One challenge in raising other people’s children is handling the sheer volume of difficult behavior and advice about how to deal with it. One of the best things we can do for ourselves and our children is to start limiting the number of issues that we try to control and worry about. These are some of the principles and techniques that I discovered helped lower the stress level for me and my children.
Develop Realistic Expectations
Somewhere over the past few decades, parents have come to believe that we have to keep our children happy, cheerful, and safe in all ways at all times. Anything less is a parenting failure, and one that we must immediately rush to remedy. The fact is that we are not perfect, and never will be. Just like our children, we will struggle to respond calmly and appropriately to every situation. We need to give ourselves the same grace we give our children to be less than perfect and to learn from our many mistakes.
Give Up Control
It is very tempting to try to fix everything for our children, especially when they are suffering from past trauma. It’s also easy to let our attempts to provide structure turn into taking too much control over our children’s behavior. That result is exhausting for us and terrible for our children. They need room to experiment, make their own decisions, and learn from their failures. Of course, we have to retain enough control to keep them safe — we don’t let preteens drive cars, after all. But we do need to give children as much room as we safely can allow them to decide about clothes, friends, and extracurricular activities.
Don’t Burden Them With Our Dreams for Them
When setting expectations for our children, we need to be sure that we are focusing on what they need, not what will make us happy. For example, one perennial area of conflict is school grades. Children often struggle with school, especially children with trauma. We need to give them the freedom to live up to their own expectations about grades, not ours. Certainly, we need to help them pass their classes and not drop out. But anything else may be a battle that we don’t need to fight.
One theme I hear, and used to say, is that I only want my kids to live up to their potential. I stopped believing that after I once said it to one of my children, who said, “Why?” That simple question stopped me as I thought it through. Of course it would be wonderful if my children live up to their potential, but do any of us actually do that? Of course we don’t, and we want to be loved and accepted anyway. In fact, living up to what someone else thinks is our potential can be a heavy burden. In that conversation, I learned that what I really ought to hope for is that my children live up to their own goals and dreams, not mine.
We also have to accept that our children have differing abilities and interests. Not every child needs to go to college. Recent statistics are starting to show that for some kids, college just increases their debt burden and doesn’t get them into particularly high-paying jobs. Each of them needs to find their own place in the workforce, and they may or may not need a college diploma.
Pick Your Battles
Finally, learn what battles you need to fight on a given day. I learned early on, for example, that the days that my children had therapy sessions were not good days to insist on homework. They had spent time dealing with difficult memories, and usually just needed a break. Homework could wait until another day.
Some issues you may never find time to address. For example, some of my children had started smoking before they came into my home, but I never saw that issue as one that I needed to address. Of course they would be healthier without the habit, but they already knew everything I could tell them. I simply required that they confine their smoking to particular spaced outside the house. Helping them deal with other manifestations of their trauma was more urgent.
Parenting children with trauma can seem overwhelming. A good place to start handling everything is to whittle down the list of things for which we accept responsibility. We cannot fix every situation, and it’s counterproductive to try. We should concentrate instead on providing a safe, loving environment, setting up structure without too much control, and letting our kids know that we love and accept them no matter what bad decisions they make.