This month’s topic is a challenge for me to write about. Back to school has so many different psychological tentacles, narrowing down the topic was the first challenge. As I do not specialize in working with children any longer, I have narrowed it down to writing to parents about back to school time. And now the biggest challenge, which I continue to hold myself and my field accountable to: NO PARENT SHAMING!
Let’s face it, you can find multiple parenting books, articles, websites or blogs on any views on parenting your kids back to school. You will find tips and tools which you may find useful. However, if you look carefully, there’s a lot of parent “shaming” going on in pop culture literature. Snacks should be age-appropriate, consist of the balanced food groups, nut and allergy free, and all organized neatly in a bento box. You should build routines so your child feels safe and secure at home. You should know your children’s teachers, friends, friends’ parents. You should make sure they get enough sleep. You should make sure they are planning for their future and taking the right classes. You should make sure they have social outlets. The should list goes on and on and on.
Parents, it is time to STOP SHOULD-ING on yourself!! Though there may be helpful TIPS in these well-intentioned guides, it is important to keep these in perspective for what they are: simple pieces of advice or information. Why do we search for that parenting manual we all know does not exist? When we are insecure and anxious (which parenting brings out in the best of us!), we tend to want to make the uncertain certain, looking to others (friends, colleagues, family, the internet articles) to guide us through the ambiguity of “proper parenting”. The effects? If we continually look to others who are more experienced to tell us “how to”, we are inadvertently telling ourselves “I am not enough” which research psychologist Brene’ Brown shares is at the very core of shame. In addition, we stop trusting ourselves and put our trust in outside sources, again perpetuating “I am not enough”. Whether that means I am not —patient enough, experienced enough, nurturing enough, at home enough, at school enough, organized enough- it doesn’t matter. You can fill in your own blank as each one of us has felt our own unique shame at some point in time. Our perceived inadequacies subtly can nag at our subconscious minds, driving us to again look to “experts” to tell us “how to” so we once again feel “enough”.
I began studying the work of Brene` Brown about two years ago. For many years prior, clients brought her work and books into my office, sharing how she spoke to them, how her books were written for them. I prickled. I figured as a society we may be moving on to the next Dr Phil. As time went on, people kept sharing Brene` talks, books, articles, etc. And when I made some time to see what the hype was about, I realized she spoke a universal language about what each one of us universally has felt: shame and vulnerability. I read. I listened. I watched her TED talks. I enrolled in her online courses, both as a lay person and as a professional. And from my therapist’s chair, I began to see it over and over and over. At the core of depression, anxiety, relationship issues, anger issues, addictions, and highlighted in the arena of parenting, people are walking around feeling inadequate and miserable and are working so hard to “make it go away”, the “it” being the message of I am not enough.
Parents, you know this feeling. It’s the feeling of when you go to your child’s Fall open house and are met with “So, you’re Johnny’s parent, we haven’t met you before”. Or “You work FULL time? I could never do that, I’d miss my kids too much”. Or “You stay at home? What do you do all day?” or “Suzie’s dad takes time off to make sure he can coach”, “Jenny’s mom makes every rehearsal”. I am writing these words in black and white, but I am guessing as you read them, you can hear the tone. You can hear it because you have heard it, or maybe you’ve even said it. These are the less-than-subtle shaming messages, and we often have a reaction to them. That reaction is shame, because again, whether intended or not, there is a message that comes in and we hear “I am doing this incorrectly…I am not (fill in the blank) enough”. So we quickly defend ourselves, or berate ourselves, or hurry around trying to change ourselves until we lose ourselves.
In therapy focusing on shame-resilience, we work on accepting that shame is an emotion we all experience. The goal is not to eliminate experiencing the emotion but rather to learn to be resilient to the effects of shame. Here’s my tip: We don’t have to believe the shame-based messages that we are taking in. We can first develop an awareness around the shame messages. You may notice a physical reaction (such as a reddening of the face or a pit in stomach) or behavioral reaction (yelling, defending) before you even notice what you are thinking or feeling. When you build an awareness to shame, you simply note it when it comes “ah, there it is, that feeling of shame”. Slow the shame-train down. You can now take the perceived shame statement and examine it. Many times the sender is not sending shame, but we are receiving it! Our own experiences can distort the message and literally we hear something different than is being said. (Re-read the beginning of the paragraph above with a loving kind tone.) After you examine the shame statement, decide if you believe it and need to make a change or if you dispel it and then chose to release any shame effects. But make sure you examine it first! Then kick the shame to the curb. In therapy, we work to find the root of the shame, to understand it on a deeper level, and to learn to hear with a clearer intent. I also believe in reintroducing clients to the real expert...themselves.
So read the articles, take the advice. But remember, your job is to remind yourself of this: YOU ARE ENOUGH. Parenting with intention is a tough and messy job, filled with many different paths, different ways to navigate, all leading to what we all want in the end: healthy well-adjusted children who go out into this world to become healthy well-adjusted adults. That is my assumption, and I’ll keep offering it to every parent who is doing their best to raise their child.