Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parenting in Difficult Times

Parenting is a difficult job. Single parenting is even more challenging. Parenting when you are in a domestic violence relationship compounds the difficulty. And even after leaving a domestic violence relationship, parenting remains a struggle. Not to mention parenting in a shelter with a group of people you have not chosen to live with, and who are also healing from domestic violence. Parenting in a shelter can be very stressful.

We discuss the challenges of living in shelter at our house meetings. We ask our residents to share with us what is most difficult for themselves and their children about being in this setting. And we challenge our residents to discover new ways of interacting and being with one another, despite their differences.

This is not easy work. Because of the abuse that our residents suffered, it is often difficult for them to believe that open communication is possible without the situation resulting in abuse or “punishment.” Teaching our residents that it is ok to be vulnerable, and that they can share their deepest needs and be met with respect and understanding, is an ongoing challenge for our staff. In addition, many of our residents learned that fighting is the only way to approach conflict. Yelling, swearing, threatening, and calling people names is the strategy they learned, and that is how they choose to approach conflict.

How do we show them a different way?

At this week’s house meeting, we discussed the impulse to yell, hit or threaten our children. Because parenting is such hard work and so emotionally demanding we often see our residents struggling with discipline issues. Children are smart. They know when things are not “right” with their parent and this can frighten them. Often children act out as a result of sensing change, uneasiness or stress. Additionally, some of our families are involved with the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Because of the domestic violence these families experienced, DCF gets involved to support the non-offending parent and to try to assess what is best for this family moving forward.

Because of DCF involvement, many of our families are concerned that their children will be taken from them. As you can imagine, this is NOT what they want. And our role as a shelter is to support the survivor and his/her relationship with their children. We are there to help them make sense of their role as parents, process their experiences as survivors of domestic violence, and learn important techniques about parenting children who have witnessed abuse. This is challenging work to model – and challenging work to learn – especially when other patterns get in the way of being the best parent possible.

At the house meeting, I shared with residents the fact that Renewal House staff members are concerned about how the residents interact with their children. We believe they are good parents. We believe they want to do what’s right. And we see them sometimes “losing it” with their children. Sometimes this manifests itself through yelling, threatening and “tapping” them. It is our role as shelter staff to address the actions we feel are troubling or unhealthy for the children in an effort to both protect the child and support the parent.

All parents struggle with managing stress. Parenting is the most difficult and demanding work that one will ever do. And sometimes we are NOT at our best. And sometimes our children are not at their best, either. But the ability to recognize when things are getting out of control or too stressful, and to have ways to soothe oneself and one’s children, is the key to de-escalating and making healthier choices.

The problem is that some families and parents are targeted by DCF and other child protection agencies, and the involvement is difficult to end. In reality, all of us parents need a lot more resource than we have. But some of us are more connected to resource and can find people who can help, whether through family, friends or a professional children’s therapist. Even then, however, all of us struggle to control our anger and stress and try not to take out our frustration on our children. All parents need circles of accountability to help us be the best parents we can be. And we will fail at times – and we CAN learn from our failures with the right support.

So I let the parents know that we want them to be the best parents they can be. We want to encourage, support and even challenge them to engage in this “job” of parenting as much as they possibly can. And when we see them struggling, we want to be able to step in and give them a break as a way of providing support, and not as a way to criticize and judge them. For all of us need a community that believes in us and wants to work with us to succeed. At Renewal House, we are hoping to offer that opportunity to all those with whom we work, and to be an ally to the children as well as the parents.

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