Poor Parenting and The Dynamics Behind it
If you think the scariest hood to be in is Parenthood, then you’re right, but there’s a way to make Parenthood a little less scary. A lot of people ask for parenting advice or have parenting questions and poor parenting concerns. This is not just me as a psychiatrist, talking to you, I’m also a parent, and I really believe that parents help parents.
Parenting isn’t about a checklist of how to do something right. It’s hard to know when you’ve gone off course, and, if you’re off course, it’s hard to know how to get back on course. If parents help each other out, then we’re helping our whole community and our entire society. I do have adult kids, and I can empathize greatly. I have been through a lot of the struggles that you’ve been through with my patients, my clients, and in my personal life.
What are the dynamics behind poor parenting? We hear different names such as a helicopter parent, snowplow parent, and I have a phrase I’ve used for a long time called tractor-trailer parents. There is a lot of people who are afraid they are one of those parents or worried they’re going to become one of those parents. I always start any session or any treatment by stating, if you understand why poor parenting is happening, then you can stop it. It’s important to understand what’s going on, to see the patterns behind the poor parenting, and to come to realize it’s not what you want to be doing. If you don’t understand the patterns, the dynamics, and what’s going on underneath; it’s a lot less likely you’re going to figure out what’s wrong and where to go that’s better.
The Dynamics of The Controlling Parent
The dynamics of the controlling parent, in general, this is the issue here. It’d be easy to say controlling parents are control freaks. That’s part of it because nobody likes to feel out of control and certainly parents don’t want to feel out of control. Parents may fear if they’re losing control, that’s making them a bad parent. Parents are, by definition in control when their kids are not. So it makes sense that control plays a role in all these different parenting issues or problems.
It’s not just a lack of loss of control that parents are fighting when they hover or take control of their child’s every move. It is also a way to avoid pain; a lot of psychopathologies is due to trying to avoid pain. If you think about it, the empathy we have with our children is tremendous. It’s not uncommon to feel as though we would rather take the hit, than to have our child take the hit, because of that empathy. Empathy is there for us to treat our child, we treat the hunger, we treat the cut, we reach out and do something.
How empathy can work against you
Empathy can work against you when you’re trying to have your child avoid any pain; that way, you don’t have to subsequently feel that empathic pain. Helicopter parents, snowplow parents, and tractor-trailer parents to some degree are trying to get their children to avoid any pain, so they don’t have to feel the pain.
The problem with that is you’re getting “in the weeds” when you’re trying to keep control, so you don’t feel a loss of control. You’re trying to have no pain happen to your child, so you don’t feel any pain. You’re down on the details of something, and you’ve lost the bigger picture. The bigger picture being, we are to get these humans developed in a way that they can go out into the world and their relationships, prepared.
If you’re in the weeds and think your trophy for being a good parent is because your child never feels any pain or never has to worry about control or figure out a plan because someone’s in control. You’re missing the bigger picture. How is that child going to deal with pain if you don’t teach them how to work through the pain? You don’t want them to avoid it. Avoiding pain is part of life, but we’re all going to feel pain and the sooner you can get your child to feel the pain and work with them through that, by being there for them in their suffering. That’s the big difference between smoothing the path for them all the time, so they don’t feel any pain. Being with someone in pain is the definition of an intimate moment, an intimate relationship.
Help your child work through the pain
A lot of parents who do the snowplow or helicopter parenting devalue simply sitting with a child who’s in pain. By soothing them and using comforting words, comforting tones, or talking to them through the pain. It’s an extremely valuable tool to use, and it teaches them how to use it with others. They’ll learn how to do that in their relationships if you give that to them. Trying to avoid your child from experiencing any pain is losing the sight of the bigger picture.
The other dynamic is parents who want to avoid their own pain, of their child not needing them as much. It’s no mistake that these terms- helicopter, snowplow, and the tractor-trailer parent happens around the times where children take that step forward in terms of their autonomy.
What is helicopter parenting?
Helicopter parenting starts around ages two/three into the elementary school years, when a child is beginning to be a bit more independent. The child wants to be more independent, it’s biological, they need to, and that is when the hovering starts.
What is snowplow parenting?
Snowplow parenting starts around ages 16-21. This age is all about independence; it’s the child’s next big move into independence.
What is tractor-trailer parenting?
Tractor-trailer parents are in it for the long haul. When the adult child gets married and has their own family, that’s when the tractor-trailer parenting kicks in. Another huge autonomous move made by the child. The parents see their child moving on in their own family and that they are not needed anymore.
All these big independent stages come with the pathological parents who are trying to avoid the grief of the reality that the child has grown up and no longer needs them. It’s like the parents entering into a fantasy where they think, “I still count, they still need me.” It’s not so much at that point, to have the child avoid pain. It’s when the parent does not want to face the grief. I call this the tractor-trailer parent because they’re in it for the long haul. They’re never going to dump that load off. They’re never going to pull back and let that child go off into their own life.
How do these parenting styles affect your parent/child relationship?
The parents are giving the impression that they can’t deal with the adult child’s independence and the adult child is getting the sense that if they’re independent their parents will not be able to handle it. It’s all unconscious; it’s all going on under the surface.
It is not unusual for people in their 30’s or 40’s who have anxiety, depression, or relationship problems to figure out that the underlying problem is they have their foot in both camps; one foot in their family of origin and one foot in their relationship or their family they’ve created. They can’t do both and be happy.
We have to have this talk about the tractor-trailer parent and letting go because if the parents aren’t going to do it, then the child is old enough to do it themselves. This is the dynamic behind it; the parents are avoiding their own pain out of empathy. They’re avoiding a loss of control which feels bad and makes people anxious. They’re avoiding the grief that the child has moved on.
How to Move Forward
I teach my adult children patients to move on despite the anxiety that the parent can’t handle it because, in every single situation, the parent can handle it. They then move beyond that bump to what the next phase is. What I teach my parents in that situation, is a beautiful friend reunion that comes back up once they’ve let go.
If the snowplow, helicopter, and the tractor-trailer parent let go. They realize they can handle the pain, the loss of control, the grief and live through that; which they will. It’s not fun, but they live through it. What happens is that the child has been independent, you are now separated, and you can come back to the picture with a friend to friend relationship.
You would never order around your friends or expect them to listen to your every command. You wouldn’t do that because it’s invasive and that sets you up for a problem. It’s the same with your adult child. If you are invasive with your child, they may not be telling you, or they may not even be conscious of it, but this causes resentment. Invading their space and treating them like a child would ruin any friendship. It’s going to ruin your relationship with your child. That’s a little gauge you can use to realize if you’ve lost your way.
Parents forget that an adult child can leave for good and never talk to them again. It’s a huge risk you’re taking by not feeling and allowing this separation to happen. Not going through these feelings can cause your child to leave and not deal with you at all, or worse deal with you but be gritting their teeth and hating every moment of it. Is that really the type of relationship you want to have?
Why do parents do this?
These are the dynamics behind poor parenting; the over-controlling, hovering over, invasive parent. We parents do that to avoid pain, loss of control, and bereavement grief. You don’t have to avoid those things and you really can’t as a parent. It’s crucial to face the fact that those are things to go through. Help your child, help yourself, help your partner, go through those things, it’s so much more valuable.
Tell your adult child what you’re feeling and ask if you can talk through it. Wouldn’t you rather have your adult child go off to their spouse and say, “Hey, I’m kind of anxious about this interview you have tomorrow, can we talk about it?” Or would you want your child to show up at his spouse’s interview and say, “I’m going to do this for you, I got it.” You have to think in those terms; they’re not little children anymore. Even though you treat them that way, it’s not the case.