Category Archives: Striving for Balance: Personal & Family

For parents seeking personal and family balance.

Forget Child- or Parent-Centered…Think Family-Centered

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and API leader

Various parenting approaches are usually categorized as either child-centered or parent-centered, and there is great contention about which is better for both children and parents. Child-centered, critics say, compromises a parent’s sense of balance and may lead to children feeling entitlement. Parent-centered, critics counter, compromises a child’s need for parental attention and attunement.

But is this polarization, this black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, reality? Should we be debating for which is the better of the two “evils”?

The fear centered on Attachment Parenting is that, because it involves a parent to be attuned to her child around the clock, that it must be synonymous with or at least bordering on permissive parenting. Scary music please… Permissive parenting is that style of parenting that conjures thoughts of dread in as many parents as abusive parenting does. Permissive parenting indicates a seriously imbalanced, child-centered parenting style where parents bend to the will of the child in everything, perhaps out of fear of rejection or out of pure indifference, without setting behavioral limits. It can lead to where the parent has no rights to her own sense of self, because the parent will forgo her own needs to satisfy her child’s wants.

The reaction by critics of Attachment Parenting is – instead of understanding the ins and outs of what it indeed means to have a secure parent-child attachment bond – is often to recommend a complete overhaul on the parenting principles: shut the child in the bedroom and let him cry himself to sleep alone, schedule feedings, punish and shame and ignore requests. As if doing the very opposite of their perceived fears is anymore healthy? Continue reading

Parents Need Play, Too

By Carrie Kerr

When my daughter was named Student of the Month recently, an interviewer for the school newspaper asked her, “Who inspires you?” She said, “My parents inspire me because they take care of us, work hard, and have fun with us. It’s inspiring to know that it’s possible to work hard and still have time for fun.”

As her mother, I have a long list of things I believe I need to teach her before she turns 18. What a relief to learn that I could cross off “Adults need to make time to play” from that list!

I grew up in a very intense house. My parents were high-achieving professionals who worked very hard. As a kid and young adult, I was critical of their choices, but the older I get, the more I appreciate their focus. I now marvel at how there was always a homemade hot meal that we ate together for dinner, even if it happened at 8 p.m. I appreciate that from March until mid-April, my mom reserved the dining room table for tax papers. I’m simply amazed that my dad woke up at 4:00 every morning to go to work and returned with the same consistency every evening at 5:00. What’s more, he didn’t come home, kick off his shoes, pour himself a drink, and boss everyone around. He came home, put on his running shoes, and headed back out the door. That was the example, and that was the expectation.

We witnessed hard work and a strong focus all week long. But the weekends were “play city,” and kids were invited. We tagged along with my mom and dad and watched them complete one triathlon or cross-country ski race after another. In the summer, we went sailing and learned how to dive at the pool. We went for bike rides on the path, crashed community bonfires in the forest preserve, and went to drive-in movies. Yes, the school and work weeks were intense, but the weekends and summers were intensely fun.

It took a while to notice the impact that this model of “play” had on my life. As a child and an adult, I always kept up some type of maintenance fitness program or found time to swim in the lake, but I was never a hard-core athlete. During my first phase of motherhood, I rarely took more than an hour or two to myself for any leisure. I was mostly busy being pregnant or nursing, which in itself seemed like a ten-year-long marathon.

But slowly, and without my conscious intention, the example from my parents — the seeds of my childhood play — began to take root and bloom. Now that my children are a bit older, it’s a lot easier for me to take some time to myself for a bike ride, find a river to kayak on, or even train for a few races. Some of my recreational time is just for me, but much of it is for the whole family. To me, this is play.

How we spend our time will indeed have an effect on how our children spend their time, even if that effect takes a while to make itself known. So go ahead…make a date with your spouse. Sign up for a gardening class. Train for a race. Go fishing. Treat yourself to a membership at the art museum. Read a novel or go to a movie. Your recreation — your play — will make you happy, bring you balance, and set a wonderful example for your children.

What Happens to the Brain When We “Lose It”

By Kelly Bartlett, certified positive discipline educator and attachment parenting leader (API of Portland, Oregon USA)

Learning neuroscience isn’t something every parent has time for, so Dr. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell, authors of Parenting from the Inside Out, developed a simple and surprisingly accurate model of the brain that parents can make with their own hands, which helps us understand what goes on in there. When we know what’s going on in our children’s brains (and in our own), we are better able to respond sensitively and appropriately when emotions run strong.

Make a fist with your thumb tucked inside your fingers. This is the model of your brain; your fist is the brain, and your wrist and forearm are the spinal cord, carrying nerve impulses to the rest of your body.

The bottom of your palm is the brainstem. This is where the brain connects to the spinal cord and is where our instinctive behavior and involuntary functions are regulated. The brain stem controls things like breathing, heart rate, hunger, digestion, body temperature, etc. It is our basic, “primitive” brain.

Your thumb, tucked in the middle of your fist, is the midbrain. This is where our emotions and memories are created and processed, as well as where the fight-or-flight reflex is triggered. The midbrain is our “emotional brain.”

The back of your hand and fingers, encasing everything, is the cerebral cortex. This is where higher functioning occurs. This part of our brain allows us to think logically, act with kindness and empathy, and it houses our reasoning and problem-solving abilities. The cortex is our “rational brain.” It is in this part of a child’s brain that Attachment Parenting has a profound impact.

The brain is structured to communicate. It sends messages from section to section within itself about what our bodies are feeling and needing. When a child screams, “No!” and lashes out to hit because he is angry, a parent’s brain interprets this data as, “Hmm, I don’t like this, and I need to be treated differently.” Only we don’t always react so calmly, right?

Take another look at your brain-fist. See where your fingernails are? That’s the prefrontal cortex, the very front part of your brain that sits behind your eyebrows. This is where logic and reasoning originates. It’s the part of the brain that kicks into gear when we have a problem to solve. Now, sometimes the emotional brain (thumb) and the rational brain (fingers) don’t communicate so well. The emotions of the midbrain are simply too overwhelming, our fight-or-flight reflex triggers, and we “flip our lids.” Now make all four of your fingers stand straight up. Flip.

Of course, our brains don’t actually change shape like this, but this simple demonstration is a valuable tool in understanding how our brains function during emotionally charged situations. See your fingertips now? See how far away from the midbrain they are? When we “flip our lids,” our rational brains have a very poor connection with our emotional brains. Our feelings are intense, and we’re not able to access the logical, problem-solving part of our brain. We need to calm our anger and ease our fears in order to restore our rational brain to its coherent state (close fingers over thumb again).

Children and adults alike experience a flipped lid. But as the human brain isn’t fully mature (that is, all parts communicating effectively) until sometime between 21 and 30 years old, children flip their lids much more often. They need a lot more help “re-connecting” the prefrontal cortex with the midbrain; that is, calming down and learning how to respond to strong emotions.

Here are a few tools taken from Jane Nelsen’s “52 Positive Discipline Tool” Cards that help during “flipped lid” moments:

  • Hugs – When your child flips her lid, a hug may be the last thing you want to offer. But it might be the thing she needs most. The mirror neurons in her brain are hard-wired to assess the emotional state of the people around her and influence how she’ll react. When her brain picks up on the loving composure in a hug, its chemistry begins to return to a calm state. If your child is not ready for a hug when she’s immediately upset, just let her know you’re available and would love a hug when she is ready. See what happens!
  • Focus on Solutions – This is for when you’re about to flip your lid. Yes, there’s a huge mess on the floor. Yes, your two-year-old is bothering his older (and now very annoyed) sibling again. Yes, someone lost an important item again, or someone else is dawdling to get ready…again. But rather than get mad and yell (again), focus on practical solutions to these problems. Instead of thinking, “What can I to do to get through to you?” think, “What can I do to help you succeed with this? What solutions can we come up with?”
  • Positive Time Out – This is perfect for when either you or your child has a flipped lid. Before addressing your child, take a positive timeout for yourself to calm down and restore your brain chemistry. The problem—the one that triggered your flipped lid—will still be there, ready to be addressed when you’re feeling better. With time and practice, you can also teach your child how and when to take a positive time-out for himself, so he can learn how to calm down before doing or saying anything inappropriate.

As emotionally responsive parents, we help our children develop efficient communication between their emotional brains and their rational brains, though this is not easy! In the face of a highly emotional “flipped lid” (our own or our child’s), it is most helpful if we remember that the reaction is not personal or purposeful; it’s simply the normal result of our brain chemistry and just needs some loving restoration.

Pregnancy Fun (and Mocktails)

By Kathleen Mitchell-Askar, Pregnancy Editor

As your body changes during pregnancy, the activities you used to enjoy may be off limits. You may not be able to drink your morning coffee, have sushi for lunch, or indulge in a glass of wine with dinner. And a pregnant woman can forget about roller coasters, riding a bicycle, or skiing. Yet, while it may be difficult to give up favorite activities and food, you can find fun in different and new ways.

Women who were athletic before pregnancy may find it challenging to scale back their exercise routines. While light jogging and weight resistance are generally doctor-approved, swimming, walking, and yoga may prove a welcome change for a heavier belly and sore joints. Not only do such classes keep a mother fit in a safe way, but they also offer an opportunity to bond with other women and share the joys and challenges of carrying a child. It is important to make sure, however, that the instructor has had plenty of experience working with pregnant women.

Those who enjoy the arts and writing may like keeping a journal or creating a scrapbook about the pregnancy. A journal allows you to keep track of your changing body and emotions, special memories, hopes and dreams for the baby, daydreams, and feelings. A scrapbook can gather together the mementos of pregnancy. Birthing From Within by Pam England guides the mother-to-be through drawing, painting, and sculpting activities that encourage the woman to use visual arts to examine the feelings that may seem beyond verbalization about birth and her baby. These fun prompts provoke thought and engage the mind.

You could plan a picnic or day trip for yourself, with your spouse, or with family and friends. A potluck picnic takes the pressure off the planner and allows everyone to enjoy the fresh air, food, and company. If it’s too hot or rainy for a picnic, BabyCenter.com recommends “an indoor visit to a museum, art gallery, or cultural exhibition where you can spend some time in air-conditioned comfort. Even a trip to a mall you have wanted to visit, followed by lunch at the food court, can be a welcome break.”

If you are like many women who do not live in the same city or state as their mothers, pregnancy can be a wonderful time to reconnect. You can talk about your progress, compare food cravings, and make guesses about whether the baby will be a boy or a girl. Sharing this experience can bring you closer to your mother and bring out some humorous and heart-warming stories.

Once the baby is born, it can be hard to believe how much your belly expanded. A plaster belly cast can be a beautiful way to capture the true size of your belly in a way no photo could. You could also commission an artist to sketch or paint your picture or a photographer to take lovely and artistic professional photos. These mementos will be fun to look back on and share with your child as he grows.

Because pregnant women must avoid certain foods and drinks during pregnancy, you may feel left out when others order cocktails. When out with friends, you could request your favorite drink be made “virgin,” or you could order one of the following non-alcoholic mocktails:

Shirley Temple

6 ounces ginger ale

1 1/2 tsp. grenadine

Garnish: orange slice and/or maraschino cherry

Pour ginger ale over crushed ice, top with grenadine, garnish, and serve. For a Roy Rogers, substitute caffeine-free cola for the ginger ale. Continue reading

The Delicate Balance of Parenthood

By Megan Kunze, MS

Being raised by a single mother molded me into the woman and mother I am today. Some of my parenting practices are similar and others are very different. My attempts to successfully nurture three little lives involve a constant balance between caring for myself and caring for others, so I can best facilitate love, growth, and joy in the lives of my children.

Here, I have included four focus areas that promote balance in life as a parent.

Create a Support Network

Surround yourself with people you enjoy and who build you up. Choose your support network carefully and thoughtfully: Continue reading

API Parenting Support Survey: Parents Crave Local Support

A 2009 online survey by Attachment Parenting International revealed that parents around the world are hungry for support and education in their Attachment Parenting choices. Results from the survey clarify API’s role in providing this support.

This API survey was conducted to gather anecdotal information and feedback from established API supporters. API was pleased to have more than 100 responses from busy parents in the brief timeframe.

The key point disclosed through the survey is that parents want to see API have more of a local presence. Parents very much appreciate all of API’s resources, but it is the local peer support that they crave. Moving
stories and more in-depth feedback is included in “How has API Helped You” at the end of this summary.

Read the full report here: http://www.attachmentparenting.org/pdfs/API2009ParentingSupportSurveyReport.pdf

The Marriage Challenge

Sonya FeherBy Sonya Fehér, contributing editor for the API Speaks blog, leader for API of South Austin, Texas, USA, and blogger at www.mamatrue.com

Before my son was born, a friend gave me the book, Babyproofing Your Marriage. The book was based on very traditional gender roles and a husband who expected his wife to have dinner on the table when he got home and justify why the house wasn’t clean when all she had to do was hang out with a baby all day. The advice they were giving wasn’t for us.

Even so, it turned out our marriage did need some babyproofing. Decisions we made about parenting turned into unanticipated challenges to our intimacy and partnership. Continue reading

The Self-Care Challenge

By Sonya Fehér, contributing editor for the API Speaks blog, leader for API of South Austin, Texas, USA, and blogger at www.mamatrue.com

Sonya FeherCurled into a periwinkle micro-plush blanket under a fluffy down comforter, I had the rare option of sleeping in. My husband took the day off work for my birthday and was downstairs playing with our three-year-old son. But my lower back ached, as did the insides of my shins, and I had an urgent need to pee. I was sure before I saw the cloudy urine that I had another kidney infection, the fourth in 15 months. I have also been fighting a hacking cough for weeks.

Besides kindness, I believe my body is asking me for attention, in the sense of needing to be attended to. My body has been asking for this since my son was born in November of 2006, maybe decades longer than that. Mostly, I have not answered the call.

Instead I have stayed up too late at night writing, reading, or watching television because I desperately needed some time and space for myself after mothering all day (and in between nursing and bedsharing at night). Continue reading

To Intervene or Not? Deciding When and How to Get Involved in Another Parent’s Situation

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

To intervene or not?We’ve all seen it – a mother losing her temper toward her child in the grocery store, or a father treating his child in a detached, ignoring or even hostile, way at the park. What should we do? What do we say? Perhaps the parent is usually loving and understanding and is just having a tough time at this moment. Or, maybe this is the parent’s standard response to his child.

For some people, they wouldn’t hesitate to intervene. Many attached parents are so passionate about children’s rights that they simply cannot turn a blind eye to another child. For others, like me, I can think of lots of reasons why not to get involved with another family’s affairs. I tend to think the best of others and believe that this moment of weakness is not characteristic of their usual parenting approach. We all have those moments when our minds are on something else, perhaps our to-do list or another stress, and we aren’t as understanding of our child as we normally are. How would I react if another parent chose that moment to criticize my parenting style?

But child advocates, such as mental health counselor and former social worker Laurie Couture, call it everyone’s duty to protect children. And we all have our breaking points – situations that would trigger us to say or do something on behalf of the child. Obviously, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to intervene should we see outright child abuse, but most situations that we’ll witness don’t qualify legally as abuse, although they may still be damaging to the child’s emotional development. Continue reading

Yelling Works…and Other Parenting Myths Busted

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Family MythsSusie Walton used to yell at her kids – a lot.

“The older they got, the more I yelled,” recalled Walton, an International Network for Children and Families (INCAF) parent educator and author of Key to Personal Freedom who busted a few of the powerful myths outlined in her book during an INCAF teleseminar last week.

When her four boys – all within five years – were younger, yelling was a somewhat effective discipline, she admits. But that changed when they hit their teen years. Yelling no longer worked at all, and Walton was forced to find another way to interact with her children. She turned to positive discipline. As she acquired new skills and a new philosophy of parenting her children, one truth stood out among the others: that 95% of what children learn comes from what their parents model.

What was Walton teaching her sons by yelling? To solve problems, especially interpersonal conflicts, through exerting control over others.

Myth Busted: Validation Works Better Than Yelling

What Walton learned is that the strongest tool parents can use during a moment of conflict with their children is validation. Children, like adults, want to be heard and understood, even if the answer is still “no.”

For example, say a girl asks her father if she can turn on the television and he believes she has watched enough TV for the day. So, she begins to have a tantrum. What does Dad do?  What is not helpful is saying, “No, you can’t.” While the girl certainly wants the TV on, the way to resolve the situation is not to engage her in a power struggle over the on/off button. An example of an appropriate validation here is, “I know you want to watch the TV, but you’ve already watched two hours worth today and that is enough.”

Just as with yelling, the certainty of mainstream culture that spanking and other fear-based forms of punishment are effective at disciplining children is a myth. Parents don’t need to use punishments to get the behavior they seek in their children. The first challenge is for parents to realize this truth; the second, and harder, challenge is for the parents to adopt new ways of disciplining their children. Walton suggested parents first place limits on their behavior, making it a rule that they will not use threats, bribes, or other fear-based discipline tools on their children. With this rule in place, parents can then begin using the positive, teaching- and guidance-based discipline tools they can learn through books such as Attached at the Heart by Attachment Parenting International Co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, local API Support Group meetings, and other API resources.

It’s important, though, for parents to realize that it does take longer for children to learn a concept through positive discipline than through punishments, Walton said. However, once that child learns the concept, he is truly competent in it. Whereas, with punishments, a child behaves out of fear and does not learn the concept for the long term.

For example, a listener at the teleseminar described how her three-year-old son pushes and hits his 15-month-old sister. The mother is having a difficult time dealing with this sibling rivalry without resorting to spankings. Walton suggested she instead try validating her son’s feelings, acknowledging that his acting-out behavior is actually a cry for attention. To do so, Walton suggested the mother to give additional one-on-one attention to her son when he is not acting out, and when he does, to explain to him that it’s not OK to hit his sister and, if she wants more attention, all he needs to do is ask Mommy.

Myth Busted: Mistakes are Opportunities to Strengthen Connection with Our Children

No parent is perfect. We all make mistakes in relating to and interacting with our children. The key is learning to forgive ourselves but also learn from our mistakes – important not only for ourselves but for our children to learn. Walton explained how helpful it is for parents to look upon their children’s undesirable behavior not as something to be feared or ashamed of, but instead as opportunities for learning.

For example, a listener at the teleseminar described how her three-year-old daughter makes grocery shopping difficult because she grabs items off the shelf. She tells her daughter over and over not to touch things on the shelf. Walton suggested that the mother set up a mock grocery store at home and role play the behaviors she wishes to see first at home before going out to the store. Then, before going into the store, the mother would explain to her daughter that she isn’t to touch anything without Mom saying OK, just like when they play at home. Finally, when her daughter starts knocking items off the shelf, the mother should continue to focus on teaching her daughter to clean up and put the items back.

“Teach, teach, teach,” Walton said. “And when she does make a mistake, say ‘I love you, and we’re going to be OK,’ and help her clean up.”

Myth Busted: No One Knows Your Child Better Than You

One of Walton’s favorite parenting tools is to allow children to be children. She recalls a neighbor telling her, when her boys were young, that she needed to exert more control over them. She opted not to take this advice, because she enjoyed her time with her sons. She thought it was fun to let them be who they were, instead of trying to force them into certain behaviors to please those outside her family.

Walton said new parents are barraged constantly with advice from their family, friends, pediatrician, neighbors, and even strangers. But, no matter what others may claim, the real parenting expert for your child and in your family is you. And parents do best to only embrace the parenting tools and philosophies that they find are best for their individual family. For example, parents who cosleep with their children shouldn’t do it because a book said to and shouldn’t stop doing it because they saw a television ad that said so. Each family should be cosleeping or not because that is what they have found works best for their family.

In another example, it is Walton’s belief that parents cannot love their child too much. Others criticize this parenting approach, saying that they will spoil their children. Walton said they can spoil their children by teaching them that love equals material possessions, rather than being derived from emotionally healthy relationships. This parenting approach works for Walton, and no one’s criticism, or approval, weighs as much as on the decision to continue a nurturing parenting approach as what Walton sees working for her children.

Myth Busted: You Can Be Friends with Your Children

Many parents don’t like the thought of being friends with their children, because they connect that idea with an image of overly permissiveness. We know that children need discipline. They need boundaries.

Children also need parents who care and who are willing to listen when they talk about the joys and challenges of their day. The myth that parents can’t be friends with their kids stems from the image of a parent buying alcoholic beverages for their underage teens and perhaps even partying with them. What Walton is meaning is that parents need to give of their time to be with their children and, as was the theme of the 2008 Attachment Parenting Month, to give presence instead of presents.

Being friends with your children doesn’t mean that parents give up striving for personal and family life or not setting and maintaining boundaries and limits for their children’s behaviors, as outlined by the Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting. Parents still need to maintain their self-respect by keeping their parenting approach family-centered rather than child-centered, and parents must remember that discipline is a vital parenting tool.

For example, Walton said her sons used to tell dirty jokes around her, so she talked to them about her concerns. Walton didn’t let her children do  all that they wanted, as it was affecting her sense of balance. Motherhood martyrdom eventually breeds resentment.

The Price Families Pay for Myths

Too many families are stuck living according to these and other myths about parenting and child behavior. They’re trapped by their expectations that children should “act their age” and fears of spoiling their children, Walton said. They cannot truly enjoy parenthood and family life.

“What it can cost is that freedom to create the family we aspire to,” Walton said. And it can cost the child’s development of creativity, emotional regulation and ability to healthily attach to others, and other life skills. Walton calls on parents to bust the myths that constrict their family life – to break free of the bonds of fear and expectations, so that they can experience fulfillment in their parenting roles and reap the rewards of a close, connected family: “When we let go of these myths, it creates so much freedom.”

What myths have you busted in your family life?