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Calming family battles with 'reflective parenting'

Published on: January 01, 2010

The battle lines are drawn, and you are facing off against a formidable
foe: your child. Whatever you're arguing about, you've been down this
road before. Why does your child behave this way? Frustration mounts as
you struggle to keep your temper in check.

Welcome to yet another "white-knuckle" moment in parenting. We've all
been there, and most of us know that how we handle these moments --
these conflicts -- is important. But what can a harried parent do in
the heat of the moment? And if we blow it in this moment, can we turn
back the clock later when we're calm?

The answer for some parents may lie in an approach to child-raising
called "reflective parenting." Simply put, reflective parenting is
interacting with your child while keeping a close eye on his -- and
your -- state of mind and emotion. It's empathy, patience, and
intuition all rolled into one. Increasing your reflective thinking can
bring about a greater understanding of your child, and can give you
skills to diffuse those "white-knuckle" moments, says Dr. Arietta
Slade, clinical psychologist and researcher at Yale Child Study Center.
And the good news is, she says, it's already within each of us to some
degree, and there are small and simple things we can do to bring it out.

"Every parent has the capacity to think reflectively," says Slade.
"Whether they do or don't is based on a lot of different factors -- how
stressed they are, how overloaded they are in life. Reflectiveness is
something that comes and goes. If you're completely overwhelmed with
feelings, you are less likely to be reflective."

Reflective parenting begins by realizing that that little alien you've
created has a deep, rich inner life all his own. Think of your child as
an interesting person that you would like to get to know. Dr. John
Grienenberger, founder of the Reflective Parenting Program in Los
Angeles, says keeping this in mind is key to understanding where your
child is coming from in those "white-knuckle" moments.

"One of the reasons parenting is so difficult," Grienenberger says, "is
that it involves two contradictory capacities -- one is to be able to
understand the connection between ourselves and our children, and the
other is to remember that our child is a separate being" Reflective parenting, he explains, is about realizing there are two individuals
-- the parent and the child -- that are highly intertwined, but are not
the same.

Spend a little time thinking about that separate little being. What is
really behind that frustrating behavior? Is your child clinging to your
leg because he wants his own way? Or is it something deeper than that
-- fear of strangers, perhaps, or a wish to spend more time with you?
It's not hard for harried, hurried parents to slip into a kind of
adversarial thinking about their child's motivations, Slade says.
Often, the simple act of slowing down brings insights. Slade calls this
"holding your child in mind."

Next, take a close look at your own behavior. "Parents have a hard time
dealing with the fact that if they are angry or stressed that's going
to have an impact on their child," says Slade. "They want to think that
if they put them in the right program and take them to gym and music,
what's going on inside of them isn't going to affect their children."
She suggests parents reflect on their own history and goals for their
child. For most of us, stress is inevitable; how you cope with your own
stress has a big effect on your children, says Slade.

Reflective parenting takes time and patience -- something you don't
have in the heat of battle. But even if you blow it during a blow-up,
you'll get a second chance, says Grienenberger. "Blow-ups can be
readdressed later. Reflective thinking is also about that 'aha' moment
that happens hours after an argument, when you sit down and talk about
what happened."This talk isn't necessarily about problem-solving, says
Grienenberger, but about calmly describing and discussing what happened
with your child, giving him more of a sense of self-control.

So, the next time you're locked in battle "...pause in that moment,
take a deep breath, and notice that you're in something right now,"
says Grienenberger. Acknowledge those high emotions to your child.
"Sometimes parents can just comment on what they're seeing: 'There are
some big feelings here now, and I think this is about more than just
can you have another cookie.'" And remember, as parents, we often don't
even notice the things that cause our children stress. But their stress
is valid -- even if we don't understand it.

Finally, Slade and Grienenberger say you can help create a culture of
calm and reflective parenting in your house by giving your child just 15 minutes
a day of your undivided attention. Tell your child you're going to
spend some time together doing something they choose -- then turn off
your cell phone and play. Pay attention to how your child engages with
you, and don't teach or correct. "When families do this, it's stunning
sometimes the impact that those few minutes have on children being more
calm and regulated," says Grienenberger.

"Some parents hate it," says Slade, "because it's not goal-oriented.
But turn off your cell phone, get someone to watch the sibling. It's
hard to do -- but the payoff is great!"

Kristen Dobson

is ParentMap's managing editor, who reflects on parenting her 7- and 10-year-old children.

Resources for reflective parenting:

Drs. Slade and Grienenberger recommend the following books for parents
who want to build skills for reflective parenting:


Originally published in the January, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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