“I need a break”

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

When you have a child whose behaviour concerns you it feels like you never get a break from watching and worrying about what they are doing.  The constant wondering whether you should step in can be utterly exhausting.

So how can you get a break from the constancy of feeling responsible for how your child is developing?

One way to decrease the responsibility is to ask yourself whether your child actually needs you to take responsibility for them.  If you save your child by thinking / choosing for them, you weaken them. So if your child is drowning, of course you will save them.  But if they are swimming, it is generally better to calmly support them by validating their situation, offering them your help, and repeating the offer as required…and then stepping in if they make a hash of it, only to try again next time.

The other way is to let the other parent take responsibility, rather than just getting them to help out.  The difference in emotional energy used between taking responsibility and helping out is enormous.  A responsible person notices and thinks about what is required.  A helper only gets involved when asked.  The question is how to do this.  

If you have a partner who lives with you and who takes responsibility for raising your child, the answer is may be quite obvious.

  1. Only have one parent enforcing values / rules / consequences at anyone time. You don’t need to gang up on your child, and two on one is overwhelming.  Let the other parent have a total break from responsibility while you are handling it, and vice versa.  You can always call on the other person if help is needed.  And you can always offer to help out if you notice the other parent is struggling.
  2. Have clear times when you are the first parent on-call, and therefore have times when you are clearly not.  There are many ways of doing this:
    1. Have certain aspects of parenting that are one parent’s responsibility; chores, homework, hygiene, exercise, meals, diet, bedroom, public spaces, etc.  
    1. Have certain times where you are on or off; waking, mornings, afternoons, school issues, social events, evenings, bedtime, school nights, weekends, holidays
  3. It is important to carve out time for yourself where you are not parent or partner, but just you.  Interestingly, the research on time away and holidays on mental health is that the holiday itself has little impact…rather it is the anticipation of the holiday that helps.  So it is vital to always have some thing in the future to look forward to.  Your partner and your child need you to go away to help them to see you as a person, and not just a tool of theirs to be taken for granted.
  4. It is important you and your partner have a regular time away from your child for many reasons; it is nice for you, good for the relationship, and most importantly it helps your child come face to face with the fact that they miss out.  

If you have separated, this sharing of responsibility if more complicated, and I won’t go into detail in this post with how to manage such a situation.  It suffices to say that if you and your ex can get a united enough approach to parenting your child, you should all be able to find a way to share the responsibility.  And if you cannot get that unity, life will be harder.    

There is a deeper question in all of this…can you give up the responsibility?  Some parents find this harder than others.  If you have been the one taking responsibility for your child for a long time, tend to step in first when decisions are required, and have more knowledge of the child’s situation, the other parent will naturally step back and let you do it.  As they begin to take on more responsibility they will likely not be as competent as you.   You will need to allow them to make the same mistakes you made when you started, and that can be hard to do.  It is likely in the back of their mind they expect you to tell them what to do or to take over, so they won’t truly take responsibility until they realise you won’t take over unless you are asked.  

So it is best to start with small areas of responsibility, with clear boundaries of what is required.  And if they struggle, for you to wait for them to ask you for help.  Every time you save your partner from their responsibility you weaken them…so when it comes to responsibility you support your partner best by offering to help them out with their problem, and not making it your problem.

As a footnote, if you haven’t watched Neil Daniher’s talk about responsibility, I can recommend it and have put a link to it here.