(August 2011, originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL)
Teaching parenting skills today often focuses on insight of the internal world of children. The insight turns into tactics or solutions meant to achieve peace and calm in the home through the means of stable, consistent behavior. The desired results are achieved because the parents are able to combine the newfound insight and tactics with an existing internal objectivity within themselves.
Unfortunately, too often, the existence of internal objectivity is a presupposition that proves to be false. The absence of anxiety is far too often a pipe dream, and not a present reality. The anxiety proves to be a hindrance, a means by which the best intentions and efforts get sidetracked, because it triggers other intentions and other efforts that are often hidden to the parents yet lay lurking beneath the surface, ready to rise in order to preserve the existence of the parent from a perceived threat. When this occurs, a reaction follows, the training goes “out the window”, someone says out loud, “this is why tigers sometimes eat their young,” and the parents are left wondering what happened, feeling more defeated and less hopeful than prior to their “parent training.” The question arises: “What is really going on here?”
What is really going on here is more than the simple thought that the internal world of the child is the only matter to be considered. Attention must also be given to the internal world of the parent, because, ultimately, it is out of the well of personal understanding and context that a parent is able to offer a non-anxious presence and validation to his or her child.
I once knew a family who owned a catfish farm. The farm consisted of five ponds that the owners kept stocked with catfish. It was known as a fish-out operation. People would come, rent fishing poles, fish for the day or for whatever time period they desired, keep whatever they caught and pay per pound for what they did catch (processing of the fish into fillets was an option for an additional charge). The customers would pull out of the pond whatever was in the pond, and eventually, the ponds would empty of fish as the fish were caught (hence, the title, “fish-out”). At regular intervals, the owners would restock the ponds with catfish in order to satisfy the customers who came for “easy fishing.” Yet every now and then, a customer would pull something from the pond that was not a catfish: an occasional turtle would show up on a line, a bass, a trout, and most frequently, a carp. Carp were frequent guests of the ponds, and often would take over a pond if the population were not kept under control. Carp were not tasteful fish, and were often disappointing to catch, though they did serve a purpose: they helped maintain the ponds by eating the grass that often grew below the waterline and could take over a pond if not eliminated regularly. So the carp were necessary to maintain a balanced grass level in the pond, and an overall balanced ecosystem, but the carp had to be monitored regularly.
Much like the system of this catfish farm, parents have components within them that are necessary to maintain the equilibrium of their personal ecosystem. As customers are important to the fish-out business, having children is an important part of a parent’s drive toward personal fulfillment and legacy. Learning parenting skills is akin to stocking and restocking a pond; these skill fuel our creativity for raising and training children, and handling stress and emergencies. And often there are “unwanted guests” that are caught on the line at any given moment, such as anxiety, fear, and worry. Yet these “guests” play a role, a vital role, for the parent, if the parent will do the work of recognizing the place these guests have “in the pond” of their own individual ecosystems.
Anxiety and other emotions play a role within a parent’s system. They serve as a signal system for the survival instincts of a person, informing the person that something within the environment needs investigating to determine what particular need is required. Unfortunately, if this signal system is not understood, a parent can go immediately into a flight or fight response without investigating, and often make a situation worse, leaving the anxiety unchecked and eventually taking over the system, setting the tone for the household. A temper tantrum by a child is a common, almost everyday experience. What can complicate a tantrum is when the tantrum triggers anxiety within the parent that if not properly addressed or investigated, can cause the parent to overreact. So, parent skills-training opportunities that give attention to the presence of anxiety and the emotional signal system within parents can help parents gain some ground in the arena of “what is really going on here.” Seeing temper tantrums in the light of emotional regulation and anxiety management often lends itself to more effective tactics to address the tantrum.
A healthy ecosystem can be achieved; the catfish can grow and leave the pond; the carp can keep the grass under control; and the ponds can be a safe place to live—there just needs to be a little attention given and a lot of understanding gained for all the components to work in harmony to make this ecosystem viable.
Just don’t eat the carp; or the kids.
To talk further about parenting skills and understanding the internal world, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama.