What about gentle parenting for older kids with anxiety?

This week is the question I got from a listener after they listened to episode 64, which was Are there any downsides to practicing gentle parenting with an anxious child?. Let me read you the whole thing, because it’s long and specific and I’ll be referencing their question in this episode.

Ok. Here it goes:: 

“I have always considered myself to be a gentle parent and that really worked for us when my son was small. He has always been intense and anxious and being there for him made a big difference in his functioning. But now he is ten and I feel like we’re stuck. I don’t know how to gentle parent a big kid. I am exhausted from his meltdowns and I don’t understand why he has them. He has had a full work up from a psychologist who said he is only anxious. But I don’t understand how to help him function better. We’ve tried therapy and he says he is bored and we didn’t get anywhere because he wouldn’t engage. Our worst times are bedtime when he won’t let me leave. I need some time for myself in the evening but I feel so guilty because he gets very upset. When I do try to leave, he just follows me so I end up giving in. I don’t know what to do.”

All right I have to tell you all I’ve heard so many versions of this from parents of little kids of bigger kids and even of much older kids. So if this describes your life, I want to tell you that you are not alone.

I mentioned in a previous episode that I brought my kids up in the gentle parenting community and I can remember at playdates and social events hearing discussions about big kids who won’t or can’t sleep alone and I can remember that some of the advice was to just get a bigger bed. And I had friends who did that. They had mattresses wall to wall, which worked for them. Everyone was ok with it. And I had other friends who also gave in, got a bigger bed or one parent slept with one kid and the other slept alone or with the other kid. I mean all kinds of musical beds. And that’s fine, too. If people are ok with it, then they’re ok with it. 

But lots of people are NOT ok with it for a million reasonable reasons and they feel bad about that. 

Because they’re supposed to be gentle parents, right? And gentle parents make sacrifices. Gentle parents prioritize their child’s well being. Gentle parents are patient and trust their kids to take the lead.

Here’s the problem with this. Gentle parents aren’t just parents, they’re people. And they have a right to their own well being. Part of parenting is helping our children adjust to a shift where they are no longer the center of the family. They are still important of course, they still need to be the priority, but there needs to be a healthy move towards more independence, and towards letting other people in the family have the spotlight now and then. Now this is a negotiation and how it looks will be different in every family. Some kids need more help, some parents have less time, it’s not a DO IT like this is the end of discussion period. It’s an ongoing discussion and collaboration.

You know, one thing that I’m often struck by in working with parents is that most of us get all the way to adulthood and parenthood without getting any formal instruction on child development so we don’t alway know what to expect from our kids. We don’t always know what’s realistic. Sometimes this means our expectations are too high, like expecting a toddler to have an attention span. But sometimes — especially for gentle parents who tend to err on the side of caution — our expectations are too low.

It’s reasonable to expect a 10-year old to be able to fall asleep alone. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do bedtime that way. If reading to your 10-year old and cuddling with them until they fall asleep makes you happy and is an enjoyable part of your day, then great. But if you’re unhappy or frustrated or resentful, you do not have to keep doing it. There is nothing selfish about wanting your 10-year old to go to bed by themselves. It’s fine. It’s ok to want that. It’s ok to build a plan to get that. And in fact, I’d say that if there are these problems at bedtime, there are likely other problems elsewhere and working on anxiety at bedtime may help in those other areas.

Just to be clear, it’s not that the family is doing this that’s the issue. That’s fine. It’s when people are doing things they don’t want to do, that are making people unhappy, that are holding kids back that it becomes a problem.

Gentle parenting should grow with the family. It needs to change as the family’s needs change. Here are somethings I want you to know about anxiety and gentle parenting.

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean that your needs are always on the chopping block. 

I strongly belief that in connected families where parents have worked hard to connect with their kids, that our frustration or impatience is a sign that our child is ready to grow. I think our impatience is a tool, a diagnostic tool, for what needs to happen next. So if you find yourself dreading certain parts of your parenting life, that doesn’t mean your a bad parent or that you have a bad kid, it means it’s time to look at that part of your parenting life and see what needs to change. 

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean doing whatever will make your child happiest. 

Happiest is not always healthiest. And short-term happiness doesn’t always lead to long term growth and contentment. We do not need to treat our kids like they’re made of spun glass. Our children need to know that we see them as resilient and strong and brave and capable. That means that sometimes we’re going to be pushy. We’re going to expect them to stretch. Some children need that gentle pressure to move to the next stage. If you have a child who’s always been a dragging their feet kind of kid, you can expect them to continue to be this way. 

Gentle parenting lends a different context to decisions.

When I talk to gentle parents about getting out of the parenting pitfalls and we decide on a course of action, like expecting the child to lay down alone at night, the parents often start to remember their own feelings of being abandoned and alone as a child and they become understandably fearful that they are asking too much of their child. But I ask them to remember that they are parenting from a different place of understanding, love and support. They are not walking away from their child. There is a plan, there is preparation. The child is informed and supported. There is a whole cohesive process based on the research and then personalized for that child and that family. And that makes all the difference.

If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed or frustrated, please consider joining the program. You get the asynchronous courses, but you get me, too. I am there to offer you private personalized support through the live office hours in real time or via messaging in the site. 

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