One of the themes that has emerged in my series of interviews with child mental health experts is the importance of allowing a child to “feel felt” when problems or conflicts arise. Pediatrician Claudia Gold calls it “listening for meaning” and parenting coach Abigail Wald calls it “connected listening.”
In my interview last week with esteemed family therapist and psychiatrist Peter Breggin MD, he told me “a child who is disturbed and hurt needs love and structure.”
This got me to thinking. Love, I got plenty of. But structure has always been much more challenging for me. It’s been one of the hardest parts of parenting for me. I have an artist’s heart. I love to stay up writing till 2:00 in the morning if I want. I love to go to bed at one time one night, and another the next. And I prefer surprising myself (and everyone else!) as to “what’s for dinner.”
I used to think that as long as you had plenty of love, mutual respect with your child would occur organically, and healthy discipline would also spring naturally from that loving foundation. However, after years of normal daily challenges with my children, and speaking with many thoughtful psychologists and child development experts over the last year, I’ve come to believe that providing old-fashioned structure – that your kids know they can depend on – provides a feeling of safety for them, and when your children feel safe, they are more apt to be able to speak and listen to you in a way that feels “connected.”
I’ve definitely noticed my own kids love to know what they can expect, and when to expect it. I think because children are not really in control of much, being able to depend on certain things at certain times gives them more of a sense of control of at least knowing what’s coming.
Psychotherapist Keath Low has compared creating structure for children as akin to the scaffolding that you set up when a building is under construction. The rules, routines, reminders and limits you set for your kids provide a kind of scaffolding – or support – for the growth of your child, who after all is “being built” by his or her environment and experiences.
If you’re like me, and structure does not come naturally, take a look at this list from The American Academy of Pediatrics with some nice ideas on when and where routines are the most important.
And lest you think routines are only important for children, the ancient Indian medical system known as Ayurveda recommends consistent routines for everybody. Just as with kids, our bodies like to know what to expect and what to expect it. The rest and repair functions of our bodies are carried out most effectively in a body that is dependably cared for according to daily routines.
“Five year olds need direction,” Dr. Breggin said to me in our conversation. And as I’ve worked on this in my own family, I’ve found it often gives me a helpful sense of direction as well.
That said, I’ve never liked parenting from some formal rule book, it feels too suffocating.
Here are a few examples of ways I’ve found to provide direction to my little ones while still being in harmony with my own “free spirit” heart.
- I keep a few different kinds of meals stocked in the freezer that can be heated up without a lot of advance planning.
- I set timers and reminders on my phone to make sure I keep myself – and my kids – moving in the direction we all need to be going, especially when transitioning from one activity to the next.
- I allow myself to really “feel” when my kids are overtired or hungry – aka crazy, cranky lunatics. It helps motivate me to stay more on schedule next time.
- I try to notice what my child is drawn to in any given routine, and then lean on that to help cue them that “we’re doing that routine now.” For my four-year old, this means playing “Hello” by Adele at bedtime. Not everyone would consider this sad reflection on a failed love affair a lullaby, but it knocks my little angel right out!
The point is, structure can be personalized to your family and it can be quirky and unique. The key is consistency and making sure your child knows they can depend on you to provide it.
If you’re interested in hearing more from Dr. Breggin’s talk encouraging parents to create a strong, loving, structured environment for their children, you can listen to the whole interview here.