Ōtautahi-based psychiatrist Dr Jo Prendergast has read all the parenting books you have – which is why she’s written her own book – When Life Sucks: Parenting your teen through tough times – with info you can really use, that’s realistic, comforting and full of great takeaways As a psychiatrist Jo’s helped people of all ages navigate some of life’s biggest curveballs. As a parent she’s walked this path. And as a comedian she knows how to deliver a message with a dose of relatable humour. Here, she talks about why being just ‘OK’ as a parent, is enough.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of parenting books out there. Some of them claim they’re all you need to become a superstar parent, living in bliss with your well-rounded teen. It’s all but guaranteed that, once you’ve read the book, your teen will bring you breakfast in bed before they do their meditation, tidy the house, tell you how much they love you and head to school on time. This book makes none of those claims. Parenting is messy.
Words like ‘bliss’ have no place in most homes with teens. Any moments of bliss are usually the calm before the storm – before they ask for money or tell you they crashed the car. Other words to ban are ‘perfect’, ‘should’ and ‘happy’. I will be replacing these with ‘good enough’, ‘could’ and ‘fine’.
I talk about ‘The OK Parent’ because many of us ask ourselves, ‘Am I doing OK as a parent?’ and ‘Am I OK in myself?’. You might think that your own well-being isn’t as important, but it’s probably the most important aspect of parenting. We’re instructed to put on our own oxygen mask first on an aeroplane for a reason. It’s hard to help our teen if we are out of ‘oxygen’. So, make sure you are OK, first.
The good news when it comes to doing OK as a parent is that you really only need to be OK. At university some say ‘Cs get degrees’: it’s the same with parenting. Trying to be the perfect parent often leads to feeling stressed, anxious and guilty, and that doesn’t help anyone. A teen with average, OK-enough parents has seen you on a bad day and survived. They know that grumpy adults can still be decent people and have realistic expectations of imperfect adults who still care about them. They will cope with long division struggles in grumpy maths teacher Mrs Davidson’s class. They know Dad couldn’t do long division either. It makes Dad #relatable.
You might read some of this and think, ‘That’s not how we parent in our family.’ We tend to either have the same values as our own parents or attempt to do the polar opposite with our teens – and sometimes we swing between the two. You may try to be one kind of parent but, under stress, notice that you sound just like your parents! Parenting is affected by our cultural, religious and world views, and some parenting ideas change with each generation. My own parents’ childhoods were based on harsh discipline and were about limits (coercive parenting) and ‘children should be seen and not heard’. There was a swing towards ‘love and no limits’ (permissive parenting) and now there’s a pendulum swing back to ‘love and limits’ (authoritarian parenting). This book’s parenting suggestions are based on what research tells us about the benefits of love and limits for teen mental well-being.
The Four Foundations of Parenting
I’ve had pets all my life, and find that in many ways dogs are similar to teens. And not just because we weren’t told how expensive they are to keep! Or that we can end up tangled in the leash while they run in circles around us! Just like dogs, some teens need the leash held tightly to steer them on a safe path, while others have big reactions to a tight leash and do better with gentle guidance. Both dogs and teens want to know that we are physically and emotionally safe to be around and that they can trust us to be their leader. Our caring and consistent relationship with them has the biggest effect on their behaviour and well-being. They also require skills for different situations, so they know what to do. They need us to do things to manage their unhelpful behaviour, and to stay fairly calm when they are freaking out. I call these ideas the Four Foundations of Parenting: relationship, skills, managing unhelpful behaviour and being OK enough in ourselves. I hope that you can keep these foundations in your mind, even when it’s all turning to custard. Most importantly, when it is all turning to custard, breathe, slow down, and step away for a bit if you can.
The Four Foundations of Parenting
I explore these Four Foundations in detail in my book, but in summary, when your teen is struggling, ask yourself:
1. How can I strengthen my relationship with my teen?
2. What skills does my teen need to cope with this challenge?
3. How can I manage my teen’s unhelpful behaviours?
4. How can I be OK enough in myself?
Below are some of the important ideas that helped get me through parenting teens.
• I only need to be good enough.
• My teen will learn through the rupture and repair of our relationship.
• I need to forgive myself when things go wrong – I can repair things.
• I know that parenting is messy and the reality is different from the ideal.
• Accept what I can’t change and focus on what I can change.
• I can change how I personally respond to things.
• It’s easier to work on myself than to change other people.
• Don’t take it personally when a distressed teen says mean things.
• My teen’s brain is still rewiring. I can’t expect them to be an adult.
• A problem shared is a problem halved. Reach out to my support networks.
• Notice and be grateful for any positives, no matter how small
» Make your parent foundations as strong as possible to help your teen weather life’s storms.
» Teen walls need strong yet flexible parent foundations.
» Rebalance your demands and resources.
» Notice any ‘ghosts’ from your childhood that come out when you are stressed.
» If you can’t self-care for yourself, do it for your teen.
Edited extract from When Life Sucks: Parenting your teen through tough times, Dr Jo Prendergast $37.99 RRP (HarperCollins Publishers New Zealand)