What Is a Parent’s Role?

Before I can unpack either inner parenting or the impacts of parental wounding, I want to offer my perspective on the role of the parent in a child’s life and development. I believe in respectful parenting, attachment parenting, free-range parenting, and trauma-informed parenting. I am a mother, so these ideas are not merely theory to me but guidelines I have put into practice with my son – and they work.

Being a parent is to be the guide and facilitator for a new sovereign being.

Children don’t need to be controlled or disciplined; children simply need to be taught and guided. There is a time in a child’s life when the parents have to provide certain containers in order to safely facilitate the learning they need to develop properly. Obviously a toddler does not have the cognitive understanding to be left alone completely in their exploration of the world. But neither do they need to be controlled in the sense of being told what to engage with, what to learn about, or shamed for making mistakes of learning and experience (spilling milk, trying to stick something into an electrical socket because they saw an adult stick something in and want to try it).

The role of the parent is to create a safe container for the child’s developmental stage.

That role remains the same for every developmental stage until the child has attained adulthood. The FORM of the role shifts, as the child’s age and needs shift, but the essential POINT remains the same. Creating a safe container includes physical needs (changing diapers until the child is old enough to control emissions and use a potty; dressing them until they are old enough to take over that task for themself; feeding them, and monitoring their eating to be sure that they eat enough and enough variety…my son for example will forget to eat because he gets so focused in what he is thinking about. Part of my job as his mother is to remind him to take care of his body, to check in with it and treat it well vs neglectfully). But the safe container also includes emotional, relational, social needs. One of the big ones is helping with nervous system and emotional regulation. Self-regulation is borne from the experience of co-regulation – having a safe adult anchor you while big emotional storms roll through so that you can experience overwhelming emotions as safe instead of as an existential threat.

Much of Western parenting is based in conformity to roles, parental expectations, and emotional suppression. It is based on the idea that the parents are authorities and the children owe respect to that authority (regardless of if the authority respects them back). It is based on the idea that children are innately wild and ungovernable and must be shamed, punished, and coerced into behaving in a “civilized” way. Emotions are unwanted, inconvenient, and optional in that paradigm; children use emotions to manipulate and get their way and the adults must stand strong against such attempts lest they create a spoiled, entitled, egotistical little monster.

Western parenting…could not more effectively pass down intergenerational trauma if it had set out to do so.

Children have needs. Children need their needs met. Children cannot always explain their needs (seriously, most adults can’t when they first start introspective work!). Even if they could define the needs, children are unlikely to have enough emotional control to say them with words once they are in the space of need. Humans develop our capacity to regulate our emotions over time, by experiencing emotional attunement and safe containers. Children don’t throw tantrums to manipulate in a conscious way. Children throw tantrums to express an unmet need the only way they know how, in an attempt to get their caretaker to help. Technically it’s manipulation in that it is an attempt to influence or force the parent to meet their needs, but fundamentally it is a bid for help. If a child’s needs go unmet for too long, they will escalate into aggression and demand; if those efforts are rejected or punished too harshly, the child’s last recourse will be to withdraw and wall off from expectation or even hope of support. Those latter stages (aggression and withdrawal) set the stage for depression, disconnection, loneliness, anxiety, self-rejection, and more that can stretch into adulthood. The effects can last an entire life if left unhealed.

Controlling children’s behaviors without attuning to their underlying needs creates trauma.

You can teach children to express their needs in ways that are less disruptive and less likely to cause conflicts or ruptures in their relationships, but what reinforces the guidance is the child’s certainty that their needs will be met if they ask in a gentler way. The parent is there to spot the underlying need, meet it, and teach developmentally appropriate ways for the child to express it. Part of the parental job is to keep updating the child’s relational skills as they grow and develop.

I have consciously parented from this perspective (the meeting needs and creating safe containers for developmental stages vs. the authority/need to civilize style), and my son never has tantrums. He sometimes has emotional meltdowns, clearly linked to overwhelm or exhaustion or having had enough. All that was needed when he was a very young child was for me to pick him up and hold him, offer comfort, let him cry it out, and then he was right as rain again. We’re navigating that emotional space in different ways now that he’s a little older – healthy ways he can express his anger or frustration or sense of unfairness – but the dynamic remains that when his needs get met he goes right back to being loving, thoughtful, cheerful, and curious. I don’t have to force him or manipulate him to express those positive behaviors; they are a natural emergent of his lived experience of being loved, having his needs met, and being accepted unconditionally.

Being a good parent isn’t hard for the reasons we think. Children don’t need us to be perfect or to be able to discipline them into conformity. They need us to love them as they are, meet them where they are, and meet their needs so that they are free to express their joy and love and joie de vivre instead of having to fight for their needs to be met, or fall into dissociation to survive a life where their needs are not met.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to drive with empathy and attunement to the needs of another.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to set aside the behaviors we witnessed and absorbed from our own parents (and often other adults). We must heal our own developmental arrests and triggers in order to be able to parent mostly from a space of wisdom and emotional centeredness.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to set aside our own egos and lead by example with admitting and owning mistakes, apologizing when wrong, offering grace and compassion instead of holding grudges, separating accountability from judgment, and valuing the connection and the relationship more than being right or having everything our own way.

Parenting is definitely a crucible for personal development, but the hardest step is to recognize that and look for the opportunity in it. Rather than going in expecting yourself to be able to magically do it right the first time every time, plan to learn from the inevitable mistakes in order to become the kind of parent you want to be. We all need a bit of trial and error to get there; the question is if you are willing to recognize that and keep trying, or double-down on your own infallibility and ego.

For more resources on respectful parenting, look at the work of Laura Grace Weldon and Free Range Learning, Janet Lansbury, Magda Gerber, Trauma-proofing Your Kids (Peter Levine), Non-Violent Communication (Marshall Rosenburg), The 5 Love Languages of Children (Gary Chapman), and for exploring the impacts of unattuned parenting see Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (Lindsey Gibson), Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving (Pete Walker), The Body Keeps the Score (Bessel van der Kolk), and Gabor Mate on trauma (he has both books and innumerable interviews available).

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