A number of years ago I read a blog by psychologist Shefali Tsabary, PhD, and liked it enough to include it on one of my parenting handouts on Reflective Listening. Just recently I stumbled upon Dr. Tsabary’s work again and realized she now has three bestselling books out. Based on that initial blog, I assumed I would like the books, and I do. Here is my summary and review of her New York Times bestselling book The Conscious Parent. She has also written The Awakened Family and Out of Control: Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn’t Work and What Does, which I will review in future blogs.
The core question asked and answered by The Conscious Parent is obvious: How can you expect to raise children with a higher state of consciousness and empowerment if you are not a conscious and self-aware parent?
This question should provoke a paradigm shift for many parents, leading them away from a traditional “know-it-all” approach to a more respectful, mutual relationship with their child. In fact, rather than saying that the parents are in place to teach the child, Dr. Tsabary’s premise is that — if parents are open to it — children can be the teachers for a parent’s soul-searching journey of self-improvement. Or: “To connect with your children first connect with yourself.”
She writes: “The objective of this book is to illumine how we might identify and capitalize on the emotional and spiritual lessons inherent in the parenting process, so that we can use them for our own development, which in turn will result in the ability to parent more effectively. As part of this approach, we are asked to open ourselves up to the possibility that our imperfections may actually be our most valuable tools for change.”
Or, as I might say less eloquently: “Deal with your own emotional issues first.” This is why when parents call for “child therapy” I require at least four sessions with parents first. I may never even see the child, because addressing how the parents are functioning emotionally is the foundation for a child’s emotional wellbeing. Working with a child in therapy, then sending her back into a dysfunctional home setting is just an exercise in frustration for everyone.
Dr. Tsabary believes, as I do, that a child’s misbehavior or emotional distress is always due to the parents. “The focus is always on us as parents, requiring us to look within and ask, ‘What am I bringing to this relationship in this moment that is mine to own and not my child’s to receive?’” (p. 57)
Most parenting is done unconsciously, without awareness of interpersonal dynamics between you and your child. “Our children pay a heavy price when we lack consciousness. Overindulged, over-medicated, and over-labeled, many of them are unhappy. This is because, coming from unconsciousness ourselves, we bequeath to them our own unresolved needs, unmet expectations, and frustrated dreams. Despite our best intentions, we enslave them to the emotional inheritance we received from our parents, binding them to the debilitating legacy from ancestors past. The nature of unconsciousness is such that, until it’s metabolized, it will seep through generation after generation. Only through awareness can the cycle of pain that swirls in families end.” (p. 5)
Children, through their behavior, mirror back the unresolved emotional problems of parents. If you are not careful, the wounds of your past will seep into your parenting style, disrupting the relationship you want to have with your child.
Dr. Tsabary’s approach focuses on mindfulness or “engaged presence,” which can be difficult to define, but which is impossible when you are caught up in your own emotional struggles.
“[W]hile you may believe your most important challenge is to raise your children well, there’s an even more essential task you need to attend to, which is the foundation of effective parenting. This task is to raise yourself into the most awakened and present individual you can be. The reason this is central to good parenting is that children don’t need our ideas and expectation, or our dominance and control, only for us to be attuned to them with our engaged presence.” (p. 10)
Parents often have a difficult time when I try to talk about being conscious and emotionally attuned to a child, because this is a paradigm shift they have not yet made. For most people, parenting is largely about a child paying attention to the parent’s words, moods and needs. Most parents talk too much, offering too many opinions and solutions, rather than just observing a child, matching the emotional energy of the moment, and allowing the child’s authenticity to blossom. “Empathy requires a willingness to suspend our own feelings so we can align with those of our children.” (p. 198) If parents do not engage in this attunement, children then tune out. “Our children won’t communicate with us unless we learn to detach ourselves from our own unconsciousness and enter a state of still and open receptivity to their consciousness.” (p. 201)
An early chapter is entitled: “Release Your Children From the Need for Your Approval.” I have written extensively about how if we lack self-acceptance we will go out in to the world seeking approval to fill that void and to feel better about ourselves. However, if we depend on our children for approval, this up-ends the normal hierarchy in the family, putting your children in charge of your emotional wellbeing, a job that is unhealthy for them to take on.
If you need your children to feel better about yourself, you will engage far more often in judging them, rather than accepting them.
The author also notes: “You Will Only Accept Your Child to the Degree You Accept Yourself.”
“When we are unable to accept our children, it’s because they open up old wounds in us, threatening some ego-attachment we are still holding onto. Unless we address why we can’t embrace our children for precisely who they are, we will forever either seek to mold, control, and dominate them — or we will allow ourselves to be dominated by them.” (p. 37)
Self-acceptance is also directly linked to a parent’ ability to be confident. “We are only able to feel positive regard for our children when we already have such regard for ourselves. Only to the degree we are confident within ourselves can we engage our children from a place of confidence.” (p. 241)
Dr. Tsabary spends a chapter on the “ego,” noting that parents often invest their own self-worth in a child’s ability to make them feel successful as parents, either through outward achievements or by resolving the parent’s emotional needs to feel loved or in control, for example. (“Ego” is a label drawn from Freudian psychology that I avoid, because I prefer to use more accessible, emotion-based language, such as “pride” or “shame.”)
I especially appreciate the fact that the author mentions ways parents create low self-worth in a child, as I see that as the core problem in most child emotional issues. She also draws the connection to a parent’s own attachment trauma and its effects on self-worth: “Most of us are grown children who weren’t ‘met’ for the individuals we are. For instance, if we grew up with parents who were disconnected from their authenticity, when we looked up into our mother’s or father’s face hoping to see our own essence mirrored back, all we received was either a blank stare or an emotional response that had nothing to do with us. Because we didn’t see a reflection of our authentic self in the eyes of our caregivers, we learned to feel less than we really are.” (p. 127)
I find this failure is based on the parent’s preoccupation in trying to find a solution their own unmet emotional needs. If a parent does not tolerate shame well, they will be constantly on guard for possible shaming experiences in their relationships. They will be busy self-shaming and blaming or blaming others, leaving little empathy or compassion for dealing with the emotional needs of a child.
The book emphasizes mindfulness, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and regulation, acceptance of what is, and being in the flow. “When we embrace life itself as a wise guide, we dare to entrust ourselves to it completely, free of evaluation, judgment or analysis. Leaving behind any feeling that life is somehow a threat to us, we commit ourselves to its flow. When we allow ourselves to really feel each experience as it happens, then — instead of trying to attach ourselves to it — release it into the flow of the next moment, we free up psychic energy that would otherwise be squandered on resistance and reactivity. This energy is then available for us to bring engaged presence to our relationships, especially with our children. As our children also learn to experience their experiences without the need to ‘do’ anything abut them necessarily, they ease into life as it is. They see the pleasure in the simplest of experiences and reap the rewards of being fully present in the moment.” (p. 79)
The book includes many lessons on how parents can, through their own modeling, teach children emotional wellbeing and resilience. By parents embracing failure and the uncertainty of life and viewing life as an opportunity for growth, they show kids how to roll with the punches in healthy ways, rather than fear and resist challenges and risks. “The most valuable lesson you can teach your children is that life is about the unfolding of the conscious self. When you show them that the key to fulfillment lies in embracing the wise situations life places us in, you give them a great gift. With this perspective, they will forever befriend life, knowing that it seeks to be of benign service to them, even when its lessons may seem severe. As they come to see that they can transform each experience into one that increases their self-awareness and promotes their growth, they learn to regard life as their friend, an intimate partner on their journey to self-awareness.” (p. 93)
In contrast, I find that today many children are being taught that some arbitrary “success” in career and academics is the only acceptable standard. We are training up anxious and over-stressed children and young adults who are driven in unhealthy ways to constantly compare themselves to others — and probably find themselves wanting.
Celebrating “The Wonder of the Ordinary,” is the author’s prescription for today’s hyper-achieving children. I love this idea, as demanding exceptionalism from children pressures them to never allow failure or imperfection, leading to feelings of low self-worth when they do inevitably fail.
Dr. Tsabary advocates for “being”as opposed to “doing,” which may be “an attempt to assuage our sense of incompleteness.” (p. 142)
The book does not ignore the need for discipline, noting children need to develop skills in both authenticity, or recognizing their own inner being and voice, and containment, or the means by which we absorb the will of another. Given my work on self-acceptance and on Other-Blamers who push back against the social norms for reciprocity, kindness and compliance, I appreciate this: “Our children need to learn both the art of connection to themselves and connection to others, which are the two pillars of all relationships….To foster the ability to surrender to one’s own will and to that of another when appropriate is a key element of discipline. This is very different from just getting children to ‘behave.’” (p. 213-214)
If you are looking for a “how-to” parenting book with specific things to do for a tantrum or homework refusal, you will be disappointed with The Conscious Parent. But if you are looking to make a fundamental change in yourself and the relationship you have with your child, breaking the transgenerational cycle of unhealthy parenting, you will not go wrong with this book.
For more: www.drshefali.com
Next up: My review of The Awakened Family by Shefali Tsabary, PhD.
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