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Parenting

How to Be a Psychologically Flexible Parent

Psychological flexibility allows parents to stay present with their children.

Key points

  • Psychological flexibility gives parents the ability to remain engaged with their children, especially when things seem to be falling apart.
  • Psychologically flexible parenting requires unhooking from self-critical thoughts, comparisons, judgments, and rigid rules.
  • Steps in psychologically flexible parenting include understanding the child's perspective and turning towards feelings of anxiety and irritation.

It is an incredibly hard time to be a parent. Parents are carrying the normal loads of work/life balance, trying to raise kids in a world of technology and stress, while navigating what seems like a never-ending and shape-shifting pandemic. How do you hold the stress of it all without it spilling over and negatively impacting your kids? To navigate what feels like unending and impossible times, we need more than deep breathing and bubble baths. Psychological flexibility is your key to surviving this parenting thing.

Psychological flexibility allows parents to stay open, present, and engaged with their children, especially when everything seems to be falling apart.

Psychologically flexible parenting is associated with:

  • Greater use of adaptive parenting strategies
  • Greater family cohesion
  • Lower child distress
  • Lower perceived parenting distress and burden

What Does Psychologically Flexible Parenting Look Like?

  • Being present with your kids rather than getting caught up in distracting thoughts, strong emotions, or shoulds.
  • Opening and allowing for the discomfort of parenting. Parenting can be the most painful thing we do in life because it is one of the most important things to you.
  • Getting clear on how you want to be as a parent. “What kind of parent do you want to be? Playful? Patient? Compassionate? Flexible? Kind? And then lining up your actions so they match.
  • Unhooking from thoughts that push you around, like self-critical thoughts, comparisons, judgments, rigid rules.
  • Taking in the big picture. See your kids as growing over time, as you grow and adapt over time. Take your kids' perspective and model flexible perspective-taking to them.

Step 1. Stop Trying to Fix Your Kids, and Yourself, for That Matter!

When I interviewed Stephen Rollnick, founder of Motivational Interviewing, he shared a story about trying to get his child to not wear muddy shoes. The more he tried to convince his child, the more pushback he got. Why? It’s natural human behavior: When you try to fix, force, or change your kid you are likely going to get resistance. As William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self Driven Child, and What Do You Say? shared in their interviews with me, resist the urge to set your kids right and spend your time getting to know them and understand their perspective instead.

  • Practice being present with them by spending one-on-one time.
  • Put down your phone and look them in the eyes.
  • Reflect back what you hear your kids saying and ask, “Am I getting it right?”
  • Seek to understand your kids, not to set them straight. You will be surprised how well they set themselves straight.

Step 2. Compassionately Allow for the Discomfort of Parenting

As ACT founder Steve Hayes said on the podcast, “You hurt where you care and you care where you hurt.” Parenting is one of the most meaningful activities you can do, but meaning does not equate pleasure. In fact, sometimes the more meaningful activity, the more discomfort you are likely to face. Anxiety, irritation, and loss are likely to show up in parenting. Turn toward these feelings and remind yourself, you hurt because you care. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt so much! Open and allow for the discomfort of parenting and then turn toward yourself with compassion.

  • Pause in moments of discomfort and remind yourself, this hurts because I care.
  • Make space for the pain of parenting in your body.
  • Turn toward that discomfort with compassion: Be present with yourself, be kind to yourself, and remind yourself you are not alone. All parents feel this way sometimes!

Step 3. Act on Your Parenting Values, and Support Your Kids on Finding Theirs

Values can be an intrinsically motivating force that keeps you going as a parent. What type of parent do you want to be? What is important to you in parenting? If you were to look back on your life and say, “That was a well-lived life," how would you have acted? Your parenting values are different parenting shoulds, morals, or expectations and can serve as a road map in what can often feel like an unknown wilderness.

When you act on your parenting values, you also model intrinsic motivation to your kids. According to self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation has three parts: autonomy (you are free to choose), relatedness (you are connected to others), and competency (you are building mastery).

  • Identify what matters most to you about parenting.
  • If you were acting in line with the type of parent you want to be, what would that look like?
  • Get curious about what motivates your kids. Be on the lookout for when they light up.
  • Stop praising your kids for external achievements and focus on their intrinsic interests.
  • Express unconditional love to your kids (I love you whether you do your best or not!).
  • Express unconditional love to yourself (I love you whether you do your best or not!).

For more science-backed parenting strategies, check out these podcast interviews:

  1. Psychologists Off the Clock Podcast: What Do You Say with William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
  2. Psychologists Off the Clock Podcast: Choosing Both With Yael Schonbron
  3. Psychologists Off the Clock Podcast: Motivational Interviewing with Stephen Rollnick
  4. Your Parenting Mojo Podcast: Psychological Flexibility through ACT with Dr. Diana Hill
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