I have a sign hanging in my office that serves as a constant reminder of the unparalleled influence I have as a dad. It reads:
Home is where our story begins.
Our homes reflect our story. For some, that story is defined by brokenness. For others, it’s defined by love, laughter, and joy. For most, it’s a blend of the two.
The beauty of it all is that no matter our story or family background—good, bad, or ugly—we have 100 percent control in writing a new script. And it’s a good thing, too. Research shows that as parents we’re the ones writing our children’s story—and wiring their brains as well—by how we relate to them.
That’s because our kids, especially when they’re feeling fearful or anxious, turn to us to answer the internal question we all ask from the first day we enter the world: Am I safe?
When our kids turn to us as their parents to have this question answered, our response wires their brains for what they come to believe about, how to act in, and what to feel about relationships—for a lifetime.
The other day our daughter, Kennedy, walked into my office pushing the baby doll she got for Christmas in her little stroller. The baby’s pacifier had fallen out and she needed my help to put it back in the doll’s mouth. As I helped her, I noticed how gentle and affectionate she was with her baby.
Kennedy, Lord willing, will likely one day be a wife and mom. Our son will likely be a husband and father. As parents, we’re not raising kids, we’re raising adults who will one day have a home of their own—a story they pass on to their kids—a story that began in your home.
Here are 3 ways to be a more emotionally safe parent in 2016:
1. Get to Know Your Own Story Better: We’re the coauthors of our children’s stories.
The quality of our presence with them in our home will one day determine the quality of our kids’ presence in theirs.
For many of us, our inability to be emotionally available to our kids, our angry reactions, yelling, or even shaming comments are usually a reflection of our own childhood.
Begin by writing down your parenting fears. Many of our reactions and how we treat our kids are fear-based (fear of our child turning out a certain way, fear of what others think of us, fear of being inadequate as a parent, etc.)
2. Understand to be Understood: Follow the Golden Rule of Parenting: In order to be understood, we must first understand. Most often, our child’s underlying motivation behind a temper tantrum or disrespectful attitude is not a personal attack on us as the parent. There’s typically something else deeper going on with our child.
As John Gottman explains, “My child isn’t giving me a hard time. My child is having a hard time.”[i] Understanding the difference matters.
A child who feels understood by us is a child who is safely allowed to feel. Her negative emotions are not punished, dismissed, or minimized but instead are validated and explored.
3. Value the Emotion, then Set Limits on the Behavior: Grace is when we love our child unconditionally for who she is. Truth is when we love her enough to not leave her that way.
In a Safe House, a parent who has a high wall of grace but a low wall of truth values the emotion, but fails to set limits on the behavior. Research shows these kids likely grow up with feelings of entitlement and disrespect for authority.
A parent with a high wall of truth and a low wall of grace is a parent who sets limits on the behavior but offers little to no understanding of their child’s feelings or needs—a parent who sacrifices relationship in the name of following rules. If you want obedient children in the short term, these techniques may work, but what they don’t do is build the higher-level parts of the brain necessary for the long-term relational success we’re looking for in our kids.
Grace and understanding must always come before advice-giving, problem-solving, and discipline. That’s because truth without grace is received as condemnation.
Let’s be a generation of parents who are self-aware, emotionally present with our kids, and who love them enough to not leave them as they are.
That’s where their story begins.
YOU are home.
Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, and president and co-founder of the Connextion Group, a company designed to empower parents and families. Josh speaks and writes on emotionally safe parents and spouses and the influence of technology on today's family. He is the author of the newly released Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well (Waterbrook Multnomah) and along with his wife, Christi, is the producer and co-author of the video curriculum The Screen-Balanced Family: Six Secrets to a More Connected Family in the 21st Century. He wakes up each day striving to love others better beginning with his wife, Christi, and their son, Landon, and daughter, Kennedy.
For more encouragement and ideas on marriage and parenting in the 21st century, you can join Josh and a growing tribe of awesome families at www.joshuastraub.com and follow him on Twitter @joshuastraub or Facebook.
[i] John Gottman, “Emotion Coaching: The Heart of Parenting,” 2013, http://emotioncoaching.gottman.com/about.