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The Huge Parenting Mistake I Didn't Realize I was Making

Photograph by Twenty20

“What I’m seeing is that your son feels like he has too much power in your home,” the therapist said. “He needs you guys to be in charge, not him.”

The words felt like a slap in the face, but I got it.

I’d meant well. A natural nurturer, I’d shied away from the traditional discipline I’d grown up with, choosing a gentler path.

But I’d taken it too far, and mostly, without even realizing it.

I’m a sensitive soul. I could be described as an empath, or the slightly harsher term of co-dependent. I have a strong tendency to take other peoples’ emotions on—or worse, the emotion I think they’re having. The closer the person is to me, the more fiercely I absorb their feelings.

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So when my son was born, all fiery and fussy, sensitive and strong-willed, I was pretty much screwed.

The intense, unique love that bloomed for him was nothing I’d experienced before. It felt like the cord that connected us when he was in my belly was still there, but instead of pulsing flesh it was unseeable and unbreakable.

His intense feelings were unbearable for me. I physically reacted to his cries—as mothers, that’s what we are wired to do to ensure that our babies are cared for. But as he became a toddler, a preschooler, a little and then a not-so-little boy, I continued to respond to his upsets viscerally, my skin going alert, electric at his cries. My sensitivity to his emotions, coupled with his stubbornly strong opinions meant that I often reacted to his feelings with frustration or anxiety, and often let him take the lead.

As he got older, I’d turned to rotating between bribery and threats when he dug his heels in about something. This had culminated a few weeks before the meeting with the therapist when my son had thrown an epic tantrum because he didn’t want to come with me to pick up his sister from preschool.

I’d been stuck in a cycle of reacting to my son’s big emotions, and had often handed him the reigns because it seemed like that was what he wanted.

“Please,” I’d begged him after 20 minutes of attempting to convince him to get into my car while he writhed on the front lawn. “You want to have a treat after dinner, right?” My voice rose with each minute as he refused. During moments like this, I’d handed him my power as the adult, leaving me feeling defeated and incapable, and him destabilized.

When the therapist told us that our son needed us to be in charge, as his parents, it was jolting, but not entirely surprising.

The therapist recommended listening to Janet Lansbury’s podcast, “Unruffled.” At first, hearing her parenting recommendations was uncomfortable, but over the course of a few days, it started to sink in.

When responding to parents who’d written to her for help, her responses often included lines such as, “Your job is to be the leader for your kids. Imagine how scary it must be to be a child, and this big person—this person who’s job is to let you know they’ve got you—isn’t doing their job.

I hadn’t been doing my job. I’d been stuck in a cycle of reacting to my son’s big emotions, and had often handed him the reigns because it seemed like that was what he wanted. But what the therapist had said, and what Lansbury was saying, was that wasn’t what my son needed. He needed me to be calm and firm.

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Looking back at the fact that our relationship began with me perplexed, overwhelmed and in the thick of postpartum depression and anxiety, I understand how we’d gotten to where we were. It wasn’t healthy, and that hurt to recognize. I wish I could rewind and began my parenting journey in a more centered manner, but I can’t. But I can do it differently from here on out.

And it’s working.

As soon as I shifted my parenting style, my son's behavior also shifted for the better.

Now, when one of my kids is having a hard time—which, let’s face, it far more often than I could’ve ever imagined before becoming a parent, I try and center myself with a Lansbury-inspired mantra. “I’m a calm, confident leader. I’ve got this.” Sometimes I’ll even say, “I’ve got this,” out loud if my kids are upset about something. It lets them verbally know that they’re okay, and that I’m okay. And it reminds me that though I don’t always know what I’m doing, and I'm bound to make plenty of mistakes, I actually do have this.

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