaries that builds confidence, for both the youngster and the parent

I hope by studying the Structure Chart you may find the help and hope to change what you want to change and keep what you want to keep.

Remember to use the two center positions when setting your personal boundaries. ASK: "What would be taking good care of myself?" THINK: What would respect my health, safety, welfare, and protection? And ACT to make self-respecting, responsible statements that reflects your needs.


Nurture is about caring, attention, love and support. It includes taking good care of the child, affirming that the child's needs are important, and supporting them in getting their needs met in good ways.

Nurture is all the ways we give love to ourselves and others. Nurture helps us thrive. It offers hope, joy and self-confidence ... to be ourselves, to be successful.

Nurture encourages us to hear and believe positive Structure. When we feel loved, we are not apt to hear Structure messages as criticism or shaming. Nurture helps us develop our uniqueness and our skills.

When we know we are lovable, we feel worthy and expect to ask for and get Structure.

Young children (and older ones) need to be nurtured, touched, noticed and cared for.

Of course, some forms of attention and contact are much healthier than others. Children who are hit, treated harshly, or violated sexually are touched and noticed. They usually manage to grow up. In the absence of positive touch and care, they "make do" with the harsh contact available to them. They live, but often without hope, joy, confidence and competence.

People whose childhoods were filled with unconditional love, with positive Nurture, pass it along naturally to their children. The rest of us may be determined to give our children better than we experienced, but aren't sure how. Learning new ways takes thought, determination, time, and usually, discomfort.

With the discomfort and pain comes increasing joy. It comes as we learn to nurture ourselves and watch our children thrive. It comes as we feel ever more confident and hopeful.

The Nurture Chart (mentioned at the end of this article) offers a way to think about the positive and negative ways parents offer contact and attention.


You may notice this article alternately addresses you as a parent and you as a child. I don't think separating the two is possible ... or desirable. As an adult, the child inside us can be our greatest source of information and our greatest guide and ally.

Every time I parent a youngster well, I am parenting myself. And every time I parent myself (take good care of myself) I am more likely to parent a youngster well.

Having self-care skills, as we know, is especially important for the parent who is dealing with a parent-resistant youngster. The additional tools needed for that job are ones that have appeared in previous issues of ATTACHMENTS and in the Attachment Center's new book GIVE THEM ROOTS, THEN LET THEM FLY.

For more details about improving how we care for ourselves and others, read GROWING UP AGAIN: PARENTING OURSELVES, PARENTING OUR CHILDREN (Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson).

Connie Dawson is a therapist and consultant to triad members, families and mental health professionals. She lives in Evergreen, Colorado, and welcomes feedback at the Evergreen Women's Center, PO Box 1765, Evergreen, CO 80437.

Note: Send us a snail mail or E-Mail request and we will send you copies of the Structure and Nurture charts mentioned.

Credits: Connie Dawson, Ph.D.

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