Sunday, July 17, 2011

GUEST BLOG POST: Staying Anchored in Safe Waters by Lisa Levine Bernstein

My daughter, Jordana, barely one year old, wanted to join the “party.” A cousin of mine and I were enjoying an after dinner chat in the living room of my tiny NYC apartment and Jordana was wailing and crying in an effort to be released from her crib in the bedroom.

Jordana, now an amazingly social 20 year old, must have been angry with me for maintaining her bedtime routine while there was still an opportunity to socialize. I was not uncomfortable with her anger which I credit to my first job in psychiatric nursing.

As a staff nurse on the brand new eating disorders unit at the now defunct Gracie Square Hospital, I was anxious to be liked by my patients. It was a struggle for me to maintain the unit protocols, intended to maintain a therapeutic milieu, when it involved the wrath of one of my patients. Then, while I was discharging Julia, one of my particularly rude and aggressive patients, she thanked me. Julia appreciated that I kept her on track and made her “tow the line” despite her angry outbursts. What an amazing lesson in human nature!

In the years to come, in subsequent psychiatric nursing jobs, I often experienced the anger of patients and became more comfortable acknowledging their anger while still maintaining good limits. Admittedly, raising children is different than taking care of psychiatric patients, however, I have found that the practice of firm but loving limits apply to both. Children do not want to be in charge, and find it frightening to feel like they are the captain of the family ship. Even when they protest (and they will because that’s what various developmental stages “require” them to do), they want to know that an adult is steering the ship and keeping the family anchored in safe waters.

The world can be a frustrating place. When a child runs the show at home, she does not learn that there are barriers to getting what you want. Setting and keeping clear limits allows your child to build tolerance for frustration and actually makes his or her life out in the world happier.

When Jordana was born, followed twenty months later by Zoe, I was able to be a strong, loving parent who set limits from the start. I felt secure in their love despite tantrums directed toward me. Now that my daughters are nineteen and almost twenty-one, I know that learning how to care for patients like Julia was great training for parenthood.

So what can you do to stay anchored despite the ups and downs of childhood?

• Set clear limits and provide simple explanations (I cannot talk to you right now. You will have my full attention when I am off the telephone.)

• Be consistent but flexible depending on the circumstances (You can stay up past your bedtime because we have company.)

• Give your child time to adjust to changes and stick with what you have communicated (We will be leaving the party in five minutes.)

• Provide “time out” in the same room as the parent or caregiver so your child has time to calm down without feeling rejected.

• Let your child know when your own feelings are getting in the way (I am so angry right now that I will take a few minutes to calm down before we talk.)

Setting and keeping firm limits when your child is angry can be difficult but you will get better at it with practice. The bonus is that, over time, your child will protest less when she learns what to expect and you will enjoy each other’s company more!

Lisa Levine-Bernstein, MSN, RN, FNP has been dedicated to helping families create meaningful relationships. Her direct experience with parents and children spans over two decades. Lisa is a psychiatric nurse, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at LaGuardia College of the City University of New York and a school nurse at Great Neck North Middle School. She is a parenting workshop leader and teaches parent/child yoga and nutrition.

 Lisa holds a BS in Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania, an MS in Nursing from Hunter College of the City University of New York and qualified as a Family Nurse Practitioner at SUNY Stony Brook.

Having been on the front lines of parenting herself, raising four children (including two step-children who lived with her as teenagers), Lisa personally understands the challenges and rewards of raising successful children. Visit her site


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Blogger Cara Meyers said...

Hi Lisa! It's me again! I'm wondering whether you let your 1 year old daughter "cry it out" when you had your party to attend to? I not only couldn't tolerate my son "crying it out," he had gastric reflux, so 10 minutes of crying most often led to an hour of cleaning up and doing vomit laundry. The payoff was not worth it. I think I am still recuperating from the sleep deprivation! And my son is almost 8!

I also agree with your time-out suggestion. In fact, I've never given my tenacious son a time out because it would escalate into a power struggle to get him to stay in one place. I've always used consequences instead.

Most importantly, KNOW YOUR CHILD! I could never be as "tough" as you were with your girls. My son is far too sensitive. I NEVER let him get away with being disrespectful towards me, but being really strict would ruin our bond of love, security and trust. Some kids need tough. But sometimes it is not "one size fits all."

Your blog and suggestions are awesome, though! ;)

6:23 PM  
Blogger Lisa Levine, MSN, RN, FNP said...

Thanks, Cara, for your thoughts! Interestingly, Jordana cried so much she did throw up...twice. And each time I cleaned her up, changed her sheet and put her back into the crib. I did not include it in my blog post because I think its understandably not something that many parents are comfortable with. I do, however, believe that my stance that night helped Jordana to understand my expectation that when she is put in her crib, she needs to go to sleep. The payoff for me was that after that night, I was able to have some valuable alone time every evening and also get a good night's sleep which in turn allowed me to be a rested, more patient mother. Jordana had a routine that was frustrating that night but I believe that any routine, when done with gentleness and love, generally gives a child a sense of security in that they know what to expect.

As I mentioned in the bulleted suggestions, flexibility is important. As they grew, Jordana and Zoe did negotiate with me for a later bedtime on special occasions. Negotiating is an important skill that parents can teach naturally by being firm but flexible. Of course, sometime in middle school, all bets were off and a true bedtime got lost in the mix of homework and other activities.

In response to your comment that "being really strict would ruin our bond of love, security and trust" I agree. Being strict in the absense of flexiblity, love, trust and all the other wonderful things that parents can be with their children is not ultimately beneficial to a child or to the parent/child relationship. Balance in parenting is important.

Now at almost 21 years old, Jordana and I are close and our relationship has shifted from 100% parent/child to maybe 20% parent/child and 80% friends.

I agree with you, Cara. It is important to know your child and also to know what you, as a parent want for your child and are comfortable with. Parenting is far from one size fits all both in terms of the personality of the parent and the temperament of the child. Thanks for pointing that out!

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