Respectful Parenting – Part Two

In Part One of Respectful Parenting, I suggested that you can develop more confident and communicative kids by treating them with more respect. Perhaps some parents out there have begun trying this, or have thought in retrospect how this type of parenting might have impacted them as a child, had it been the type of parenting they received.

In Part Two, I propose that your self-talk could sound like a respectful parent to a respected child.

Our Self-Talk
When I discuss “self talk” with clients, many conjure up an old image of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley on SNL from over a decade ago. Shoot, it might even be two decades by now. Stuart sat in front of a mirror and repeated positive affirmations to himself: “You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And doggone it, people like you!” Corny, I know.

I’m not suggesting this.

If we are honest with ourselves, and paying attention, we will see that we converse with ourselves all day long. If we don’t get as much done in a day as we’d hoped, we might say, “I’m so disorganized.” Or, “Everyone demands things of me and it’s too much. It isn’t fair.” If we have an unkind thought about someone, we might think, “I’m such a bad person.” If we make a mistake at work, “I’m no good at this. I’ll never be as good at this as so-and-so.” Our self-talk can be hard on us, or on other people. We might say, “I can’t stand so-and-so.” Or, “Things would be so much better for me if it wasn’t for so-and-so.”

These conversations happen in milliseconds. It first occurs as a thought, sometimes subconscious one at that, which then causes a feeling, and leads to our behavior, usually before we even realize the dialogue that occurred in our minds. If we blame someone, then we feel resentful, and then we might behave irritably or passive-aggressively. If we get down on ourselves, then we feel sad or discouraged, and our behavior might show withdrawal.

Bringing in Respectful Parenting
If you can hear your self-talk, consider how it might sound and feel if you said to a child some of the things you say to yourself. Ouch! It helps this exercise if you have children, or are close with any children. Literally visualize yourself saying to your 8 year old niece, “You’ll never be good at that.” Or to your 6 year old son, “You’re a bad person.”

I do get some push-back on this. People will say, “But I’m not a child.” Or “But he/she is not a child,” if we are talking about how to speak to our spouses. I ask you this: Is it important that we are harder on ourselves than we are on children? Is it? If so, I’d like to see that evidence. And perhaps I’ll change my perspective on this. But until then, I propose not. I propose that we can get better results out of ourselves and others when we come from a place of warmth, kindness, and respect.  For some reason, speaking to young people brings that out more naturally in us. We tend not to afford adults the same effort, including our adult selves.

Recently, while running on a beautiful trail with a friend, who happens to be a personal trainer, we were discussing how we push ourselves as runners. We were discussing the merits of abusing ourselves verbally as a method of encouragement versus being nurturing. She shared with me that research in athletic performance suggests a calming, yet firm hand with ourselves to improve our performance, such as, “Come on, Jennifer. You can do this. You’re strong. I bet you could go a little faster.” And if I do go a little faster for a bit, but then have to slow back down, this, “There – good work! Maybe after a little rest at a slower pace, we can try that again.” Tell me that isn’t exactly how we might encourage a young one in their sport! Now try this one: “Seriously, Jennifer? You can’t do any better than that? How do you expect to get any better at this? You probably shouldn’t have had that snack last night…” How would THAT sound to the young one?

Take it off of athletic performance and put it on work performance. You didn’t hit the numbers this month. “Okay, what went wrong this month? Any idea what stood in your way. Do you really want to make those numbers? Yeah well, how bad? What will get better if you do hit the goal? Okay, so let’s make a plan.” As opposed to…”I’m no good at this. I guess I’m just going to be mediocre.” Imagine telling your kid that they’ll never get what they want at work. What good will that do? If that’s what you’re saying, you’d better be right. Chances are, though, you’d try to help your kid take responsibility for their outcomes and overcome obstacles to their success.

Be honest: Does nastiness work with you? It might. If it works, then you don’t need me to tell you any different. If it’s not working, or my approach resonates with you, then it’s worth giving a try. Truly, some people have so much trouble seeing their own flaws and need a frying-pan-to-the-head-approach. I don’t have a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

Hearing Ourselves
You can’t correct self-talk that you can’t hear. And it does happen very quickly; so quickly, in fact, that people don’t believe they are having self-talk. It’s there. You have to get better at hearing it.

When you first feel “off” about something: sad, angry, disappointed….stop and breathe. If you don’t already breathe deeply from your diaphragm, it is a skill I strongly encourage you to acquire. Google “Diaphragmatic Breathing,” and there is a plethora of resources. Ask yourself what you are thinking about this situation and what your beliefs are about it. If you like self-help books, read Albert Ellis’ How to Control Your Anger Before it Controls You or How to Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You, and he will ask you to consider what your initial “irrational” beliefs are. David Burns in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy doesn’t call us “irrational,” but refers to our automatic thoughts and then finds “distortions” in our thinking. Both are well-respected authorities on the subject of self-talk.

Changing the Conversation
1.)    Stop and Breathe – take a minute.
2.)    Picture columns in your head, or even get out a sheet of paper for it, if you like
3.)    Write the thing that is bothering you.
4.)    Write your first thoughts about it. Would you say this to a young person with a similar problem?
5.)    If not, consider what you would say to the young person.
6.)    Try saying this to yourself.
7.)    Ask yourself how that feels.

Respectfully Parenting Other People
It is (mostly) facetiously said in conferences on working with couples that spouses pick up where parents left off. This means that the lessons we learned in the families we came from carry over into our expectations and behavior in our marriages and the families we create.

It is largely true. We are a product of our DNA and all that has happened to us, positive or negative. If we were coddled, we’d probably expect that. If we were criticized a lot, we probably expect that. And we might have become good at defending ourselves against it.

All the more reason to translate our calm but firm (see the athletic performance analogy) strategy we are learning to use with us to communicate with our spouses as well. Go back and read Respectful Parenting – Part One, but substitute spouse or partner for all the references to a kid. Shaming a partner or strongly valuing being right are forms of disrespect for the other person and for the bond between you.

Back to the push-back…A lot of people resist this because being so affectionate and warm in their speech with their partners don’t come NEARLY as naturally as it might with their child. This is worth further exploration in therapy, since the partner-relationship is raising defenses that prevent relating in such an open way.

Moving Forward with Respect
When you speak to yourself or others respectfully, you acknowledge the intention or perspective of the person to whom you are speaking. You validate it. Then you disagree and suggest another way that understands that it isn’t about someone being right or in charge as much as it is about growing and learning on our journeys we call our life.