As parents, we frequently function from a place of near exhaustion, especially if you have younger children. When you have the typical stressors of life making demands on you, sometimes you can feel as if you’re in “survival mode” and just trying t make it through the day. When we feel this way, it’s often difficult to give attention to every concern your child has because, compared to your greater world-view of what needs your attention, sometimes a child’s concerns can seem rather petty.
So, how can you help ensure that you are in a good place mentally, physically and emotionally to recognize what is truly important to your child and be able to give them all the energy they need from you? And, then, how do you know which of your child’s concerns warrant your attention?
Let’s face it; no matter how high your standards are for yourself as a parent, each of us only has a limited amount of energy, time and attention. So, we have to be very intentional and judicious in what we “invest” that energy in – whether it is work, our family, or social activities, we want to make sure that the return we get for our investment justifies what it demands of us.
So, the first step in making yourself available to your child is to examine what elements of your life may be draining more of your energy than is warranted. You may find that you need to re-sort your priorities and reduce your commitments to ensure that you can devote yourself to your family’s needs, not only by your physical presence, but also by being emotionally present and in a good frame of mind (i.e., mood) to create and maintain safe, secure and stable relationships in your home. Taking a “fearless inventory” of your day-to-day life may mean letting go of pleasing certain people, delaying some of your personal goals, or eliminating damaging habits in your life so that you can be the parent your child needs.
However, re-setting your priorities is not all about eliminating things from your life and giving more time to your child, but it will likely mean adding positive features into your life that focus on self-care. This could include spending more time exercising, sleeping, time with supportive friends, time for de-stressing or more time for sleep. Spending time away from your family to focus on re-energizing yourself does not mean you are neglecting your job as a spouse or a parent. Rather, it means you are investing in yourself in a way that ensures that you are able to be a more relaxed, happier and focused spouse and parent when you are together. Finding the right balance means reducing activities that are a drain on your energy and adding in those that promote good mental, emotional and physical health.
So, then, how do you determine when you should consider a matter important to your child, even if it does not seem all that important in the greater scheme of things? As a parent who has spent a lot of time with your child, you probably have a good instinct for when your child is having a significant emotional reaction to something – this can be something exciting or something that makes them feel sad or afraid. Though not every concern your child has warrants you dropping everything and giving them your undivided attention, there are many that do, indeed, justify that kind of response.
One key ability that an involved parent has is an instinct based on knowing your child. When you sense that the way they are responding to a situation is markedly out of the ordinary for them, that is your best indicator that you need to stop and give them your full attention. Sometimes, they just need you to listen, to share their excitement, to hear their story, or to make them feel safe. Whatever their need is, your knowledge of your child has likely equipped you with an awareness of when something is really important – even when your child may not realize it. As you notice their verbal and non-verbal communication, you can pick up on indictors that you need to take it seriously. You just need to listen to that small voice inside you without missing it.
Of course, there are going to be many times when your child has fleeting concerns, jealousies, and frustrations that do not rise to the level of dropping everything to respond. One of the most difficult jobs you have as a parent is to evaluate every situation based on what your child needs at a given moment, while finding that balance between being a helicopter parent and being unavailable. (It’s okay to allow your child to solve some problems on their own.) If you resist the temptation to dismiss your child’s concerns because there are just so many, but try to recognize those times when they truly need you, you will be everything your child needs you to be.
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker & Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.