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Claiming Your Role as a Parent

Daring to parent an older child who has experienced hurt or neglect in the past will help him learn to trust and love.

by Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D.

Some adoptive moms and dads have waited a long time to be parents, and then hesitate to do just that--be parents. Suddenly finding yourself at home with a child is strange, and it may take a while before you "feel like a parent." Many who adopt older children hold back deliberately, thinking, "Poor thing, she's been through so much. We should wait to impose rules, routines, and chores."

Children who have experienced neglect or hurt during their first years may encourage a hands-off approach because they resist parental control. But these children are in great need of a parent-centered family, more than children who have not experienced trauma. Dare to parent, and your child will learn to trust, and love.

Who's In Control Here?

The word control generates negative response in the mental health field, and I'm not sure why. Every infant is completely under the control of his parents, is completely vulnerable, and, in healthy families, is completely safe. Children get the message very early that being taken care of and nurtured equals being safe and comfortable.

Children who have been hurt fear losing control, and they fear being controlled by others. To be cooperative, compliant, and receptive means giving in. Consequently, they choreograph battles in response to the most insignificant requests.

How can you take back control and help your child change his perspective? Foster Cline and Jim Fay, coauthors of Parenting with Love and Logic, developed three simple rules for dealing with a controlling child. I present them with their permission and my own spin:

Avoid control battles whenever you can. If you have 100 control battles a day and win 30, you've lost 70 percent. If you face 100 control battles a day, take on five, and win them all, you've won 100 percent. The rest of the battles do not count, because you didn't engage. You become more powerful in your child's eyes, because you are perceived as being in control of the family.

Choose your battles carefully. Wise parents accept the fact that there are some battles they simply cannot win. Parents should avoid battles involving food, bedwetting, and what a child says, because it is impossible to control these things.

It is also important to choose the timing of the battles you take on. If your child won't get ready for school and makes the whole family late, you can plan ahead. Tess, age six, took two hours to get dressed. If anyone tried to help her, battles raged. Tess's mother eventually called the school and, with their support, announced to the family that there was a new plan. The car would leave at 7 A.M., regardless of how anyone was dressed. The next morning at 7, Tess was wearing a pajama top and skirt. Her mother packed her shoes and a shirt, ushered her into the car, and told her she could finish dressing at school. That battle was won.

If Tess's school had refused to allow her to show up in a state of disarray, her mother's back-up plan was to take a personal day from work without telling Tess. Then, when Tess wasn't ready, her mother would have just busied herself with chores. Tess would have wondered why her mother wasn't fussing at her, putting her mother firmly in control.

Win the battles you take on. Jon, age seven, refused to put his cereal bowl in the dishwasher. Morning after morning, his mom asked him to do it, and he would not comply. One day, she took back control by saying, "Jon, how did you know that today I didn't want your bowl in the dishwasher? I want to rinse the dishes in a special way, and you're making it easier for me to do that. Thanks! We must be getting closer, because it seems you can read my mind."

Many parents would say that Jon's mom gave in to him. What she actually did was to jump-start the attachment cycle by refusing to fight day after day. If parent and child are always angry at one another, no attachment will occur. The cycle cannot progress to gratification and trust.

The point is for the family to move to a win-win situation, where the child learns that, if the parent wins, so does he. This is a foreign concept to the hurt child, who feels that, if the parent wins, he loses.

Families Aren't Democracies

Parents who try to follow their children's lead in their parenting are bound to lose--lose the trust and faith of their children, lose the strength they need to show for their children, and lose the sense of their responsibilities as adults.

Children in such families also lose. They lose their confidence in adults. They may lose a sense of safety--the feeling that their parents know what to do and how to do it. They lose the comfort of knowing that their parents are strong enough to protect them.

Imagine yourself going on an extreme adventure--rapelling down the side of a mountain. Would you feel safe with a guide who seemed too interested in how you might rig the safety harness? Or would you prefer to venture out with someone who knew more than you and didn't ask for your help?

Hurt children may say they want to be in charge, but they know, on some level, that their being in charge places their entire world in jeopardy. When they know, unequivocally, that someone else is in charge, they feel safer. Parenting is an awesome task. Parenting a hurt child is an even greater challenge. To succeed, it is necessary to claim your role as parent--with all of its dimensions and responsibilities. Claim your child, so you can teach him to claim you.


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