Do you suppress your own needs to avoid challenging interactions with your children? Dr. Nanika Coor explains how to give your needs some air time in your relationship with your child.
Do you find it easy to provide warmth and support to your child, but have a hard time setting limits and holding boundaries? Do you feel like you have to do something your child is insisting upon, like you don't have any choice but to meet their demand? If you’re a parent who feels like you must constantly meet your kids’ needs at the expense of your own, then listen up.
As a parent, you may find it difficult to speak up when your children are behaving in ways that don't work for you. Do you tend to stop yourself from saying what is true to you out of fear that the other person will be hurt, or that they'll be dismissive or angry? You might feel that way because that actually happened when you were vulnerable with others. It could be that the adults you depended on as a child couldn't accept what you said as true for you. Perhaps they couldn't hear your feelings or concerns as mattering as much as their own. You might have concluded that your feelings must not actually matter. The good news is that with conscious effort, it's possible to start giving your needs some air time in your relationship with your own child.
When you understand parenting from a zero-sum perspective, it’s hard to believe that it’s unnecessary to coerce or bribe a child into obedience or compliance or that you don’t need to abandon your own needs just to keep the peace.
Before learning about respectful parenting, you might think there are only two ways to resolve conflicts with children: the adult "wins", or the child "wins," which means that someone always "loses." You might worry that if you don’t win, your child won’t behave appropriately in the future, will have all the power, or, ultimately, won't respect you. If you tend to be a "loser," you might be anxious that your child will have a meltdown if you don't give in to their demands.
When parents either make unilateral decisions or have difficulty identifying and/or asserting their own needs with their children, not only do someone’s needs go unmet, but children also miss out on practicing valuable relational skills. When you understand parenting from a zero-sum perspective, it’s hard to imagine that there's a win-win. But in fact, it’s unnecessary to coerce or bribe your child into obedience or compliance, and you don’t need to abandon your own needs just to keep the peace.
4 questions from parents learning to assert their needs
Here's how I have commonly responded to parents who have struggled to assert their personal boundaries with their children:
It’s not really that hard to suppress some small need of mine to make my child happy if I don’t mind, right?
That might be true, and parents do this all the time because small children cannot meet their needs on their own. We absolutely must prioritize their needs some of the time. But when this is a regular pattern, your child experiences an uncomfortable amount of power in your relationship. A small child with more power than they are equipped to handle ultimately feels unsafe and anxious and will thus use more rigid control to try to manage a situation that feels out of control. If you, their parent, are not steering the proverbial ship, your child will try to steer, only to realize that they can't operate heavy machinery on their own. How scary is that?
But if I don’t give them what they’re demanding, they’ll be unhappy, and then I’ll feel like a failure as a parent.
It’s important to remember that it’s not your job as a parent to make sure your child is never unhappy. Not only is that an impossible task, but it also doesn’t make sense to be happy all of the time. Happiness is not an appropriate response to every situation. It’s true—holding a limit or a boundary means that your child may not like it. They may express a lot of anger or disappointment. It’s healthy to offload big emotions rather than holding them in. You can free yourself of guilt around that. When you’re able to calmly accept their big feelings for as long as they need to express them, they learn that their feelings are important to you and that those emotions are also temporary and survivable. If you’re unable to tolerate their anger and disappointment, they won’t be able to tolerate those emotions in themselves either. A big part of mental wellness and healthy relating is being able to experience the full range of emotions.
It’s not your job as a parent to make sure your child is never unhappy.
But I don’t even know what my unmet needs are!
That’s a common refrain from parents. A lifetime of putting your needs to the side for others means identifying those needs is a skill you’ll need to consciously work on. When uncomfortable feelings like irritation or anger arise in you, it's a signal to ask yourself, "What do I want to be happening right now instead?" Let’s say the answer is that you want your child to clean up their toys. You can go one step further and ask yourself “What would that do for me?” Perhaps the answer is that it would give you some time to relax after their bedtime. What is your need in this moment? Downtime and relaxation, and maybe support, so that you’re not doing everything yourself. Communicate those needs to your child! Let your child know what your limits are, what you will and won’t tolerate or sacrifice. You, too, are a person with feelings, needs, and a right to enjoy your life. Your kids need to not only hear what your needs are, but also that you’re serious about making sure they don’t get sidelined simply because your child has needs as well. Disregarding your boundaries means that your child comes to assume that their needs are the only ones that exist or matter. They won't learn that others are complex beings with their own needs. They get an unrealistic idea that others should be endlessly accommodating to them, and they don’t get to practice the skills of conflict negotiation and resolution.
My tendency to give in to my child is so entrenched. Can a person really change their way of parenting?
Absolutely—it starts with being aware that there’s a behavior you want to change, having the desire to change it, and then very actively working on really changing yourself. You can't just wish the situation were different. When you tune into the present moment and notice your body sensations, emotions, and thoughts in the moment, you can use that information to choose an intentional response rather than reacting automatically in ways that don’t serve you.
Sometimes, we learn through our earliest relationships that our own needs are meant to be disregarded in the service of others’ needs. Suppressing your own needs to avoid challenging interactions with your children may feel like the easier thing, but it can actually increase anxiety-fueled controlling behaviors in your child, and create more of the conflict you had hoped to avoid. It isn’t your job to shield your child from unhappiness, and they miss out on important practice in navigating relationships when you do. Believe in your own capabilities—and theirs!—in surviving their strong emotions. If you’re ready to put in the effort of changing your behaviors, you can learn to identify and express your needs authentically with your children instead of pretending to be okay with behaviors you dislike. Sometimes self-care means holding your personal boundaries, even if others don’t like it.
Have a question about how to assert your needs in your relationship with your child, or any other parenting questions or stories? Leave me a message at (646) 926-3243 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.