Parents, it's hard. We know that. This is the time of year when maybe you start reevaluating everything you're doing. Summer is effectively over. School has started or will start shortly.
If last school year was particularly tough, you don't want to be headed for a repeat. Even if your kids are not school-age yet, you might be thinking there has to be a way to make this parenting job easier.
After all, "there's no worse boss than a 2-year-old," says author Liz Astrof, a television writer whose new book, "Don't Wait Up: Confessions of a Stay-at-Work Mom" ($27, Gallery Books), is a reality check for our love of parenting.
We interviewed authors of seven new books about parenting, including Astrof, to get their advice, both what's in their books and what's not.
Four basic themes emerged:
• The biggest changes are made by parents working on their reactions, not the kids' behaviors.
• Kids need boundaries and structure to feel secure.
• Kids are who they are; you're not going to change them.
• You need to practice self-care to be your best parent.
If you don't have time to sit down with another parenting book, we're giving you our Cliffs Notes version. We don't consider that cheating — just smart time management.
The biggest changes are made by parents working on their reactions, not the kids' behavior.
"We've all said to our children, 'You can't control what anyone else does, you can only control what you do,'" says clinical social worker Carla Naumburg, who wrote "How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent" ($15.95, Workman Publishing). "We can't change other people's behavior. We can only change ours."
Parents often feel overwhelmed, and that trickles down to their children. "How can we stay centered?" asks parenting coach and former school counselor Kim John Payne. He wrote "Being at Your Best When Your Kids Are at Their Worst: Practical Compassion in Parenting" ($19.95, Shambhala). "How can we be a safe harbor? When they come home after school, home should be a place that's safe."
Payne's book leads parents through how to do their own mindset exercises, such as deep breathing to create space to be the best parents they can be. He calls these exercises a compassionate response practice, and they don't take long. You can carve out two minutes a day for them, and they can help you recenter yourself when you feel anger rising, he says.
In "Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World," by the Rev. Molly Baskette and child psychologist Ellen O'Donnell ($16.99, Convergent Books), Baskette includes prayers to help parents refocus: "I wrote those prayers remembering those times I was flooded ... the first thing I did was give me a timeout."
Being at your best, being centered and not reactionary, is important because, after all, "3-year-olds are going to have a tantrum," says parenting coach Jamie Glowacki, who wrote "Oh Crap! I have a Toddler: Tackling These Crazy Awesome Years — No Time-Outs Needed" ($16.99, Gallery Books). "It takes two to tango. if your child is being bad, look at how you are contributing to that dynamic."
Parents bring who they were before they were parents into these relationships. Often the ways they were parented as children or their own anxieties trigger them.
"If you're pulling out your hair now, it's time to stop and pause and take a look at what's driving your emotional behavior," says chiropractor Steven Fonso, who wrote "Finding the Magic in the Mess: A Path to Greater Presence and More Joy, One Parenting Moment at a Time" ($20, TarcherPerigee). He sees parenting as an opportunity to continue mastering your mind and emotional state.
Knowing what triggers you and why is key to changing your behavior, such as not yelling at your children.
"I didn't put together the extent that my anxiety is making me lose it with my kids," Naumburg says. "I learned how to take care of it. My anxiety is not gone. I've learned how to manage and take care of it."
Naumburg says she could have given parents steps of things to do to calm down, "but if you do that instead of a deeper understanding of why you are doing it, it becomes a Band-Aid. It's like trying to follow a list of directions when you don't know where you're going and you don't know where you've been," she says. "You're just driving around in circles."
"Parenting is an act of re-parenting yourself," O'Donnell says.
Astrof, who writes about her estrangement from her mother who she says has struggled with mental illness, had her own fears about her fitness as a mother.
"I turned out fine," Astrof says. "I'm not a terrible mother, in spite of everything."
Parents also need to check their worries about their children. They can set realistic expectations of what is happening now while thinking about preparing children for the future. Too often, Glowacki sees parents spending so much time worrying about setting up kids for the future in academics or careers but not preparing them for life skills. They might overschedule activities such as swim or chess team but not teach skills such as how to fry an egg or, in her demographic, go to the bathroom in a potty.
Parents also can change the way they think about the tough times. Fonso gives the example of trying to get out the door with a kid who has shoes on the wrong feet. "There is perfection, but you're not seeing it. There's magic in that moment. ... Start seeing how perfect it is, how hilarious it is, those shoes that are on the wrong foot."
Kids need boundaries and structure to feel secure.
"I never met a disobedient child," Payne says, "I've only met disoriented ones. Our kids are disoriented with all that's going on. ... They are echolocating us with challenging behavior." He also calls this "pinging." "They send out supersonic behavior," he says.
We have to know how to not respond with our own "supersonic behavior." One of the worst responses is not yelling, he says, it's when we get eerily quiet with a weird calm voice because we're trying so hard not to yell that we become inauthentic. "It scares our kids," he says. "We want our voice to be ours."
That means being soft and gentle and authoritative, but not authoritarian, in our voice. And when we do lose it, Payne says, it's an amazing opportunity to do something he calls making a repair. Instead of letting the storm cloud hang over your family for days, you can calmly return to your child and point out that you need to adjust your reaction.
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Payne has seen this work with his own family, when his son told him, "Can you just give me some time?"
"I could hear my own voice," Payne says. "I'm not a perfect parent, but they do learn it and absorb it through modeling."
Modeling doesn't mean you have to talk to kids in full TED Talk form.
Today's parents talk too much, Glowacki says. Toddlers and even older kids don't need a whole explanation. They need clear directions and rules.
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They need rules that all parental figures follow. "It really is essential for parents to get on the same page," Glowacki says. That means "coming to your parenting values together."
And parenting should be value-centered, Payne says, not kid-centered. A value-centered approach helps kids learn to make decisions for themselves as they get older and the risks become greater.
Figure out what your values are. "What hills do you consider worth dying on? What's important to me? What's important for me to teach my child? Where am I trying to go with this?" O'Donnell says.
"Set some standards and let them rise up to that," says Monica Swanson, author of "Boy Mom: What Your Son Needs Most From You" ($15.99, Waterbook). Instead of giving the excuse that boys just do dumb things, instill this message: "I believe that you can make good choices; you can slow down and think this through."
Parents usually are really good at giving concise instructions and upholding rules when it comes to the parking lot: Hold my hand and don't run in the parking lot. Yet they struggle to stick to the rules they set down on other things.
Whatever behavior kids are doing that you don't like, "you taught them this behavior," Glowacki says. "If you have skewed your boundaries even once, they know that. The more (parents) move the boundaries, the harder (children) are going to push."
Baskette says, "If you rescue your child, you're just going to have to do it again."
Instead, she says, "You put on your big girl pants. Here are the boundaries. Here are the consequences. ... This is what they come to expect from us. Their behavior will change."
Kids also need a sense of responsibility and purpose. By age 3, kids can handle chores. "We do for our children and we keep doing," Glowacki says. She saw this in her own 13-year-old child who asked her to get him a glass of water. She was about to do that and thought, "Why can't you go get the glass?"
Kids need to feel a sense of autonomy, a sense of confidence, says O'Donnell. "Providing kids with structure helps kids feel confident in the world."
Your kids are who they are; you're not going to change them.
"When we focus all of our energy trying to change or fix our child, we're setting up a difficult relationship," Naumburg says. "You can't force a person to behave.
"There are things about our kids that are quirky or weird or challenging or confusing that are a mismatch or are hard to deal with."
Glowacki's biggest advice is to "stop being so busy and settle in with the child you have": "Connect with the child you have, not the child you wish for, not the child you have on Instagram."
And like not wishing for the child of Instagram, you can't expect yourself to be the perfect parent. "It's OK to just get through the day," Glowacki says. "You don't have to produce and document and show it off that you are a better parent."
Swanson advises trying not to label children. She looked for answers with one of her sons, including attention deficit disorder, until she realized, "He's actually just a boy. What are we going to do? Let's give him a chance to run. Let's accept that he needs to expend energy."
See the value in the traits that you find most challenging. "The labeling process doesn't serve anyone well," Fonso says. "Look at the whole picture of a child so we can see them on both sides, attentive and nonattentive, shy and outgoing."
Remember some of the things that annoy you about your children are the things you might not like about yourself or your spouse, Astrof says.
Parenting can be uncomfortable because "our kids come along with their big feelings," Naumburg says. And they are not mature enough to handle them, so we have to sit with them and let them feel those emotions.
Feelings, she says, "are like the weather. They come and go." Our tendency is to want to fix that, but "feelings are meant to be felt."
You need to practice self-care to be your best parent.
Remember how these authors talked about boundaries? Setting boundaries also means "getting some space from our kids," Naumburg says.
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In Astrof's house, it's known that "Mommy has to go to yoga," she says. "It's self-care." And then at some point in the day "there's a voice inside me that says, 'Go home.'"
That doesn't make you a bad parent, she says. In her neighborhood there's a street below hers where she sometimes parks before going home, either because she just needs a breather between work and home or she doesn't want to interrupt the bedtime routine. She's not alone.
"There would be a line of cars outside," she says. "No one is wanting to go home."
Self-care also can include having a full-time career. "I think it's OK to like to work," Astrof says. "I show up for the important things and put in face time."
Self-care also can be reconnecting as a family. Astrof calls these her guilt trips, when she takes kids on big adventures, such as the opening story in her book where she thought it was a good idea to go to an indoor water park hotel.
Naumburg also loves when kids and parents have more unstructured time, more chances to be bored and learn how to tolerate that. She recommends kids not have more than two activities, one a parent chooses and the other chosen by the child.
Swanson says being intentional "may mean doing less activities but doing what you do with a lot of heart. It's saying no to some things that are driving you crazy. You can say no. You can have boundaries."
It's not about quantity of time, it's about quality, Baskette says. "Observe more, slow down ... take a few minutes each day to just linger with your kids. Watch them."
Instead of being the parent who is checking off the to-do list, be there. "I've learned to flop on the couch with my big kid," Baskette says. "After a few minutes, I'll get invited to parenting."
Naumburg recommends moms find their peeps, those non-judgmental friends who "reflect back to us the real reality of parenting. It's messy, there are big feelings. It's confusing."
In addition to friends, who else can you pull into your support system? It could be babysitters, family members or experts such as school counselors, doctors or clergy members.
Self-care can be a mindset shift to find that magic in the mess that Fonso writes about. He suggests keeping a gratitude journal as well as not letting things that were difficult carry on to the next day. "Look at the moments that were distressing and find values in them," Fonso says. "They will not carry on like baggage."
You can make a list of all the things to let go of, and make a list of the victories, too.
Parents also need to make sure they are healthy, which means healthy food, getting enough sleep and moving their bodies as well as parenting timeouts.
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O'Donnell wants parents "doing the work they need to do to be healthy, whole people for their kids."
If you cannot give yourself that space, Naumburg says, "you may have a lifestyle that is incompatible with not losing your (expletive) with your kids," she says. "For whatever reason, you have ended up with a life situation no human being could deal with these stressors without losing their (expletive)."
After reading her book, Astrof hopes moms "get permission to be human as mothers and to make mistakes and not love it all the time."
Naumburg reminds parents to "cut themselves some slack. When we are not our best parenting selves, we tend to beat ourselves up for it."
She recommends parents talk to themselves the way they would talk to a best friend: "Let's go for a walk; let's have a nice cup of tea. Show up for ourselves the way we show up for other people."