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Saturday, February 19, 2011

What makes a parent resilient?

One of my friends posted a link on Facebook to a list of tips for making your child more resilient.  The tips are great- you can find them at

resilient kids

Another mum commented that what she really needed was a list of tips to make HER more resilient! So what the heck- here are my top ten tips for parental resilience.

1. Seek, create and accept support.

Physical exhaustion and mental fatigue are fierce enemies.  You need to make the effort to create a support network for yourself, and you need to accept any help you're offered gladly, without guilt or feelings of failure. 

That might mean getting to know other mums in your area and forming a playgroup where the kids can muck around together while you chill with all the other poor tired mums.  It might mean budgeting for a babysitter or childcare on a regular basis- even if that means giving up spending money on something else (make your own lunch, have coffee at home, walk to the park with the kids instead of driving and having to buy petrol)- so you can leave the house ALONE from time to time.  It might mean allowing your irritating mother-in-law to take the kids for the day, even if you don't necessarily agree with her child-raising philosophy and know she'll criticise the kids and your parenting to you afterwards- it won't hurt the kids to learn to live with a different set of rules now and then (but do talk about it with them first), and it won't hurt you to learn to stand up for your own parenting principles (in fact it'll probably make you feel empowered).

Without support, you lose perspective on the size of problems and you lose the energy to bounce back from them.  It can be hard to accept and admit that you're not coping; but believe me, if you open up about it instead of pretending everything's hunky dory, you'll probably start a landslide amongst your parenting friends.  Maybe you can help everyone around you by creating a neighbourhood support system to give everyone a rostered break from their kids.

2. Set aside time for yourself.

You can't be JUST a parent- it isn't healthy, and it won't make you happy for ever, even if it's wonderful for you right now.  You need some time to be yourself and do things that aren't related to parenting- otherwise you are cruising for a bruising when the kids finally leave home, not to mention increasing the chances of your mind turning to mush and your relationship with your partner becoming extremely stunted. 

That might mean working outside the home more, or working less; whatever gives you a breathing space.  It might mean insisting that your partner do his share of the child minding.  It might mean establishing scheduled boundaries with older children- this is MY time, come back in half an hour unless it's an emergency.  An emergency means 'the house is burning down', not 'my sister's taken my phone and won't give it back'.

Resilience requires giving yourself permission to be happy and time to make happiness happen

3. Learn to say no.

That sounds easy... but many mums are programmed to say yes to everything, for fear of what others might think of them. 

Look at your life honestly.  Do you really have time to do things that make you miserable, or things that mean you have no time for YOU? Prioritise and cull your kids' out-of-school activities ( don't be a cab driver).  Prioritise and cull your own happiness-eaters- if you don't want to go to your sister's place for another tedious afternoon with her screaming kids running wild, say no.  The sky will not fall!  Take the time to train your children not to whine ( how to stop kids whining) and learn to say NO to them firmly but respectfully (how to say NO).

4. Allow your child to be herself.

There are few things so pointless and energy-sapping as trying to change a person.  If your child is naturally messy, for example, and you are naturally tidy, you can waste hours trying to change her. (creative chaos)   Try to see WHO your child is, and let them be that person.  Accept who they are and work around it. 

Put limits around your reactions; for example, if you really can't bear the mess, set aside fifteen minutes a day to do ONE clean-up instead of letting it bug you the whole day.  If your child loves football and hates homework, decide how many reminders you'll give him and when those reminders are used up, let go  (letting children fail ). Trying to change your child's personality is the parenting equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall.

5. Choose your battles.

Be aware of how easily small things can escalate.  Try to avoid knee-jerk reactions; take a few moments to think before responding when your child says or does something you don't like.  Fill the time while you think by asking calmly for an explanation, without offering judgement.  (For example- arguments about clothes

Be aware of the generation gap- parents will ALWAYS be shocked by some of the things their children say or do; it's nature's way of helping children to separate and become adults themselves.  Ask yourself if the situation is life-threatening or happiness-threatening, or whether you child is just pressing your buttons.  Learn to chill, don't sweat the small stuff- a clich√©, but so true. Selective blindness can be your friend.

6. Actively enjoy your children.

Think back to the times you've really enjoyed being with your children.  What were you doing? Can you recreate that happiness?  Make opportunities to just have fun with them- you'll be amazed how fast they grow up and how soon they don't actually want to be with you any more for recreation. 

Set aside a specific period of time to just play with your kids at home, even if you HATE playing with them (yes, some parents do!  Kids' games can be tedious, especially if you have a child who has an obsession- I did- ENDLESS lectures on steam trains!), and determine to let yourself just watch, observe and interact with them for that limited time, without distractions, without wanting to be somewhere else.  It's an investment.  You'll make your life better later, when they're adolescents, if you spend that time now- and if you think it's hard to be resilient when you have little kids, just you wait till they're 14.

Ask them questions.  Listen to what they say.  Let the kid in you come out for a while, but be yourself too- don't let them win at games on purpose, please! That's no fun for you! Give them a bit of competition! If you allow yourself to play honestly, it will mean more when they beat you for real (and this applies especially to boys playing with their dads). 

If you schedule playtimes and commit to them, it gives your kids a special time to look forward to- and it puts a boundary around that time for you, which allows you to let yourself get completely involved without feeling the pressure of other commitments (or feeling that this conversation about Thomas the Tank Engine will NEVER END!).

7. Get a cleaning lady- or limit chores.

Okay, we can't all afford a cleaner- but if you can, the time to do it is when you have young children. 

If you can't afford a cleaner, you need to let go of the concept of having a spotless house all the time and limit the time you devote to circular tasks (ie those chores that have to be done over and over again).  Learn to do a quick whiz around, binning rubbish, straightening throws and cushions, putting books or magazines in a neat pile on a table, putting clothes in drawers unfolded or tossing them in the laundry basket, pushing toys into a corner where you're not going to break your neck falling over them, sweeping only the areas that obviously need it. Fill the sink with soapy water and put the dishes in to soak- you can come back later, give them a quick swish and rack them to dry. 

It's amazing how much better you can make a room look without spending all day about it, and the result of a quick whiz around will lighten your mood.  FAKE IT!

8. Get enough sleep.

I can hear the parents of tiny babies and terrible twos laughing hysterically already... sleep deprivation is almost inevitable when you're parenting.  But maybe you can prioritise sleep a little more.  If you've made sure you've created a support network, then you can think about whether the best thing you can do in your down-time without the kids is to have a nap.

Sleep is more important than shopping, cleaning, working or fulfilling other people's expectations of you.  You know you can't function properly without it.  A quick nap in the middle of the day or an early night can be the best present you could possibly give yourself.

9. Take care of your health.

There's nothing worse than trying to look after kids when you're sick, yet the stress of having them can cause parents to eat rubbishy food, overindulge in alcohol or cigarettes, forego exercise and generally neglect their  health.  All those things will make you feel like hell and reduce your ability to bounce back. 

If you really want to be a resilient parent, you need to address your coping mechanisms and see which ones are counter-productive.  Don't try to cut out all your bad habits at once! Be reasonable! But maybe you can replace the third and fourth glass of wine with half an hour reading a magazine... and replace the whole bar of chocolate with a quiet swim (no, I don't mean laps, just a lazy dunk on a hot evening to start with) or a walk in the garden... try to think of some healthier activities that you really enjoy. 

And wash your hands often- especially after shopping (money is renowned for carrying germs), using public toilets, wiping the kids' noses or toileting your kids.  You DON'T need to get sick, so take some sensible precautions.

10. Deal with your problems with your partner.

There are few things more debilitating for a parent than a poor relationship with the co-parent.  If you are constantly disagreeing on parenting principles, for example, you will present a confused and confusing set of boundaries to your kids, and the stress level for both parents will max out (probably in front of the kids, which is terrible for them).  If your communication with your partner is at an all-time low, how can you possibly support each other in the parenting equation? 

Make time to talk without the kids.  Make time to be romantic together and rekindle the love, without the kids.  Seek help if that last suggestion makes you laugh sadly- see a counsellor as a priority.  If things are beyond repair, gather your strength and make the break cleanly before things get vitriolic.  Children need happy parents; two single happy parents are vastly preferable to two miserable but cohabiting parents (broken families , fighting).

Single parenting is hard- don't get me wrong- but parenting in a war zone is harder. Yes, even if the war is a cold war rather than open battle.  Children are sensitive to atmosphere.  Here are some wise words of warning, spoken to me once by my own personal counsellor: 'Whenever I'm asked to counsel a child, I anticipate a problem in the parenting relationship.  I'm usually right.' Don't let your child be one of those who needs counselling- DEAL with the problem in your relationship.

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