Being Vulnerable as a Parent

Tina Feigal, MS, Ed. Copyright © 2016 Center for the Challenging Child

Dad and sonMaybe the last thing you ever thought a parent coach would tell you is “be vulnerable with your child.” You’ve spent your whole adult life making sure your child knew who was boss, working hard to never let him take advantage of you. You thought if you did that, you would lose your authority and never get it back. Who wants to live with a child who thinks he’s the boss of his parents? Wouldn’t being vulnerable give him the wrong idea?

Dr. Brené Brown, a social work researcher, talks about “leaning into the discomfort” in her TED Talk on the power of vulnerability. She was NOT built to accept anything uncertain, and railed at the thought of it, as many of us would. You might ask, “What does leaning into the discomfort mean?”

Dr. Brown also talks about “connection” being the reason we’re all here. And she says that shame is the manifestation of disconnection.  Underlying this is “excruciating vulnerability.” To truly connect we need to be vulnerable, she says.

After 6 years of listening to people’s stories on shame, she wrote a book and  published a theory, realizing that the people who have a strong sense of belonging believe they’re worthy of it.  Our fear that we’re not worthy of connection is what causes disconnection, which leads to shame.

Dr. Brown says that “wholehearted people” live from a deep sense of worthiness  and had a “sense  of courage” in common.  This courage is made up of telling who you are with your whole heart, the courage to be imperfect, compassion for self and others, connection as a result of authenticity, and fully embracing vulnerability.  These courageous wholehearteds believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.  They say it’s necessary to do something where there are no guarantees, i.e. willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. In the words of my dear friend Artem Kuznetsov, this describes “beautiful uncertainty.”

To me there’s nothing more beautiful nor more uncertain than raising a child. Without guarantees of any kind, we rush headlong into the most compelling, uncertain, vulnerable experience of love, usually without a map or compass. And then the children we love so intensely defy us.  They develop their own will, they want what they want, and we feel utterly broad-sided after pouring so much of our hearts into their being. Where’s the gratitude?  Can’t they tell how much we’ve cared?

Frankly, they can’t. Because they’re children.  And it’s completely understandable that parents start to want control, in order to protect themselves from the strong will of their child and the rejection of having your beloved, cherished offspring turn on you. 

It’s normal.  Almost every parent experiences it, especially those with strong-willed children.  So where’s the redemption here? In vulnerability?  Well, yes.

Children who attempt to run the show are often bright.  They may be intellectually bright, interpersonally gifted, intrapersonally astute, highly creative and sensitive, or all of the above. And some average-ability children also attempt to run the show, depending on their own experiences as babies and toddlers.  Whatever the reason, we feel the last thing we should do is become vulnerable with them.  But really, it’s important to do this.

How does it look to be vulnerable to your child? It means stepping off the “perfect, all-knowing adult” platform and getting down to your heart with your child.  When you do this, he starts to realize that you’re human, too, and a switch flips.  He has less to resist when you become less rigid.  Now the grace and light-heartedness for which most parents yearn can begin seeping into your relationship. Herein lies the benefit of “leaning in.”

What do the words look like?  Instead of saying, “I’m your dad and I mean business” when a child is acting out (usually because of a fear), it’s more heart-centered to say, “I know. I had that fear when I was your age, too. Want me to tell you how I got past it? I used to pretend that the monsters under my bed had five eyes, so many that they couldn’t focus well enough to see me.” Here, the father has become a child again, this time for the purpose of connecting with his child. He’s remembering his child-like self, allowing a little vulnerability, and adding a dash of humor to bring intimacy to the conversation.

Dr. Brown’s mission to “control and predict” led her to the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability.

Letting go of the need to control and predict your child and building emotional intimacy is the hallmark of a strong relationship.  You get there by being vulnerable, and you can’t get there without it.

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