Breaking The Cycles Of Fear-Based Parenting

By Ashley Patek

Breaking The Cycle Of Fear-Based Parenting

Parenting isn’t something we do to our children. Yet we often feel the pressure to make them good, kind, respectful, and responsible. 

But here’s the thing. Our children come into this world whole and complete. We may find ourselves embracing their innocence as babies, but then they become the two-year-old who hits, the five-year-old who yells, the teen who talks back. We begin to lose sight of who they are. And so we use tactics to get them to listen, to fix their behavior, and to ensure that they don’t become whatever fear we are currently holding onto. 

We don’t want to raise a liar. We don’t want to raise a bully. We don’t want to raise a twenty-year-old who still doesn’t know how to use the potty, eat with a fork, or make friends. 

We become so dug into our fears that it blurs what is right in front of us. 

Our child’s goodness. Their enoughness. Their wholeness. 

I love this quote by Joseph Chilton Pearce that says, “The three-year-old is not an incomplete five-year-old; the child is not an incomplete adult. Never are we simply on our way, we have arrived.”

Our children have arrived. 

Not as an adult. Not as the next milestone or the next age. 

They have arrived here and now, even in the face of their challenging behaviors and big emotions.

(And guess what, we have arrived too. Today, just as we are, we are whole and complete). 

The Fear Cycle

There is this cultural idea that if children are not engineered and we don’t manipulate and control them, then they will rule the roost, run right over us, and never learn the big lessons that will surely lead to a happy and healthy life. 

But this idea is a fallacy. 

Our job is not to fix them (or their behavior) because nothing is broken. 

More times than not, what we are witnessing is about development, not defiance. 

More times than not, what we are experiencing is about us, not them. 

This is a hard concept for many of us to accept because the need to control often has roots in a wounded ego. A wounded ego lives in fear and attempts to control the situations and people around them much in the way we sometimes attempt to control our children’s emotions, behaviors, and development. 

Now, this isn’t your ego’s fault. Our ego is actually designed to keep us safe. Children will do just about anything to maintain a close attachment with their parents because they depend on them to survive. They will self-sacrifice and submit to their parent’s desires and preferences. 

The adult sees this as a positive thing because the child appears good and obedient. In this way, punishment and fear-based tactics give the illusion of working, but they don’t, and research backs that up. The adult may feel like they have control but as the child ages, the parent will have to keep upping the ante to maintain this false reality. 

When this happens, children don’t grow the skills of the prefrontal cortex but rather live in their nervous system’s chosen brainstem response. They are not learning impulse control, problem-solving, emotional regulation, empathy or respect. They learn an entirely different skill. They learn to survive. 

Then, those children grow up into adults whose bodies remember the fear and aloneness and they look for ways to feel safe. So they too attempt to control. And, essentially, their fear then elicits the use of fear-based tactics, and the cycle perpetuates, one generation at a time. 

The Antidote To Fear-Based Tactics 

Connection is the antidote to control and punishment. 

As mentioned before, parenting isn’t something we do to our children, it is something we have with them. It is a relationship.

A relationship is about connection. We can choose to use our children’s need for connection against them, but when we lose connection, it pulls us out of our relationship with our children, and ultimately we lose our power to parent. And thus we find ourselves relying on fear and control because we have lost authentic influence.

Or we can use our connection to work with our children. To guide in a way that they feel safe enough to share their authentic selves with us. To teach in a way that actually builds their brain. To internally motivate them so they want to listen and participate. 

5 Ways To Use Connect-Based Parenting (Instead Of Fear-Based Parenting) 

1. Approach your child’s behavior with curiosity

What you see is a behavior, often misbehavior. What you don’t see is what is causing the behavior, which is most often an unmet need, a lagging skill, or some sort of emotional overwhelm. Begin viewing challenging moments and meltdowns through the lens of curiosity, asking yourself, “What is really going on here? What is my child communicating and how can I be of service?” The way you respond to their distress call - whether you further hurt or help them - will affect how they process what happened and how they respond in the future. 

2. Examine your expectations

Eek. This is a hard one. We have so much input coming in from all directions that tell us where our children should be on whatever developmental needle we are currently focused on. But our kids are on their own timeline. Not yours and definitely not society’s. For high-stress rituals, examine if what is being asked of your child is age and developmentally appropriate for YOUR child. It is important to remember, just because your kiddo is successful at something a few times doesn’t mean they have fully mastered it. 

3. Connect before you redirect 

I love a good “and” statement. I may not like the behavior I see from my child right now AND there is an emotion underneath that I can validate. When we connect with our children before addressing the behavior, not only do our children feel seen and heard but they move into a brain state where they can process whatever follows (like the redirection or boundary). 

4. Create Time-In rituals 

Come together at the end of your day to chat about when you/your child felt a red, blue, green, and yellow emotion; what that emotion felt like in the body; and how it was useful (using your feeling charts as a guide). Make emotions a normal part of daily conversation. Hold space for their feelings without attempting to change, fix, or rush them along. Not only will it bring you closer together but you will also likely see a change in the intensity and frequency of meltdowns.  

5. Understand your triggers

We are ending on this one. It is all about you, which seems weird because we are talking about how to connect with your kids. If we want to lean into connection-based parenting and out of fear-based parenting, it starts with us - our childhood, our emotional wounding, and our translation of what is happening in the present. A trigger worksheet can help you navigate those unpleasant feelings and associated behaviors. 

In connecting with ourselves - and even our inner child - we gain a deeper connection with our sons and daughters. And thus, we begin to break the cycle of fear.

•  •  •

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