Parenting is by far the hardest job.
Not only is parenting physically taxing (especially in those early years) it can be emotionally exhausting. It stretches you beyond what is comfortable and beyond what you think you can handle.
You never really figure it out; by the time you think you figured out one stage, your child is on to another stage. Personally, this past year of parenting has been one of my hardest. I’ve had to deal with new struggles and challenges that caught me off guard and made me doubt myself in a whole new way. There have been days I have felt completely disoriented and unsure of what to do. I guess that’s one of the beauties of parenting; it keeps you humble.
Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has helped me learn how to deal with the hard experiences as a parent. I’m learning to accept my uncomfortable feelings and difficult circumstances. I’m learning that attempts to avoid those things will only keep me trapped. I’m learning to recognize my own patterns in behavior; what thoughts show up for me when I am parenting and things are going well and what thoughts show up when things are not going well. Turns out I don’t have to believe all of those thoughts; I can recognize them as passing thoughts which don’t have to knock me over; I can watch them go by just like the changing weather. I can pause and notice the present moment; I can choose an action that is in line with my values as a parent, even when I am having the thought or feeling that I am a failure and that I must be doing it all wrong.
Here’s why Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is so useful for parents…
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a branch of Behavior Analysis which aims to improve psychological flexibility through 6 core processes, which are: acceptance, mindfulness, values, committed action, defusion, and self-as context. ACT emphasizes acceptance and mindfulness practices that help individuals move towards valued behavior. ACT can give parents a way to connect with the present moment and acknowledge private events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, urges, body sensations) without fusing with them or allowing them to determine behavior. ACT can give you tools to live the life you want to live even when you are experiencing challenges.
The thing about parenting is that it’s not just the dozens of day-to-day tasks you need to get done, or the immediate needs of responding to a crisis moment, it’s the emotional roller coaster we often find ourselves on. When your child is struggling, you have to respond in that moment of melt-down (tantrum) but often, that’s not the only thing going on. Our private events (thoughts, feelings, sensations) are also happening during that melt-down moment. Suddenly we are not just responding to our child’s melt-down but we are flooded with thoughts about the past (our own history as a child, our previous mistakes as a parent) and the future (what will my child’s future look like, does this current struggle represent their future, how will they cope with all the challenges in life…). We may also find ourselves making judgments (my child should be able to do this, what did I do wrong as a parent, what will others think of me). There is no shortage of stories our mind will tell us in those moments. Not to mention the physical sensations you may be experiencing such as elevated heart rate, higher blood pressure, faster breathing. That’s a lot to deal with at one time.
Our private events can be overwhelming to the point that we are not able to be the kind of parent we want to be in that moment. We can fall into reactive parenting rather than mindful parenting. Mindful parenting brings us back to the present moment.
So why is the present moment so important? We can’t make those private events magically disappear and in fact when we try to avoid them we can often get trapped in a battle with them. Instead of spending our energy resisting them, we can notice them. Allow them to be there. Accept that we are experiencing them. And we can simultaneously choose to take actions that support our values (what do we want our life to be about, what kind of parent do we want to be).
As a parent, you’re going to have those difficult moments (especially when your parenting an exceptional, extra-ordinary child); those moments when your child is struggling and the choices they make are less than ideal. Those moments when you don’t know what to do to help them; when you can’t see the path forward, when you have run out of energy and don’t know what to do.
Those moments give you the opportunity to practice being the kind of parent you want to be; to face the voices in your head and show up for your child even in the most difficult circumstances. In those difficult moments you can remember to Pause, Notice, Choose. Ask yourself; what story is my mind telling me in this moment (the good, bad and ugly), what sensations am I experiencing in my body (what do I see, hear and feel). Then choose an action that leads you towards what you value, even if it is small. Sometimes all we can do is simply be there next to our child in their struggle. We will never be perfect, but we can be present and often that is enough.