A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dos and Don'ts of Supporting Stressed Parents

This blog was started with two ideas in mind. First, parenting in modern America is difficult for many people. Second, for those who take a Catholic perspective of suffering, this difficulty can be fruitful at the supernatural level, helping parents to grow in holiness. Now, of course, not everyone takes such a perspective regarding the challenges of parenting. And, in fact, even those of us who believe in the concept of parenting mortification often still find parenting to be overwhelming at times…and we find ourselves falling short of the ideal of dying to self and living for God. This should give us the sympathy needed to interact with other parents who are also having a hard time with challenges of parenting.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas for interacting with those who are struggling with parenting. Sadly, most of the unhelpful responses are examples I've actually witnessed! But, on the other hand, the charitable responses are also real examples I've witnessed. We can support parents if we are willing to try!

DO sympathize and DO commend.  Many times when a parent voices a complaint, the parent wants someone to listen kindly, to assure them that many people have this struggle, and to affirm the parent in his or her efforts.

Example 1.
Stressed parent (hereafter SP): “The baby has been congested and he’s teething…my husband was away for work, and I feel like I haven’t slept well in weeks! With the toddler around too, I don’t even have time for a shower!”

Charitable response (hereafter CR): “Oh my gosh, that is so stressful! The kids look really happy, too…you must be doing a good job staying positive with them.”

Example 2.
SP: “The house is winning the battle. I just cannot keep it clean. If I take time to unload the dishwasher, the twins pull all the books off the shelves while I’m doing it. I put in a load of laundry and when I’m done I look over to find toys dumped out of the toybox all over the floor.”

CR: “Yes, they are really at a tough age for that. They’re big enough to make messes, but not really able to help clean them up. It must be really hard for you…I know you prefer to keep things neat.”

DON’T offer unsolicited solutions. Given that many parents are looking for understanding, sympathy, and encouragement, suggested solutions can come as a slap in the face. They can imply (or sometimes outright state) that a parent caused a particular problem or that a parent could easily solve the problem if only the parent were willing to make the effort. Moreover, unless the person giving the advice knows the situation really well, he or she is unlikely to offer advice that will become a permanent solution. On the other hand, it's perfectly OK to volunteer some ideas if someone is explicitly asking for solutions to a problem.

Example 1.
 SP: “It’s like I don’t even have time to eat! Trying to get all these kids food (and they are always hungry!), plus trying to keep up on the housework, and then with nursing the baby I am so hungry I get shaky by the time I can actually get myself some food (after serving everyone else).”

Unhelpful response (UR):  “Sounds like you need to learn how to make some Greek yogurt. It’s really easy to do and so healthy. It’d help you get through those tough moments.”

[What this stressed parent does NOT need is someone making her feel bad that she doesn’t make her own Greek yogurt. She’s already overwhelmed!]

Example 2.
SP: “The food budget is crazy these days! I never imagined how much those kids could eat when they got a little older.”

UR: “Well, the solution to this is easy: stop having kids.”

[OK…this is rude. And it also doesn’t solve the problem.]

Example 3.

SP: "The play room is just ruining my life. We have too much stuff and can never find anything. I love how you have your play room organized. Do you think you could help me figure out how to get some structure to it so the kids can maintain it better?"
CR: "I'd be glad to help you with that project. I think the first thing to do is to minimize the toys and replace the toybox with some shelves. I actually have some shelves I could give you...when do you want me to come over so we can get this project done?"

DON’T criticize. While proposing solutions is often well-intended if not well-thought-out, direct criticism is not either. It does more to embitter parents than to help them.

Example 1.

SP: “We really wanted to postpone pregnancy because my husband is being deployed and I live so far away from family. Plus we planned to save up some money so some day we can buy a house. I thought if we used NFP, playing by God’s rules, that we wouldn’t end up in this situation of being pregnant before we were ready.”

UR: “NFP is 99% effective. You obviously used it wrong. What did you expect?”

[The SP in this situation is obviously feeling overwhelmed. Maybe she did misunderstand how the fertility signs or charting works, but this response is not going to assist her in dealing with the situation at hand.]

Example 2.

SP: “Sorry about the kids’ behavior right now. It’s so hard to watch them for a whole weekend without my wife. By the end, I just have no patience.”

UR: “Well, I can see that! And maybe it’s your impatience that results in them being so loud. One would think the only thing they know how to do is fight over Legos!”

[The SP here already recognizes he’s in a less-than-ideal situation, and he recognizes his own failing in the situation too. No need to rub it in his face.]

DON’T announce that you’ve never had this problem.

Example 1.
SP: “Taking the kids to Church on Sunday has become such a trial! They’re normal kids, and they can be quiet at home, but it’s like the minute we walk through those doors they become crazy monkeys! There’s no way we can concentrate. All we want to do is make it through the Mass without being totally humiliated, you know?”

UR: “Hmmm…not really. My kids always sat quietly at Mass, but then, we practiced that at home and set a good example for them ourselves. Plus they were all such early readers that they were following along in the missal before they were five years old.”

[“But for the grace of God, there go I.” No need to make a parent feel bad for having problems you don’t.]

Example 2.
SP: “I never imagined that potty-training would be so difficult. All day long I’m cleaning out underwear in the toilet…and this is going on three months!”

UR: “Funny. My two boys potty-trained themselves around 20 months. I think parents tend to exaggerate the difficulty of potty-training.”

[If you know nothing about it, at least be polite.]

DO bring food or offer other help. American parenting is particularly challenging because we have so little help from others. The extended family system, which once could help out a young family, is no longer in place. We tend not to hire much help in the form of nannies or maids. What we do have left is kind, caring people, who are willing to inconvenience themselves a bit to make the lives of other people a bit better. We should be this kind of people.

Example 1.

SP: “I try to plan dinner ahead of time and get a head start on it when I can. But I feel like it usually ends up with a crying baby, a nagging toddler, and two kids needing help with homework while I’m trying to throw together a meal. It feels so impossible.”

CR: “This sounds really tough. I’ll bring you dinner on Thursdays for the next month. Maybe that will ease the burden a bit.”

Example 2.

SP: “I have all these phone calls to make, and I try to do them when the kids are all playing happily, but as soon as I pick up the phone, they start fighting and screaming. It’s so embarrassing that I end up procrastinating taking care of some important calls I need to make.”

CR: “I can totally help you out with this. When’s a good time for me to come by for a couple hours to play with the kids? I could do tomorrow morning or Wednesday afternoon.”

Example 3.

SP: “I’m so sick and tired. I just need to rest.”

CR: “In that case, could your daughter come over for a play date this afternoon? We can pick her up and drop her off when you’ve had a good nap.”

Example 4.

SP: “Pulling a sleeping baby out of the cozy crib just to bundle him up and put him in the car to get his sister from school is stressful! It always makes me a little sad.”

CR: “I have to pick up my son anyway. Can I get your daughter too? I’d be happy to pick her up for you and bring her to your house. Just make sure I’m on your pick-up list and the teacher knows.”

Of course, DO pray for them.  It’s great if you can do this the moment you recognize that someone is struggling; any simple prayer, in your own words or an Our Father or Hail Mary is great. A more substantial prayer, such as a Rosary is also a good idea.

And, related to this, DO offer mortifications for them. Voluntary mortifications can be done simply for our own spiritual benefit and discipline or in reparation for our own sins. But if you know someone is having a really hard time with something, you can also choose to do a voluntary mortification for their situation. For example, offer a cold shower for parents whose son has a serious health problem. Give up sweets as a prayer for a newborn who isn’t latching and nursing well. Sometimes these intentional sacrifices magnify the prayers because they are regular reminders of the other person's parenting difficulties.

Also DO talk to others about them if it will help, but DON’T make them into gossip. It can be good to get others praying for someone in need or helping parents going through a difficult time.

Example 1.
CR: “I was wondering if you’d be willing to join our schedule of people bringing meals to the Smith family. Her mother just died, and she’s in charge of all the funeral arrangements, on top of her work and family life. It’s going to be a hard few weeks for them.”

UR: “Did you see the Smith family at soccer practice yesterday? Those kids were totally out of control. I heard her mother died recently and she’s in charge of all the funeral arrangements, plus she couldn’t get out of a work project she’s doing right now. Poor thing – no wonder the kids are acting up. That’s too much going on. Hope she can get everything figured out, but then, she tends to be so disorganized.”

DO help them to see the supernatural perspective…when the moment is right.
Sometimes we may run into a parent who we know would be amenable to the idea of parenting mortification, but he’s never heard of “mortification” like this. This generation of American Catholics is perhaps the most ignorant of penitential practice ever, and so we can’t expect parents even to know about mortification, much less to have practiced it regularly. When we know someone is a committed, faithful Catholic, and she is struggling with a particular issue, it can help to suggest she offer the distress of that issue for another person in need. Although it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes accepting that suffering and offering it to God as a prayer for someone else in need actually alleviates the stress of the challenge. There’s a sense that someone is doing something – something very real indeed – for the good of another. This act can bring a person beyond his or her own suffering and assist in a feeling of connection with the mystical body of Christ.

This response is unlikely to be the first we offer to a stressed-out, overwhelmed parent. But, when suggested kindly and explained well, it may also be a good response that can be genuinely beneficial.

Example 1.

SP: “The last month of pregnancy is always so hard. I’m just ready to be done, especially with this constant heartburn! How is your other pregnant friend doing? Better than me, I hope?”
CR: “Actually, she’s in kind of a serious situation right now. They may end up having to do an early C-section for the safety of the baby, and she’s really dreading it and also really worried about the baby. Maybe you could offer your indigestion for the doctors to decide she can go full-term and for the baby to be OK.”

Example 2.

SP: “I’m beginning to feel like my wife will never be intimate with me again. She’s still complaining of pain from her incision site for the C-section, and she’s constantly worrying that the baby isn’t getting enough milk. She hasn’t worn anything other than yoga pants for like a month! What can I do?”

CR: “Wow, that must be really difficult. I know it’s tough when a wife isn’t enthusiastic about spending time with her husband...and that post-partum phase can seem to stretch on forever and ever. Maybe you could offer your frustrations as a prayer for her to heal up well, get some rest, and for the baby to start feeding a little better.”

We are capable of supporting parents! Anyone else have other good ideas?

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