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How to Raise Happy Children - Even if You're a Mess

Updated on July 8, 2014

What's Your Child's Future Worth to You?

In a study of young adults who had suffered abuse or neglect, 80% were saddled with problems including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and attempts at suicide, according the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center.

The same study found that victims of abuse or neglect were 25 times more likely to experience teen pregnancies, delinquencies, perform lower in school, engage in high risk behavior and use alcohol and drugs.

They are 11 times more likely to engage in criminal activity as teens and are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested.

There are physical manifestations that arise from abuse and neglect. These are just some of the outcomes:

  • ongoing, unresolved sickness
  • arthritis
  • asthma
  • chronic fatigue
  • high blood pressure
  • ulcers

Psychological problems include:

  • panic and dissociative disorders
  • ADD and ADHD
  • depression
  • anger/rage
  • post-traumatic stress disorder

Adults who were abused as children are more likely to develop addiction problems and one third will go on to abuse and neglect their own children.


You Cannot Give What You Don't Have

It was a pathetic sight. On the way home from a long trip, my husband and I stopped into a McDonalds for a bite. Upon entering we were met with the high-pitched screams of a toddler sitting in the middle of the floor, forcing patrons to walk around her. The young and obviously stressed out mother was yelling at the child to get up. The more she yelled, the more the child shrieked. Everyone was looking and getting very uncomfortable. By the time we got our order and left, mother and daughter had migrated outside, where things got worse. The child was standing on the curb still screaming and crying, the mom was shouting, "Get in the car! No! Get in the car or I will hurt you! No! Get in the car!" On and on it went. Since she hadn't physically hurt the little girl, I reluctantly got in our car and we left. But I was struck with how helpless and terrified that child looked. What toddler wouldn't be afraid to be in a car alone with a raving adult like that? God knows what waiting for her behind closed doors? It was a sickening experience, but I've seen far worse.

The above scenario is trite compared with the 3.6 million cases of documented child abuse reported in this country annually (according to Safe Horizon). Within these cases, there lies the lives and well-being of six million children. Of these 1,537 will die from either abuse or neglect.

These unnerving facts are a testament to just how many people have no idea how to be decent parents. You don't have to be part of this tragic statistic.

Do you think a person who was raised in a calm, rational and nurturing home would eventually become this kind of mother? No. People who know what it feels like to be loved like that and have seen good parenting skills being practiced tend to model that behavior when they, too become parents.

On the other hand, people who were subject to unpredictable emotional outbursts or ongoing hostility, a lack of encouragement, anger, violence and shaming grow up to be all these things and more. They are full of rage, depression, fear, guilt, shame and low self-esteem. They tend to be drawn into unhealthy relationships precisely because they don't know anything else and believe that's what they deserve. In addition, since dysfunction is what they grew up in, they find it strangely exciting to live a life full of twisted emotions: getting turned on by threats or even violence and getting bored with calm, 'normal' behavior.

It is no surprise that most of these kinds of relationships fizzle, but often only after they bring more innocent children into the psychological wasteland they created. The ones that last create the framework from which the next generation derive their standards of acceptable behavior.

Unfortunately it's not uncommon for the father of these children to disappear or play a minor role in raising them. This leaves the mother to care for and provide for them. Doing so is exhausting. Even when the best of moms are running on empty, they will eventually have a meltdown. The single, stressed out mom, however, usually doesn't get to stay in bed all day or go to a spa to regroup. She has to get up, feed and dress her kids, deliver them to daycare (which is expensive) and drag herself to whatever job she has found to make ends meet. At the end of the day kids are bursting with energy and want to share that with their mothers. Moms just want to be left alone. It's no wonder that they are yelling and having losing battles with toddlers in restaurants.

I believe it's safe to say that every parent has, at some point, just wanted to shake or smack their child out of sheer exhaustion and frustration.

The difference between the good mother and the one failure is the ability to manage herself in the moment of crisis.





Living on Purpose Instead of by Habit

To begin the process of modifying your behavior and thinking, let's take an inventory of where your starting point is. There is no right or wrong answer. Be truthful.


Answer the following questions 'yes' or 'no'

  1. As a child, my family was socially isolated (kept to themselves, kept secrets) _______
  2. As a child, my family struggled financially _______
  3. As a child, there was divorce or other forms of disorganization ____________
  4. As a child, I had mostly negative interactions with my mother and/or father _________
  5. There was a lot of stress in my family of origin _____
  6. There were mental health issues in my family of origin ______
  7. My parents or caregivers didn't understand how to be good parents ________
  8. There was a history of child abuse in my family of origin ___________
  9. There was substance abuse in my family of origin _____
  10. I grew up in a single parent household ________
  11. As a child, I lived in a neighborhood with high incidents of violence and/or trauma _____

Now go back over these questions and answer them as if you were speaking for your own children. Do you see a correlation?

Habitual living is created by simply repeating what we have experienced, even if we know the outcome will be bad. By not stopping and questioning our actions, choices and words, we set ourselves up to end up with exactly what we walked away from as young adults because it's what we know.

However, by taking a breath and thinking about what we're doing, we have made a decision to live on purpose. It also helps to get out of our 'bubble' once in a while and watch how healthy individuals and families live their lives.

If all you've ever seen is moms slapping their children when they talk back, that is exactly what you'll do when your little boy or girl says, 'no' but that does not make it the right choice.

You can be the one in your family to break the cycle of dysfunction.



7 Ways to Become a Better Parent

There is no magic pill that's going to make you the kind of parent you wish you would have had. If it wasn't modeled for you, you're going to have to rewire your thinking. It's hard. It won't come overnight.

But, trust me, it does come.

The following concepts are some that I used in my own life. To say my parents didn't provide the proper role-models would be kind. These are a culmination of truths I've learned over several decades. I wish I knew them when I was a new parent, but #7 addresses that.

1. If you are doing drugs, drinking too much or in any other way abusing your body and mind, stop. There's just no way you can be a good parent if in addition to normal everyday stress, you're also dealing with the physical and emotional affects of addiction. Find help. There is no excuse for not doing so. AA meetings are everywhere. Talk to a counselor, pastor, friend (not one who is also fighting the same demons unless they are in a program). Shortness of patience, irrational behavior and thinking, fatigue and moodiness are just some of the extra problems you throw into the parenting mix when you are abusing yourself this way.

2. Work out your issues. This is huge. How can you be a loving parent when you're consumed with rage against a parent, partner (current or past) or some event that altered you forever(rape or other trauma)? How can you teach your baby to have self respect and confidence when you don't have any? Again, please seek out a counselor - most churches offer these services at little or no charge and you do not have to be of that congregation to get their help. This is going to be a long process, but the fact that you are talking to someone weekly will act as a release valve and you will be less likely to let that 'steam' out on your family.

3. Take time for you. Working parents, especially single working parents are usually run ragged and then some. Children do not have the ability to consider whether you are tired, sad, sick or distracted by life (money, relationships, physical problems, etc.), they just want what they want. If you are constantly sick, worn out, sleep deprived or emotionally wrung out you cannot give them what they need. You will not have the required patience needed to avoid a scene such as what I witnessed at the restaurant. In addition, your children will eventually pick up on your tension and the only way they can release their own tension is to scream, cry and act out. This infuriates the exhausted parent. More yelling. More crying. Thus the cycle goes on. Even in the healthiest of relationships, both parties need to take a break from each other once in a while. Parents absolutely need to have down time in order to collect their energy and get their thinking straight. If you are a single parent, this is even more important. Ideally, you will have friends who you can create a sharing program with. You watch her kids for a couple hours a week and she watches yours so you can take some 'you' time, even if it means just laying in bed with no interruptions. Humans were never designed to be pulled on 24/7.If that's not possible then find childcare that you can pay for by the hour. No money? Take a nap when they nap instead of trying to catch up on everything else.

4. Seek out positive role models. This is hard if, as suggested in my questionnaire, you came from (or are still in) an environment where dysfunction is normal and ever-present. But if you truly want to be a better parent, you have to see what that looks like. Push yourself to visit public places outside your normal stomping grounds. A park on the other side of town. A church, a children's center that attracts all kinds of people. Watch. Observe how 'healthy' people interact with their children. Note the happiness level of those people. What's different there from what you know? What are they doing that's opposite of what you know?

5. Educate yourself. Read. There are countless books on effective child rearing. Parents who are exhausted, resentful, immature or high aren't going to seek out information on how to be a good parent. Don't be one of them. In addition to behavior modification, learn about nutrition and nurture yourself and your kids by offering simple but healthy foods. Fast food usually includes a lot of sugar and salt which can bring on hyperactivity and mood swings in children as well as nervousness and fatigue in the parents. Bad combination.

6. Model proper behavior. If you scream and throw things when life doesn't go your way, that's what your children will model. If, on the other hand, you handle disappointments and problems with dignity, they will learn that as well. Remember, everything you say and do is a life lesson for your young ones. What are you teaching them?

7. Teach solid principles. Honesty, hard work, patience, kindness, self-confidence...these are a few character strengths you can teach your children via example. But only if you practice them. When a child is raised with correct principles, right decisions on their part will follow. And once you begin to see them living this way, you will know you were a good parent. Along the way, you'll make plenty of mistakes. Learn to look your children in the eyes and apologize. Explain what would have been the right thing to do. It will be a learning moment for all of you.

You may notice that the first five out of 7 concepts are all about you. That's because if you don't remake yourself into a healthier person, you cannot raise healthy children.


It's Never Too Late

Whether you are a new parent or have teenagers, everyone needs a reminder once in a while on what's needed to be an effective, healthy parent. No matter what your situation is - single parent living on food stamps or wealthy one in the suburbs. Everyone has demons to work out. Until we do, being the kind of parent we wish we would have had will require work.

Keep in mind that those around you - your own parents or other family members, old friends, etc., may not want you to change. They like knowing that you are the same as them. Don't count on their help. As I mentioned, chances are good that your best bet for good role models will most likely be outside of your current situation.

You are beginning a learning experience and it's going to take time. Your children may not reap the benefit of your commitment for some time. But you are moving in the right direction. Once you open your mind to the possibility that there is a better way, you'll become more aware of your choices and that will lead -slowly- to healthier ones.

And even though you're not the kind of parent you want to be right now, children have an amazing ability to forgive and love unconditionally. If you start right now, you will be able to look your kids in the eye when they are older and say that although you did the best you could at the time, you tried your hardest to become the kind of parent they truly deserved.

But chances are they will figure that out on their own. Because they're always watching.


Jeanette Menter is the author of, "You're Not Crazy-You're Codependent. What Everyone Affected by: Addiction, Abuse, Trauma and Toxic Shame Must Know to Have Peace in Their Lives" Available at www.amazon.com


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