A week rarely goes by without a parent, in one way or another, asking why it is so hard. Psychologists are often asked, by clients and community members why it is that mental health statistics are getting worse, seemingly year on year. Why are our children and adolescents struggling more than ever? Why are parents struggling more than ever? These are good questions and questions that, as a society, we should not only be asking but also finding answers and solutions to. There is no doubt that parenting has always been hard, even when life was much simpler. Raising a child from infancy to maturity is no easy task. When I am asked, “is parenting harder than 30 years ago?”, my honest opinion and answer is yes.
I think that it is more challenging today despite our immense progression in knowledge, parenting intelligence, resources and support services. When we delve into some of the many reasons as to why it is more challenging and complex in modern life, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the demands and weighty responsibility that we have as parents. Although we will always have different and new challenges arising at different stages of our journey, the antidote to getting caught up in every aspect of mindful parenting is to be able to consistently come back to align ourselves with the higher vision of what is most important at the end of the day. After all, trying to master everything at once is just another form of parenting perfectionism, setting us up for vicious cycles.
Societal Expectations Without a Village
The parent-child duo is becoming increasingly difficult for both parents and children. While there has been a proliferation in information and knowledge, there has been a simultaneous proliferation in our expectations of ourselves and others’ expectations of us. There is a popular quote that speaks to this, “we expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work” – original source unknown. An excellent shift in parenting dynamics over the last few decades is that fathers are now generally more hands on, and shared co-parenting responsibilities are overall more common. This is good for the mother, the father, and for children too. There is plenty of research to show how much it benefits the whole family system when fathers take an active role in co-parenting. This is one generational shift that of course, has been positive. However, in the future, I suspect that the formerly mentioned quote will become true for fathers too, if it is not already. They are becoming more hands on with the child-rearing and raising experience, which requires personal and internal resources, yet are not always well supported to do so by society. The same could be said for same-gender co-parents regardless of their sexual orientation or identity. And this assumes that a family has two hands on parents, which is far from always the case.
The Increasing Need for Family Resources
With the financial strain of modern life, childcare costs, increasing household prices and financial pressure on families, two parents are often required to work up to full-time hours. This automatically limits our ability to be physically present with our children, and when we are physically present, we are often tired and depleted, struggling to be fully emotionally and mentally present. This is obviously difficult for the parent and for the child, as they both inherently crave to be well connected to one another. For the child, it is a non-negotiable core need. Emotional closeness and security are innate human needs, which seems to be increasingly difficult for busy parents to meet on a consistent basis, in part due to the complexity of life and multifaceted demands placed upon them. With the reality of increasing divorce rates and separation among families, financial stress and stretched family resources becomes even more challenging for both parents. Addressing financial stress and increasing financial literacy in families is one of the most important factors in reducing domestic violence and intrafamily conflict while increasing harmonious family environments. As our relationship to money and how it impacts our feelings of and practical security in the world can impact our parenting, it is not an area of life that we should avoid or ignore, even when it is confronting.
The Practical Challenges of Separated Parents
It’s not that it’s “bad” for children if their parents separate, as if it means happier parents and more stable, healthier home environments, it can be better for them. However, what does directly impact them is the level to which parents are amicable and respectful of one another in the process. This involves having at least one, if not both parents, genuinely make parenting decisions and create environments that prioritise the child’s wellbeing first and foremost. If you are a separated or single parent, it is important to acknowledge that while this is optimal in an ideal world, you obviously cannot control how the other parent behaves and parents when you are not present. All you can do is your best to connect with your child and to manage what is within your control, which can be incredibly difficult. With separated families, comes new partners and stepparents too. This can create unique co-parenting challenges and difficulties, for both the parent, the stepparent and for the children involved. One of my favourites reframes of step-parenting was written by Glennon Doyle, in her book Untamed. After all, it is brave and courageous to take on a parenting role – that requires unconditional love and giving – to a child who is not biologically yours.
Children and Teens Are Growing Up Faster Than Ever
There are so many other reasons that parenting is getting harder in a lot of ways as well. Just considering the financial pressures, the professional demands, and the increase in family separation and single parenting, it is clear as to why children are often separating from parents before they are developmentally ready, too. With many Western countries still struggling to keep up with, or even to hover anywhere near, progressive maternity and paternity leave policies within European countries like Finland, Denmark, Belgium and Sweden, parents are forced to go back to work before they are ready. Before their children are ready for full-time separation. Even if a parent chooses to go back to work early, as many parents find it beneficial for their wellbeing, they are still trying to keep up with being overscheduled and completing chores and the demands of life – all while trying to be “present” with their children.
Early parent-child separation is not only occurring in the context of infancy and early childhood, but also as adolescents are growing up earlier and separating from the family unit earlier. They are also physically maturing earlier, with patterns of first mensuration generally younger than former generations (I will not speculate why that is). This ‘separation’ is not always necessarily reflected by physical separation, as children are often forced to live at home for longer due to increasing living costs, but the separation occurs emotionally. This is tricky for parents as the adolescent lives at home, but they are struggling to connect with them on a deeper level. From one perspective, it is a healthy aspect of adolescent development to “individuate” from their parents and feeling emotional distance can be incredibly normal during this phase. However, their need for emotional attunement and security remains incredibly important and protective for their mental health. Not always an easy balance to strike for parents.
Parents Are Guards of Rapidly Evolving Technology
So, taking together just a few of the common challenges amid many more, not even to mention how much parents have become guards of technology, social media monitoring, online bullying, and the challenges of what children are exposed to online from an earlier age than ever – from degrading pornography to unrealistic body images – what are we to do? There is one thing that I always remind parents of and that is, in the midst of parenting within the landscape where there are a billion and one things that you cannot control, you hold the most power in strengthening one of, if not the most important factor in parenting. That is, your emotional connection and relationship with your child. I am not naïve to think that it is at all easy, nor does it come naturally all of the time.
Skilful Parenting Has Never Been More Important
Just like any area of life, there are emotional and parenting skills that we can learn to improve and to take responsibility for our role in strengthening the relationship. I know that we are not always met with a willing companion, and that sometimes the child or adolescent is challenging for us to feel like we are achieving success with, but it is always possible. In fact, I believe that’s one of the biggest challenges: being able to give emotional support and resources to our child or children when they are not giving them back. Or more realistically, being able to provide them to our children when they deplete ours. This is ultimately why I wrote my upcoming book, Parenting Freedom, which aims to address how we get so stuck in modern parenting, and how to break free of such patterns and to find a sense of parenting freedom – within a world that rarely feels as if it is set up to support us – for life.
Dr Renee Cachia is an Australian–based psychologist in private practice specialising in childhood, adolescent and parenting development. Her first book is Parenting Freedom: Transform Stress and Depletion to Connectedness and Meaning. To connect on socials, follow @reneecachiaphd.