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Low-stress parenting 2: Expectations

by on July 9, 2013


This is a mum. Dads would never behave like this.

So you’re getting better at noticing stress in your family system. What can you do about it? I want to explore a few general stress issues, and then look at some specific areas or moments in family life, to try to see how they could be different.

Today let’s talk about parental presence. The sort of presence encouraged by family systems theory (FST) is engaged, self-defined presence. What does it mean to be a self-defined presence? And how does this help reduce stress at home?

FST sees humans groups as networks of individual identities or persons, each of which is more or less clearly defined. The group is not a blend of persons, or an amalgamation: each person has their own boundaries. One of the main ways a person defines herself in the network is by establishing expectations for behaviour, making clear what behaviours she will accept from others. “I am happy to help you with that, but not if you bring it to me at the last minute.” “I can accept that you’re angry, but not that you’re insulting.” That sort of thing. These personal boundaries define your presence in the ‘family system’. This is what we mean by ‘self-definition’.

A parent’s relationship to his young child is a special: children are not clearly defined or differentiated from their family yet. That self-defining is in process, but meanwhile the personality of the parents must extend a bit and kind of ‘cover’ the whole family. The expectation-setting thing is pretty unequal while the child is a child. The parent does the bulk of the boundary-setting, and the child learns the boundaries. (Of course it still goes both ways, but the thing is weighted). Self-defining in parenting means a fair bit of family-defining: setting the expectations for the whole household.  A lot of “here is how we do things in our family”, and “Here is what I/we expect of you.”

I am going to do a lot of things for you, but I will not do everything and leave you to be idle.

We accept that you will talk to your brother in strange and unpredictable ways, but we will not accept you being mean to him

You need to brush your teeth at night

Where necessary these boundaries will be enforced with action.

(This extension of the parents’ personality and boundaries would gradually withdraw as the child grows and self-defines.)

All this means that parents have an important role in communicating expectations to their children.

(Interestingly, you can see Jesus taking this approach in a different context, in the sermon on the mount. ‘Here are the behaviours expected of those who want to participate in the kingdom of God.’ Jesus calmly and clearly outlines the expectations in the new family system he is building. Jesus is a very self-defined presence.)

Now here’s the thing to notice: your parental communication, in almost every case, comes with a massive amount of authority. Plenty of authority. More than enough for the normal child to be able to learn to comply. All self-defining is powerful, but yours as a parent is overwhelmingly powerful.

It doesn’t matter whether the expectation is nice or nasty, wise or unwise. As long as it’s bearable, and effectively communicated, the child will almost certainly learn to comply. Because she is in a position of little power and great trust towards her parents. In fact, children are very interested and keen to learn ‘how things are done around here.’ Healthy children have a natural instinct to fit in.

This is worth emphasising because so many parents feel that the big problem in their home is about authority. “They don’t respect my authority. They don’t do what they’re told.” This is a big source of stress in some households. Many parents I know feel powerless. But it’s unrealistic: if you are the parent, even with a teenager, nearly all the power rests with you.

Have you ever heard a parent yelling at their kids? Or threatening them? Most likely there is a parent who’s feeling insecure about their authority. They’re trying to beef it up with scary volume, or scary ultimatums. And this parental insecurity routinely leads to stress-injecting behaviours from parents. Like yelling.

But authority is not the issue. If you are a parent you probably have heaps of authority.

Self-definition is the issue.

I have found, both in parenting and in school teaching, that children often did not do what I wanted them to. And my natural reaction was to feel that my authority was being flouted. However, I have noticed that 9 times out of 10, if I take the trouble to explain my expectations more clearly, the child will comply.

In other words, what I thought was an authority issue, a problem of rebellion, was actually a problem of communication. I had not done a good job at establishing expectations, in that situation. I was the teacher, or the parent, it was my job to define those boundaries. I was supposed to be a self-defined presence. But I hadn’t done a good job. The problem wasn’t with the kids: it was with me.

Kids respond well to effective, clear communication. They like to know the expectations, the rules. They like routine. They like to know what to expect, and what the contingencies are. They especially take this well from their parents, because they trust and love you so much. They want to feel they are part of your family system. When things are like this, it lowers kids’ stress levels.

You can test this out. Here’s how:

Next time your child’s behaviour is a problem, and you’re getting hot under the collar, try this: stop for a moment, before you react. Work out a form of words to explain to your child what your expectations are of them at that point. Deliberately avoid any ‘beefing up authority’ techniques like raised voice or threats. Get your child’s attention (good luck!) Say the words to your child. Tell them what you expect of them here. Say it more quietly and gently than usual, make it sound friendly and casual, just to prove the point to yourself: you have the authority already. 

Try this experiment ten times. See how many times it helps. You may be pleasantly surprised.

There is more to parenting than this, and this may not always work with your hyperactive two year old. But according to family systems theory, it should be an important step towards low-stress parenting: becoming confident in the power of your self-defined presence.

From → General

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