Our job is to be a better parent than those who raised us

Sometimes my job hurts my heart.

I see it mostly with couples who come in to address conflicting parenting styles. One parent tends to go to nurture first; the other goes to firmness. Nurture and firmness: kids need both.
Mom disciplining teen with smartphone

Empathy connects

It’s not too hard to teach the “nurture” parent how to follow their gentleness with firmness and opportunities for their children to learn. The reverse, however, is trickier. It can be hard to convince the “firmness first” parent that leading with empathy isn’t “coddling,” but rather is connecting and soothing for the child’s nervous system. A child who feels calm and connected is much more able to work through a challenge like sharing, handing over the iPad, or using different words.

Leading with sternness, however, puts kids’ nervous systems on the defensive, which leads to more amped-up, hard-to-take behavior by the child. And guess what? That behavior grates on the nerves of the “sternness parent” even more. It’s this sad cycle of irritation and disconnection between parent and child that leaves both of them feeling uncomfortable.

Pretty much all of the “sternness first” parents I’ve met were raised by “sternness first” parents. The parents in my office didn’t necessarily like being raised that way. They certainly want to have better relationships with their kids than their parents have with them. But the heartbreaking piece is how hard it is to give our kids what no one was able to give us when we were little. It takes work. Healing. Therapy. A commitment to breaking old patterns. Support. Time and, to some extent, money. But isn’t it our personal responsibility to be a better parent than those who raised us?
Mom disciplining teen with smartphone

My family didn’t do anger

This all gets exacerbated by the fact that our kids’ behaviors can be triggers for us. I know this one personally: I grew up in a family of very nice people who didn’t do anger. When my three sons came along and sizzled with anger through a rough patch in our life, I had no patience for that! Out came my own repressed anger. Out came my disdain for them expressing their anger in unskilled ways. I wanted them to be quiet, appreciative, “good little kids” like I had learned to be. Haha, well God bless those three sons! I loved them so much that I was willing to do my own work so I could allow them to feel all their feels.

Sometimes I see “sternness first” parents who are locked in their ways. It’s costing them closeness with their children and it’s costing them their marriages. It’s maddening and tragic for the kids and partners. And at the same time, it’s heartbreaking. I can look at these grown adults and zoom back to when they were young children, being disregarded or spoken to harshly by one of their parents. I have compassion for how they’ve ended up being so hard and critical of those they love the most. Some are able to do their inner work; some are not.

The heartbreak in my job doesn’t happen right away; it’s more of a slow, eye-opening realization that someone isn’t going to do the work to make the change their family needs them to make in order to have a close, connected family.

How about you? Have you noticed your kids bringing out the worst in you that is somehow familiar? Do you feel the same irritation with your kids that you felt with family members from your early years? I see you. I’m sorry for the pain.

It is hard to give our kids what our parents weren’t able to give us

But it is our personal responsibility to do our healing and give our kids a better parent than those who raised us.

With love & laughter,


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Kerry Stutzman MSW, LMFT

My passion is helping my clients develop close, connected families and healthy relationships. For the past 20 years I have been helping people discover the best version of themselves.  Learn more

Brett King LPCC NCC, MFT

My specialty is couples therapy with parents. I also have expertise in parenting, betrayal recovery, and addiction.  Learn more

Debbie Bassett MA, LPCC, MFTC

My focus includes trauma, attachment, anxiety, depression, and relational work; including a focus on children and teens, parents, and couples.  Learn more

Amy Cobb - Parent Coach

Amy Cobb MS Family/Human Development

I specialize in working with parents and caregivers with children from cradle to college, with special focus from birth – 10 years old. Learn more

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