In my work as a therapist, I often encounter parents who want to be a better parent, but they just don’t know how. They feel as if they have no roadmap for their parenting and are flying blind. Maybe you are one of them. This feeling of being unsure and unequipped can be due to a number of factors including how you were parented or childhood trauma.
This post is unable to capture all that I would like to address on this topic, but consider it a sort of outline that you can flesh out as you walk along your journey of Christian parenting. God gave you kids for a reason. And He will equip you for the task at hand.
So when you feel like you don’t know what you are doing and you want to be a better parent, where do you start? You start with the basics. We are going to look ahead, look back, look inside, and move forward.
Look ahead: What is my vision?
This is a question that will take a bit of time to answer. When I think about vision when it comes to parenting, I consider two components:
- What do I want for my kids?
- How do I want to be remembered?
Let’s tackle the first question first.
What do I want for my kids?
This is an individual decision influenced by your own beliefs, values and desires. When you think about what is important for your kids what comes to mind? Do you want them to be happy? In love with Jesus? Grounded in the word? Successful? Connected to your family? Independent? A leader? Helpful? Kind? Strong? Loyal?
Here is a great resource by FamilyLife to help you and your spouse narrow down your parental values. When both parents are on the same page when it comes to values, you have a shared framework for where you want to focus your training, discipline and discipleship.
Now let’s take a look at the second question.
How do I want to be remembered?
Think of this scenario: It’s your 80th birthday and your family is gathered around to honor you and the life you have lived. What do you want them to be able to say about you? How do you want to be remembered when your time on this earth is done? What qualities would you have wanted to bring to the things you did and the people you interacted with?
Only you can answer these questions and it is important that they come from inside your heart and not from what other people might think you should be like. Prayerfully sit with the Lord and examine your heart and make a list of qualities and attributes that you want to embody. (Here is a list of values to get you started.)
Try to narrow it down to a manageable list by just selecting your top 5 personal values. Put them somewhere noticeable and find ways to remind yourself that this is how you want to be in the world at this stage of your life. Choose actions that let you act out those values in your every day life.
Look back: Do I understand my attachment style?
Once we figure out what our vision is for our kids and ourselves, it’s time to look back at how you were raised and how that might be impacting your parenting. That inquiry starts with examining your attachment style.
There are 4 main attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized (you may hear slightly different terms, but basically there is one secure type and three insecure types). These are typically formed early in life but can be impacted by trauma.
A securely attached child will experience their parent or parents as a secure base from which they feel safe to explore the world and are assured of the parent’s warm presence and support when they return.
If you want to find out your attachment style, you can do so over at The Attachment Project. This assessment will give you your attachment style for your mother, your father and your partner.
Regardless of what you learn, please remember that attachment styles are not fixed in stone and can be healed. One of the best ways to heal attachment is by coming to know God the Father as your secure base who never leaves you or forsakes you and is never far from you (Deuteronomy 31:6, Joshua 1:9).
People come and go, they can disappoint us and let us down, but the Lord never will.
How does attachment style impact my parenting?
Understandably, how you were parented impacts how you parent. If you were raised by a parents who were unavailable and non responsive, you likely developed an avoidant attachment style. As an adult, you may be more comfortable being alone, have a hard time asking for help and find the neediness of others grating. This will impact your parenting.
However, when we can understand that these thoughts, feelings, and urges stem from an attachment wound, we can have compassion for ourselves and our experiences and choose to behave in a manner breaks the old pattern.
You can do this work on your own with the use of a journal or with a professional therapist. Some questions to reflect on include:
1) In what ways did my attachment wounds show up in my parenting today?
2) How did I respond when that wound was activated? What could I try tomorrow?
3) What steps did I take today to connect with God as my safe base?
Look inside: Do I understand how God made me and my children?
Once you have examined how you were parented, it’s important to understand how God made you and your kids. The Bible is clear that before we were born He knew us (Jeremiah 1:5) and that we were “knit together in our mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). God knows us intimately. It’s important for us to try to understand who He created us to be and how he wired our kids. That starts with and understanding of temperament.
What is temperament?
Temperament is your innate predisposition – basically how you came out of the womb. There is a distinction between temperament and personality. Temperament is not thought to be impacted by environment. Personality is more malleable than temperament based on environmental and developmental factors.
Researchers generally agree that there are nine basic traits that comprise temperament. These include: activity level, regularity, approach/withdrawal, adaptability, intensity, mood, attention span, distractibility, and sensory threshold. These generally stay fixed throughout the life span.
You can use this tool to assess for the presence of these nine temperament traits in both you and your child.
This article will give you insight into your child’s temperament and will also provide information on how particular temperament traits can be integrated into your parental expectations and interventions.
Why is temperament important?
It is important to know your temperament as well as your child’s because it can be helpful to understand that certain traits cannot be “fixed” by parenting interventions.
If your child is wired with a high need for movement and activity, no amount of parenting interventions will lessen that (without a high cost to the child or your relationship). Understanding this predisposition will help you adjust your expectations of your child and will encourage you to find ways to work with their God-given wiring instead of against it.
What if there is mismatch?
There will be times when aspect of your temperament will not align with your child’s and that is okay. Acceptance can help modulate the intensity of the mismatch.
For example, if you recognize that you have a low sensory threshold and your child has a high level of activity, you can be mindful of the fact that they are not trying to annoy you – they are simply acting in alignment with their wiring. Your need for sensory reduction and his need for activity are both important. You can seek out ways for your child to address their activity needs while simultaneously respecting your need for sensory reduction without guilt or anger.
Prayerfully ask God to remind you throughout the day that you are both fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) and that He would give you grace for the differences.
Move forward: Focus on the basics
This is the part that Christian parents care about. What do I do? We all want to know the right thing to say or do with our kids at any given moment. The truth of the matter is that even if you know your vision, your attachment style, and your temperaments, you will still have questions in the moment. That is normal. Parenting is a walk of faith in many ways. You will make mistakes. Embrace them as an opportunity for learning and growth rather than shame or grief. Embrace imperfection daily.
Once you are able to do that, I have a three step process for dealing with difficult behaviors in kids. There is no catchy acronym for it. You will have to remember three questions. They can be asked in quick succession as you consider you intervention options in the moment.
Please remember that time is on your side. Urgency is the enemy of intentional parenting. Remind yourself that this is not an emergency and you can consider your options. Not having the answer right away is not a sign of inadequacy. It’s a sign of intentionality.
Also keep in mind that these questions need to be asked in the order they are written because if you start at the end, you may have missed something underlying it all that would have had a simpler solution.
1) Do they have a need? (physical, emotional or relational)
We all have needs. We get hungry, tired, over stimulated, under stimulated, etc. We have needs for connection and affection, safety and security. This question is asked first because often it is the easiest to address. Kids (and most adults) are often unclear about what their needs are and typically communicate needs with behaviors rather than words. Whining can be from being tired, lethargy can be from hunger, silliness can stem from a need for attention.
We can help kids learn to articulate needs by naming them as we meet them. We can say something like, “You keep touching me as I am working. Would a hug help you feel more connected to me?”
It’s important to differentiate between needs and wants. Kids may be acting up because they want something rather than need something. This takes some prayerful consideration. If you assess that it is a want, you can address it in question three after you have asked question two.
2) Are they missing a skill?
Kids do not come out knowing how to do things. It is our job to teach them.
A child who regularly acts up while getting ready for bed may be demonstrating a need for sleep AND be missing a skill. You can add some “ready for bed” practice during the day to help them move though the routine faster and with less distraction. You can practice until they can show you they have mastered the skill.
Kids also need skills in managing internal experiences too (emotions and thoughts). We can create opportunities for developing their emotional intelligence to help them with this skill.
If you are wondering what is within normal expectation for skills based on age, you can check out this resource. Keep in mind that children are very different and your child may master these skills earlier or later based on their unique developmental progression. This is meant to only be a guide and I would recommend using the benchmarks listed as goals for the end of each age range listed.
3) What is the state of their heart?
This question is posed last because as Christian parents, it can be our tendency to head here first. We may assume that there is a heart issue at stake so we address it from that angle but maybe the child had an unmet need or a skill to be taught.
Of course all three issues could be in play as well. The heart is an important component of Christian parenting that cannot be ignored if we want train our children up in the Lord.
There are two main things that can impact the state of a person’s heart:
1) lust – the desire for things that are not ours to have
2) pride – the placing of oneself above others, including God
A hardened heart is usually indicated by a rejection of truth and a willfulness to continue on the two paths listed above despite correction.
As parents, we cannot soften a child’s heart –only the Holy Spirit can. However, we can make the conditions right for softening. Remember the parable of the soils? (Matthew 13). The soil that produced fruit was called “good soil” – it was free of rocks, thorns, and packed dirt. As parents, we can “till” the soil of our children’s heart though discipleship, prayer and Scripture.
To help you in the moment, here’s an image you can take a screen shot of to help you remember these questions. When we are emotionally activated our thinking brain often goes off line and it can be hard to react from a place of calm and intention. Try the steps on the image the next time you face a difficult behavior with your kids. You can exhale slowly to calm your nervous system and then assess your child based on their needs, skill deficit or heart.
If you are feeling overwhelmed after reading this post, I would encourage you to just take one element and focus on that. You do not, and should not try to implement these adjustments and tasks all at once. That is not possible. Give yourself a lot of grace and compassion and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can. God walks with you on this journey and there is no finish line.
And if you have reached the end and are looking for more information on ways you can address misbehavior, you can check out my post on 20 effective discipline strategies for Christian parents.
Please feel free to ask any follow up questions in the comments below.