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Have you ever had difficulty determining when “enough is enough” with your child? Or questioned when you should draw the line, rather than be flexible and give in to his requests? I know I have.

These are issues that all parents face regarding discipline and how best to provide the guidance our children need along with the love, nurture, and empathy they most long for. In working with coaching and therapy clients, and as a parent myself, I’ve come to understand the deep complexities involved in being a loving parent while at the same time providing effective guidance and authority.

These are not simple, easy, or comfortable issues. But I’ve found that asking oneself the following five questions regularly can be beneficial in helping chart a course that is both loving and empowering for our children and ourselves.

1) When my child is acting up, what is he longing for on a deeper level?

Often, a child acts up or misbehaves for purposes that are not readily apparent on the surface. Misbehaving can in fact be a child’s way of gaining your attention and direct engagement with him. He may be craving your attention and love, and unable to achieve these in a productive manner. Sometimes, acting out is a way to distract parents from their own conflicts so that the attention is again refocused on the child. It can be a form of “homeostasis,” keeping the family intact and functioning.

So, the key question here is:
- What may my child’s misbehavior be saying that I haven’t yet fully understood?

2) Who is in control here? Do I need to set clearer, more consistent boundaries?

Often as parents, our own insecurities about our parenting skills lead us to doubt our ability to control and question whether we rightfully deserve a place in this “executive” role. When this occurs, we typically lose our ability to be effective and authoritative. In essence, we have allowed our children to climb up into the “executive” position and make decisions for us.

If you experience a sense of being out of control with your children and feel as if they are “running the show,” it is helpful to stop and examine your beliefs and attitudes around setting and enforcing guidelines.

- Are you consistent, and firm?
- Do you provide natural consequences when your children do not behave as you need them to?

When we make an examination of our difficulties in acting authoritatively in our own lives, we often find beliefs and fears carried over from our childhood about ourselves, our parents, the nature of love, support, and self-assertion, that need to be re-examined.

3) Do I validate my child? Do I let her know that, while I may not agree with her position, it is a valid one to her and to me?

What we humans crave deeply and consistently is validation-experiencing others’ support that our personal beliefs and actions make sense. Yet often when we struggle with our children, we invalidate them as we attempt to provide guidance about ways in which we wish them to change. We can discredit or undermine their behavior or thoughts, telling them they are “wrong,” “silly,” “immature,” or crazy.”

A different approach that builds self-esteem is to express and show that while we need some change in their behavior, we still understand and can relate to their position, and consider it valid.

4) Am I on the same page with my spouse so that the “parental unit” is strong and cohesive?

In my work with families, one of the most common patterns to emerge involves one spouse unwittingly using a child as a tool against the other spouse.

Why does this occur?

When we feel in some way powerless to affect a desired change in our marriage, we can find ourselves using a child to side with us, or to be pitted against our spouse. In this way, we become more powerful and feel less alone. Further, when a child is acting out and disregarding one parent, often there are ways in which the child is gaining support in his struggle from the other spouse.

The key questions at the heart of this dynamic is:

- Am I on the same page with my spouse about parenting and about our own relationship?
- If not, am I involving my child in any way, through conflict or direct collusion, to get back at my spouse?

5) What are my parenting goals? Am I fostering my child’s own unique path or am I trying to make it in the image of someone else’s?

Finally, a very significant step in effective, empathic parenting is to ask ourselves the questions, and answer:

- What are my key goals in parenting?
- In the end, what am I hoping to achieve as a good parent?

Is your goal to provide love and support, offer guidelines for development, or to foster the growth of a happy, healthy, productive individual? Or perhaps it is to create a loving, safe, supportive environment for your child to become all s/he is meant to be in this world, based on his or her own dreams, passions, energies, and goals?

Whatever our answers are to these pivotal questions, the process of exploration is very helpful in charting our own authentic parenting course. Increasing our awareness will ultimately help us expand our choices as to how to react, communicate, and behave as parents. In the end, I believe that empathic parenting benefits and empowers not only our children, but ourselves, and future generations as well.

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