Wednesday Wisdom

November 22, 2023

Same Boat Parenting

By Dr Kathy Weston

Same Boat Parenting

Reflect

I hosted a webinar last night for Tooled Up Schools featuring Dr Tara Porter, a clinical psychologist and Sunday Times best-selling author of “You Don’t Understand Me”; an incisive book written for young women and authored with the view of helping them understand their parents (and themselves) more. Tara’s book is packed full of insights and pearls of wisdom gleaned from her clinical practice as well as lessons from psychology; inevitably appealing to teens.

This book acknowledges how it feels to be a frustrated teen, perhaps occasionally angry with one’s parents but also simultaneously wanting to be inside their loving embrace. She talks of ‘rupture and repair’ as being a characteristic of one’s evolving relationship with them and describes the dance between child and caregiver, as well the natural and important leap towards individuation. Her tone is warm and aunt-like. You can imagine yourself reading this book as a teen and feeling more understanding of what ‘them downstairs’ are thinking and feeling. The book also helps teens advocate for their needs within family life and supports them to move away from over-protective practices which research tells us can lead to worse mental health in early adulthood. For example, she says, “Having your parents swoop in and solve every problem is not a good thing, it may infantilise you or turn you into a bit of a dictator interested in getting their own way”. She coaches and motivates her young readers and perhaps gives them the gentle nudge towards self-sufficiency that we as parents might be more reluctant to strive towards. She wants them to be their own person, to lead rather than follow and to believe in themselves, whilst respecting those who have brought them up.

Tara’s book reflects the scope of issues she has heard within clinical practice and provides a fascinating and diverse perspective for parents. Parents might choose to read the book alongside their teen. Which bits might they agree with? Which parental reflections might you share with them that enrich your connection? Reading the book, I wondered what my own teens would say in the room with Tara about our relationship. The book spawned dinner time questions over the weekend: “What do you think my parenting style is?”, “Do you feel that there are areas where I do things for you that you would prefer to do yourself”, “Would you agree with what Tara says here about the difference between ‘liked’ and being ‘popular’?

This book was written for young women and I am raising teen boys. Nonetheless, I found it fascinating and thought-provoking. As a family, we got stuck discussing Chapter Four which begins with a quotation from Oscar Wilde: “I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, enjoy them and to dominate them”; an auspicious start to a chapter that both leans into teen angst and promotes emotional literacy as a life skill. Teens get just the psychoeducation that they need within these pages; understanding the difference between emotions and feelings, the emotional mind, the rational mind, negative emotions and coping strategies, and the foundations of good mental health. It is a book that requires you to have a highlighter pen and notepad somewhere nearby, because every few pages you will pause and reflect; stopping to consider the quality of relationships within family life, your ability to cope, to bounce back, the extent you can regulate your emotions and the quality of conversations you enjoy with our children. It’s really more like a workbook than a ‘guide’ and an important one.

I personally think that ahead of the holiday season (where we place so much pressure on ourselves to deliver ‘perfect’ dinners, experiences, gifts and moments), Tara’s book gives us a much-needed opportunity to honestly audit how family life is going and to consider the steps that all parties can take towards mutual understanding, reflection and peace!

Motivate

In preparation for Tara’s webinar on ‘understanding girls’, we invited parents to submit questions. We received so many they had to be thematically categorised. It was fascinating. What did over 400 parents raising daughters want to know more about?

There were several distinct areas. The first was puberty. How should parents manage mood changes, swings and ‘fluctuating hormones’ without damaging children’s confidence? What about puberty happening at younger and younger ages? How do we support our children when they feel angry? What if they resort to hurting themselves or others? How can we support them to feel ‘good enough’ given the toxic perfectionism evident within social media?

The next set of questions related to self-esteem. How can parents boost it? How can we protect it? How can we encourage it when we don’t feel too good in ourselves? What about the kids who are self-confident outwardly but not actually very self-assured or lacking in social skills? Is the pandemic to blame? Unsurprisingly, anxiety was also a key focus for those submitting questions. Why does it appear that girls are more prone to it? How do we know what the triggers are? How should parents better manage tics, chewing, biting or self-harming behaviours? What steps can we take to reduce the risk of disordered eating thoughts and behaviours?

One of the biggest categories of questions related to the very nature of parents’ relationship with their children. How do we stay close but also remain authoritative? How do we love them if they don’t want to be hugged? Should we attempt to be their friend rather than their parent? How do we sustain connection as they grow? If Dad isn’t around, will they still thrive? How can we communicate with them more easily?

The biggest category of questions centred on the quality and tone of girls’ friendships. Some parents were concerned about their daughter being more inclusive. Others worried about their child being on the receiving end of bullying. How can we help children deal with isolation or peer pressure to be unkind and how can we upskill them to manage the whole ‘on-off friendship’ dynamic? How can we encourage our daughters to speak up for themselves in groups or defend themselves against the social power of the clique? The list went on and on.

The sort of ‘good news’ is that, a week before, I personally delivered a talk for 500 parents of teen boys and parental questions echoed similar concerns to those listed above. Everyone it seems is in ‘the same boat’, although I did observe a definite increased interest from parents of boys on topics such as: motivation to learn, gaming habits, and on getting boys to ‘open up’. All parents worry, with good reason; we care and we want to do more to support our children. So where should the focus be?

Support

Tara’s book was inspired by what young people share with her in her clinic when given the opportunity to be heard. The questions asked above give us an insight into the fact that parents tend to worry about similar things and seek solutions. Helpfully, Tara’s webinar reminded us of some dos and some ‘try not tos’ when it comes to supporting our children better, given the complex world they are growing up in.

What were my takeaways? We need to bear in mind just how complex the world is for some teens. There is a tendency to wonder why we could cope better as young adults than our children but let’s cut them some slack. We didn’t grow up in the digital age with its ‘comparison culture’, surrounded by social media, algorithms dictating our digital diet, such graphic news content, lockdowns, online learning, climate or war anxiety. Did we grow up experiencing so much aspiration-anxiety? I am not sure. In addition to doing well at school, our children (particularly our teen girls) are expected to behave, look and be perfect (or at least many feel they do). This can feel truly exhausting. Even our own descriptions of our teens as ‘wonderful’, ‘kind’, ‘amazing’ can add unnecessary pressure on them; the pressure to sustain that and to consistently seek the ‘pat on the head’. Rather we want them to find out who they are, what makes them tick, attune to their interests and passions.

Tara emphasised the critical importance of connection and of investing in our relationships with our children as much as we can. She recommends a warm, authoritative and flexible parenting style, one where perhaps we don’t take some things too seriously. Worrying about which Russell Group university a child in Year 4 will go to might be a bit over the top! Worrying that they haven’t achieved a particular aspirational milestone by a certain age can be stressful; perhaps we don’t need to worry so much and trust the process?

We want to ensure that our children experience joy, don’t feel too heavily burdened with activities outside of school hours and enjoy some freedom to play and relax. They also need the freedom to make mistakes in life, friendships and academic work. It is within these moments of difficulty that they learn more about themselves and grow more resilient in multiple ways. It isn’t enough for us to believe they are ‘amazing’, they need to gently develop confidence in their own skills, their own judgments, ways of problem-solving and capacity to cope. This takes time, trial and error and a parent or carer waiting in the wings, giving them time, supporting upon request and modelling the kind of self-acceptance and self-compassion that we want our children to show towards themselves. That is right; by taking care of ourselves, developing our own goals but also modelling ‘good enough’, we might just give our children the freedom and space to soar.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

For those of you who missed it, Tara's webinar will be in the Tooled Up platform soon, so keep your eyes peeled. If you have anything you really want to know about girls and puberty, we’re excited to let you know that we'll be hosting a Q&A session on 13th December with psychologist and author of The Body Image Book for Girls, Professor Charlotte Markey. Book your place now.

Whilst Tara might have focused on raising girls, we also have a number of online events coming up which focus on boys and men. You might be interested in our upcoming webinar on raising resilient teen boys, which will be held on 6th December. We are also hosting a thought-provoking panel event for International Men’s Day on 28th November and would love to see lots of you there.

If you would like to improve your connection with your child, why not join us on 29th November for a supportive chat with psychiatrist, author and emotional coach, Dr Gauri Seth, where we will discuss parental guilt, parental self-esteem and how feelings of failure can be reduced or overcome. If you’d like to improve or fine tune your relationship with your child, you can also log into the Tooled Up platform to watch a previous webinar with Dr Seth on connecting with our children whilst living high stress lifestyles.

We also have some great activities designed to nudge children (both younger and teens) to consider how we should treat our friends and a whole section of resources on cultivating healthy friendships.