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Jinnae Anderson: Parenting without the blame game

When I got pregnant I promised myself that, unlike my parents, I would never tell this child that he drove me crazy. I wanted to be responsible for my own feelings instead of blaming my child for them. But we’re all perfect parents … until we actually have children! Once my baby showed up and slept only during the day, grew into a demanding toddler and then a challenging child, those words kept barreling out of my mouth of their own volition.

It’s one thing to express these sentiments with other parents, out of earshot of the children. Sharing the parenting roller coaster ride with other adults is one of the things that keeps us sane. It’s when we blame or criticize our kids within their hearing range, or even accusingly and directly to our children, that we enter the danger zone.

In fact, the approach I teach, Nurturing Parenting, considers blaming and criticizing our kids for the way we feel to be one of the cardinal sins of parenting. When we pay attention and notice we are saying words like, “You make me (crazy? angry? Fill in the blank), it is a red flag that we have lost our parenting skills and our emotional maturity.

It’s also important to become aware of the tone we use with our kids, as it’s often not what is said so much as how it’s said that turns communication into blame or criticism. A cutting tone of voice, words laced with sarcasm, or even a dark facial expression can turn your messages into a slap in the face — or a stab in the heart. Sadly, constant verbal assaults like these can tear down the self-worth of our children and make them either shut down, decide they are eternally useless, or get angry and stay angry over the long term. In other words, no one wins. What is a parent to do?

First off, it helps to gain some understanding. When we blame or criticize our kids for the way we feel, we are delivering the unspoken message that they have more power over us than we have over ourselves. After all, they can make our faces go red! They can make us explode in anger or cry bitterly! That’s pretty heady stuff for a kid.

The other message we are transmitting is that we are incompetent at handling our feelings. By blaming our kids we are saying, “I’m not responsible for this anger/frustration/exhaustion — you are!” At that point our kids are probably thinking that, if they could make us feel anything, they’d make us feel like shutting up!

In all seriousness, though, even if it seems that your kiddos enjoy watching you lose your adulting skills, deep down they don’t. Children need to be in the role of children and have us remain firmly in the role of parents. It’s a place of safety and security for them. When we criticize and blame them on a regular basis, we are not acting like competent adults. It is frightening for children to live with parents who are often unpredictable and hurtful in their emotional reactions. Blame and criticism are destructive in so many ways.

Nurturing Parenting offers a formula for communication that helps us to take responsibility for our feelings and enjoy the healthy discussion that may follow. It is a four-step formula that goes like this:

I feel (state feeling) when (describe the exact behavior) because (reason for your feeling). What I want and expect is (describe the exact behavior).

“I feel disappointed when your brother is hit because, in this family, we love and support each other. What I want and expect is for you to find a healthier way to express your anger.”

“I get frustrated when your chores aren’t done because, in this family, everyone pulls together. What I want and expect is that you put the dishes away before you go to bed every night.”

Of course, if something happens that triggers you, it’s ridiculous to attempt to immediately deliver that calm four-step formula. Take a breath, pause, and consider giving it a try. If that doesn’t work, model the importance of getting centered before engaging in discussion: “I am too upset to talk about this right now. I parent better when I’m calm. We’ll talk later.” Then wait. Reflect. Talk it over with your partner or with friends, and then plan your four-step formula. It’s always best to parent when both you and your child are calm and receptive.

After delivering the four-step formula, offer your child a chance to respond. They may give you information that you didn’t have, or maybe you’ll be able to brainstorm together about better ways to address the situation in the future. Listen empathetically to show that you respect their viewpoints and that you trust they can do better. If your child doesn’t want to discuss it, that’s okay too. You communicated your feelings and expectations clearly and calmly, and you can feel good about that.

Our children need us to hold them accountable, and it’s important that we do so. Choose your battles and let the four-step formula help you to express yourself evenly and respectfully. When we take responsibility for our part in the situation (our feelings and expectations), it empowers our children to take responsibility for their part in the situation. From there, our children can move forward with confidence — confidence both in themselves and in us, as emotionally competent parents.

Jinnae Anderson is the Parenting Specialist for the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. She teaches an 8-week Nurturing Parenting series, tentatively in-person starting this fall. For more information, contact Jinnae at janderson@nevco.org or 530-238-5608


WHAT: Nurturing Parenting 8-Week Series with Jinnae Anderson, Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools

WHERE: Morning session: PARTNERS Family Resource Center, 235 S. Auburn St, Grass Valley. Evening session: TBD. Probably downtown Grass Valley.

WHEN: Morning session Thursdays, 10 to 11:45 a.m., Sept. 1 through Oct. 27 (no class Oct. 20)

Evening session 5:30 to 7:15 p.m. starting early September. Stay tuned for details. Pizza, childcare and activities provided for evening series.

COST: $35 materials fee (scholarships available)

MORE INFO: To register or for more info email janderson@nevco.org or call 530-238-5608

Nurturing Parenting offers a formula for communication that helps us to take responsibility for our feelings and enjoy the healthy discussion that may follow.
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