By Lynn Smith
Being a parent can be exhausting.
Gregory Miller, a counsellor from Infinite Mindcare, knows this firsthand because he’s a parent himself.
“You wake up early, … get the kids up, make breakfast, ensure teeth are brushed, homework tended to and get everyone to the car,” he said in a talk on parenting on 26 October at Books & Books. “Then you have to navigate Cayman’s roads and traffic while refereeing a boxing match in the back seat. Finally, the kids are at school and you at work, but now work’s needs supersede your own. After work, you are home making dinner, do some light cleaning and get the kids to bed on time. Your partner now wants to spend time talking to nurture the relationship. You are rewarded by falling asleep, only to wake up to do it all over again.”
During his talk, which was titled, “Getting Real About Parenting — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Miller said that days like this are a phase of reality for parents.
“It may look a little different from one parent to another, but we’ve all been through it.”
As a result, parents will experience a range of emotions toward their children and sometimes they will be negative, causing the parents to feel guilt.
“I have heard parents say some brutal things about themselves,” he said. “Some of these feelings that we have that we judge ourselves for are normal.”
It’s completely normal for parents to sometimes have negative thoughts towards their children, Miller said, adding that being aware of their feelings and how they react is what is important.
Miller outlined the “Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis” as a way to explain why negative thoughts and feelings happen. He gave the example of driving behind someone who is travelling below the speed limit.
People are able to rationalise negative feelings towards the driver in a situation like this, but when this same logic is applied to parenting, parents don’t think they should be capable of having these thoughts and feelings towards their kids.
“It shocks them,” Miller said, noting that parents get an artificial set of beliefs when it comes to parenting from the media, family and friends.
Parents can also be uncomfortable if one child is easier to love than another. This doesn’t mean the parent doesn’t love the child, only that they can more easily relate to one child than the other.
“We rear our kids to be in the zone we are in, but sometimes kids present us with something new and we have to meet them at their level,” he said.
Miller cited the example of a Caymanian father whose 12-year-old son wanted to be a rapper. The father didn’t like it and abhorred the genre of music, but because it was important to his son, he had to find a way to show interest and connect with his son.
When Miller counsels parents, they often come in feeling they are bad parents, he said. However, these feelings are usually not based in reality. He cited several cognitive distortions that parents experience, including:
- Mental filtering — Parents will sometimes magnify bad thoughts about their children and filter out the good.
- Black-and-white thinking — Parents will sometimes decide something is either right or wrong, with no room for nuances.
- Labelling — This extreme form of black-and-white thinking occurs when parents use words like “should,” “must,” “never” and “always.”
- Catastrophising — When parents magnify a situation into a drama when it is not.
Miller said that parents often either create or intensify their feelings or thoughts as a result of the those cognitive distortions.
“It’s a flaw in our way of processing information,” he said. “It’s a way of thinking that leads us making that final judgment that we are bad parents.”
There are also various methods parents came to use to help them deal with their negative feelings and thoughts about their children, Miller said, including:
- Process experience in a healthy way — Use a disciplined form of questioning that seeks the truth, making sure that if you tell yourself something, it is based on evidence.
- Seek to understand — Think about what caused your reaction toward a child that was different to similar situations. Being tired, having not eaten breakfast or feeling criticised by your partner can all play a role in how you reacted.
- Accept flaws, but seek improvements — Accept that you’re not a perfect parent, but always seek ways to improve.
- Seize opportunities for teachable moments — Take ownership of mistakes and use them as an opportunity to model behaviour for children.
- Self-care — Make your own self-care a high priority.
Miller said parents will never get everything perfectly right, but what they need to do is to find a balance that allows them to take care of themselves and to be present for their children. Although following some tips can help, much of parenthood is learned by living it.
“The journey of parenting has to be experienced to best be understood,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 print edition of Camana Bay Times with the headline “When feelings about your child turn negative.”