How conscious parenting can provide a healing hand for the whole family
Conscious parenting is a radically different approach to raising children that can be healing for the whole family.
It’s hard to believe that less than two years ago I was so consumed with parenting issues that I could hardly function. One of our children was displaying significant behaviour problems at school and my husband and I were constantly arguing over our differing parenting styles. We existed in survival mode, entrenched in a life that felt increasingly chaotic. The task of creating health and harmony in our family seemed insurmountable, yet I had a deep sense that there was a better way and I was willing to do the work to get there. While I resolved not to bring my kids up “the old way”, full of criticism, control and judgement, I also knew that I didn’t want to raise them to be entitled. I held a vision of a middle road, an approach that would allow my husband and me to unite and parent our kids in a way that felt intuitively right.
We finally hit rock bottom when it became clear that we had two choices: “fix” our kid’s behaviour by following mainstream advice or experiment with changing our own behaviour. I felt drawn to what Oprah-endorsed psychologist Dr Shefali Tsabary names “conscious parenting”, which advocates approaching parenting with awareness of your own triggers, reactions and behaviours. Together, my husband and I chose to stop focusing on fixing our kids and dived into the work of healing ourselves and developing a new approach to parenting that felt right. In the space of two years we have taken our family from dysfunctional to (relatively) harmonious, learning skills along the way that have not only enhanced our experience of parenting but transformed our marriage and our individual lives.
Conscious parenting asks you to dive deeper into the role you play in your child’s difficulties, which inevitably leads to an examination of your own unconscious beliefs.
Without clear or wise role models, it can be hard to cut through the judgement and find a consistent approach to child-rearing that invites harmony, warmth and connection into the home. As we found, the well-worn road points to “fixing” the child — an approach that no longer fits for many parents. Conscious parenting is an alternative that not only feels better, but produces results because it encourages parents to look at how their own unconscious behaviour is affecting their children while simultaneously becoming curious about the messages encoded in a child’s behaviour. It is a path that is deeply individual and intuitive, yet involves principles that promote growth and expansion in both the child and the parent. If you find yourself dealing with relationship challenges, here’s how you can begin to deepen your level of consciousness and produce sustainable change for your family.
Be willing to take responsibility for your behaviour
We live in a society that promotes quick fixes and a plethora of advice about how to “handle” difficult behaviour in children. Conscious parenting asks you to dive deeper into the role you play in your child’s difficulties, which inevitably leads to an examination of your own unconscious beliefs. Pretty soon, your focus shifts entirely from fixing your child to healing yourself. According to Melbourne-based coach and Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) facilitator Karina Meacham, shifting the aim of parenting from controlling your child to managing yourself is one of the biggest challenges that parents face, simply because it flies in the face of the dominant paradigm.
“The reason why a lot of people don’t choose to follow this path is that they feel like they’re going to be called out, and parents are accustomed to being the ones who know best,” she says. “It’s difficult for parents to admit that they have unconsciously contributed to some of their child’s behaviours, fears or lack of skills.
“Any parent who gets to the stage of being willing to invest in themselves and take responsibility for the role they play in the parent–child relationship will find that shifting the lens from blame to responsibility creates immediate change. Parenting from a place of awareness doesn’t have to be dark and heavy, it can simply be about making the decision to acknowledge the issues and face them head-on. Inevitably, parents end up feeling proud of themselves and the conscious choices they are making, which could be as simple as apologising to a child and watching that child’s face light up. It’s a very rewarding approach.”
Develop effective communication skills
As I became more conscious of the way my own moods and reactions contributed to my children’s behaviour, I began to attract examples of different ways of being into my life. One day, I was at the pool and witnessed a toddler having a minor meltdown. I watched his mother walk over to the child and calmly look into his eyes. She patiently listened to his complaints before clearly and warmly instructing him on what she needed him to do next. As she spoke, the toddler’s body visibly softened and, eventually, he happily bustled off. Through this beautiful mother’s example, I realised that I could respond more effectively to challenges with my children, but I needed some practical communication tools to help me get started.
While most people grow up learning to read and write, few have been taught the basic principles of effective communication — an astounding deficit given that the majority of humans value relationships above all else. Learning to communicate effectively aligns deeply with the conscious parenting path by teaching concrete skills that empower you to display empathy, lean into vulnerability and communicate unconditional love to your children, increasing connection and eliminating many negative behaviours.
Learning to communicate effectively aligns deeply with the conscious parenting path by teaching concrete skills that empower you to display empathy, lean into vulnerability and communicate unconditional love to your children.
There are numerous programs on offer both in person and online that teach parents communication strategies. My husband and I chose to participate in Parent Effectiveness Training, a program designed by Nobel-nominee Dr Thomas Gordon way back in the 1960s. Gordon, a man clearly ahead of his time, discovered through his work as a psychologist the damaging effects of control-based parenting and devised a set of principles that promoted effective communication and connection over control. PET is generally taught by a trained facilitator who guides and works with individual examples provided by parents and has been heavily backed by trials and research.
Meacham explains the importance of learning good communication skills when it comes to being a conscious parent. “People have a real fear around letting go of controlling their kids. They think, ‘If I don’t control my kids, they’re going to go off the rails,’ but the opposite is true. The principles of PET teach parents how to manage themselves and to communicate in a way that nourishes their children. Through PET you learn to listen properly, to communicate your own needs with respect and to effectively manage conflict so everybody wins.”
If you’re interested in honing your communications skills, read Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon or find out about a PET group in your area or an online course. Alternatively, there are also many other communication courses on offer, so do the research and find one that resonates with you.
Build a support team
Following the conscious parenting path can feel like swimming upstream in a quick-fix culture full of conflicting information and well-meaning advice. Enlisting the services of a skilled and empathetic therapist or coach can help you to access your own wisdom, shut out the noise and do the deep work needed to shift unconscious thought patterns.
As I began employing the strategies from Gordon’s book, I noticed that my new communication skills would swiftly fly out the window as soon as I was triggered. This led to the realisation that I needed individual support to go deeper into whatever was making me react in unconscious ways that I could see were impacting my children. According to Meacham, the progression from learning effective communication skills to seeking a deeper level of support is common.
“All of us have bits and pieces from our past that, if left unattended, can wreak havoc in our lives,” she says. “People will still see results if they do PET independently of the deeper work but, if they’re practising PET properly, it usually leads to curiosity and a willingness to go deeper. Many parents will start to wonder why they are reacting in certain ways and want to open up about their past and transform old beliefs.”
When my inability to manage my unconscious triggers got to a level that was frustrating me, I finally enlisted the support of a coach who guided me through processes that allowed me to examine and heal on a deep level. I found myself looking forward to each session as I watched old fears dissolve, leaving me with a new level of creativity in the way I responded to life and relationship challenges. It became an empowering process at I witnessed immediate results of the work I’d done, including increased awareness, less fear and anxiety and more focus and clarity. Sometimes I’d cry during a session or simply celebrate an achievement with my coach. For the first time, I felt safe to talk without fear of judgement and I was astounded by my own inner knowing.
“Most people have never felt what it’s like to have space held for them,” says Meacham. “The gift of being listened to properly can be deeply healing on its own. A good coach or therapist will ask skilful questions, be curious and hold non-judgemental space for you to explore your truth. While we do offer concrete strategies, we also understand that the answers to your challenges are deep within you and it’s our job to help you access them. People often think that the therapist knows best, and it’s not true. You are the one who knows you the best.”
If you’re ready to enlist support, take your time investigating and researching the right coach, therapist or practitioner for you. Make contact with people you are drawn to and organise exploratory sessions to test out if they’re right for you — it’s kind of like dating! After having a session, check in with yourself. If that person is right for you, you’ll feel expanded and look forward to going back. Most importantly, you won’t feel judged.
Begin where you are
Tackling the task of conscious parenting can seem overwhelming if you focus on the challenge of getting from where you are to manifesting your highest vision, which is why Meacham recommends starting with small steps.
“The first step is simply to bring more awareness to what is going on around you and to make the clear decision that exploring your inner world is something you value,” she advises. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to contact a therapist straight away or lock yourself into an eight-week program. It means having the ability to be slightly more conscious and see what you’re drawn to. It might be a certain book in a shop, or a conversation — you’ll find that when you start bringing that awareness in there will always be a bit of guidance.”
In my experience, conscious parenting is a largely untrodden path that has no destination but feels like an enriching and purposeful journey. While I have witnessed magical changes in my family — from a huge decrease in behaviour problems to enjoying peaceful family dinners — the most satisfying aspect of this approach has been the sense that, in taking responsibility for myself, I have become the captain of my own ship. While things still go south sometimes and conflict continues to arise, both my husband and I now possess newfound skills and awareness that allow us to deal with challenges in a way that has shifted our lives from surviving to thriving.
Parenting with the aim of conscious awareness just feels better; I feel more tapped into my intuition, I see opportunities for creative response everywhere and I no longer get stuck in a rut of guilt and shame. Conscious parenting is more than an effective approach to bringing up children — it’s a beautiful way to live.
5 ways to start becoming a more conscious parent
- Set an intention to suspend your desire to fix or control your child and focus on your own behaviours, moods, reactions and thoughts.
- Practise self-care and notice what lights you up — it’s much easier to be a conscious parent if you feel nurtured and fulfilled.
- Cultivate deep compassion for yourself as you begin to notice your own triggers and bring your own wounds into consciousness. Speak to yourself as you would speak to a hurt child.
- Use your imagination to envision an ideal scene for your family. Get creative with picturing your family (including yourself) as harmonious, cooperative, warm, kind or whatever your heart desires. Give attention to any evidence of harmony, kindness, warmth or love you see around you.
- Be patient. This is a never-ending journey full of ups and downs. View it as a grand experiment.