“Parenting Is Not Art”

Kimberly Hackett, LMHC, is a Family-Focused Therapist, Parent Coach and writer.

Kimberly Hackett, LMHC, is a Family-Focused Therapist, Parent Coach and writer.

By Kimberly Hackett, LMHC

Parenting is not art. It’s not a roster of must learn skills. It’s not something to conquer or something you can completely ignore. It’s not a vocation or way of life, a movement, mission or religion. You don’t need training or schooling or even the best possible childhood to “parent.”
And when it happens, there is no turning back but there is turning away and turning towards or standing stock still. Parenting is a happening that permanently changes you – no matter which direction you choose – or don’t.

To parent is to choose, however cavalierly or intensely, or somewhere in between, to let your child belong to you and for you to belong to your child, to commit to the unfolding before you. And in you. It is the only relationship that never ends.

Any adult can attest to the challenges of being an adolescent. Because we’ve all been there. We might remember or choose to forget the intense highs and lows, the awesome curiosity and the constant state of high alert. We might remember the feeling of not knowing who we were, what we were about, or how to get where we thought we should be going.

Adolescence is chaotic but it is also the definition of creativity. “Creativity takes courage,” says Henri Matisse. It’s not a stretch to say, adolescence takes courage. There’s nothing more creative than giving form and meaning to the blank canvas of adolescence, that starting point of defining and shaping identity.

When children enter puberty, they begin leaving the protective cloak of their family identity to seek their own. They leave the sureness of childhood bodies and the security of imaginary play to ponder, explore and experiment with the greatest question of all – “Who am I?” This mighty question ignites the flame inspiring each of us to become artists of our own lives.

Each stage of development presents a crisis which demands resolution. Psychologist Erik Erikson identified the psychosocial work of the adolescent stage as Role Confusion and Identity Formation. The work of adolescence is to trial test new selves while negotiating a rapidly expanding inner world. If adolescents resolve the “crisis” of identity, they develop fidelity, the ability to attach themselves faithfully through intimacy and connection to ones self and to another. If unable to successfully do the work of adolescence, we might feel lost, confused, unmoored.

Adolescence is primarily social and emotional. And so, teens need social and emotional mentors and teachers. This is a challenge since our children spend most of their days in schools that are decidedly left brain and tend to throw their hands up when it comes to the inner lives of their students.
As a result, parents carry the weight of their child’s social and emotional education, the “heart” work of their development. And all that at a time when adolescents are trying to create their own identity separate from their parents.

Social and emotional development and learning is the conscious building of interpersonal (awareness of other’s feelings) and intrapersonal (self-awareness) intelligences necessary for living an connected, engaged life.

Parents can support their child’s social and emotional growth in many ways. Here are eight tips for parents to support their child’s social emotional development.

1. Active Listening – How a parent listens to an adolescent child can positively aid in the work of identity formation. Parents help their children explore the “who am I?” question of adolescence by listening without judgment or fear. Listening with an open heart helps adolescents make sense of their world and their changing selves as they begin the process of taking responsibility for who they are at that moment and who they want to be.
2. Self-Reflection – Where does self-reflection, the foundation of self-knowledge, fit into an adolescent’s busy schedule? Parents can promote this critical developmental need at home in creative ways – conversation around the dinner table or even watching a movie together. Self-reflection needs time to develop and practice to come naturally.

3. Model Authenticity – Adolescents are keen observers of human behavior, especially of their parent’s behavior. They constantly question truth and reality as they experiment with new ways of being. Parents support their child’s search for emotional courage and honesty by living it themselves – or at least by putting ones best effort forward. A good starting place for parents is to not pretend to have all the answers.

4. Promote Creativity – The adolescent work of creating an identity means stepping into the unknown. Like artists, adolescents enter an empty canvas and experiment with colors and materials as a way to accept or reject new ways of being. Creativity gives adolescents freedom to experiment and create themselves in safe and constructive ways. This can be achieved through art, writing, dance, sports, clothing, theatre and music. Parents validate their child’s creative endeavors when expressing their own curiosity with real questions and interest.

5. Celebrate Mistakes – Mistakes mean your child is taking risks and ultimately learning from their experiences. Mistakes are an essential part of growing. Physicist David Bohm writes: “From early childhood, one is taught to maintain the image of “self” or “ego” as essentially perfect. Each mistake seems to reveal that one is an inferior sort of being, who will therefore, in some way, not be fully accepted by others.” This is unfortunate because “all learning is trying something and seeing what happens.”

6. Parallel Process – Parallel process is learning and growing alongside your child. With each moment of your child’s growth, parents are reminded of their own experiences at that age. Simultaneously, perspective is necessary for parents even when they feel there is none. Adolescence joins parent and child in the human journey of self-discovery.

7. The Struggle is Important – Parents often want to pick their child up after they fall down. It is important to recognize that resilience is linked to learned self-reliance. Adolescents need to learn and accept difficulty as part of life and living. They learn what they are made of when they go through something on their own. Parents need to support the important work of struggle as a developmental imperative.

8. Integrating The Dark Side – It can be frightening to witness a once sunny, “problem-free” child transform overnight into a gloomy, irritable adolescent. Some parents find the emerging darker side (self-doubt, anger, fear, self-consciousness) difficult to accept and send the message that the harder stuff of growing up is not accepted. Parents need to integrate the highs and lows, the good and the bad, to support balance and self-acceptance.

Parenting is not art. It’s a relationship that is social and emotional in nature. It is is constant and changing, and demands that we grow alongside our children.


Kimberly Hackett, LMHC, is a Family-Focused Therapist, Parent Coach and writer. She specializes in struggling adolescents and their families. She helps parents focus on relationship, attachment and connection and helps teens achieve greater developmental well-being.
She is writing a book that explores 21st century parenting. Kimberly is married with four kids and divides her time between her private practice in Arlington and Vermont.
Find out more and read her blog at KimberlyHackett.com. Kimberly can be reached at Hackett.kimberly@gmail.com.

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