Renowned psychologist Dr Shefali Tsabary on facing and healing the challenges of parenting

Parenting is about the child within you, not the one in front of you, believes the bestselling author

By Kavita Srinivasan

Published: Thu 2 Mar 2023, 7:38 PM

Facing and healing the challenges of parenting with Dr Shefali Tsabary

Parenting is feeling powerlessness, lack of control and lack of self in ways we have never experienced before having a child. We are, after all, leaping into the biggest unknown of all. How do we begin to reclaim our life when we are at the mercy of children who consume every waking moment? The emotional no-man’s land of parenting is a scary place to be, especially because we are ashamed of everything we feel. We should be the parents that society tells us we should. We should feel the unconditional love and joy that the books tell us we should. So I, like so many other parents who surrounded me, garbed myself in outward functionality, burying the truth deep inside: I did not want this life. I did not want to be at the mercy of another.

No parent wants to say these words out loud. We are caught in the chasm of our own making, between lies and truth, between love and resentment and between who we are and what the world says we should be. It is with this storm brewing within me a few months after I turned 40, that I heard Dr Shefali, acclaimed clinical psychologist, wisdom teacher and bestselling author, speak at the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival. I was lucky enough to interview her in person post her talk. Her message was clear: I could not give to my child what I did not get. Growing up with a mentally unwell mother, never speaking my truth, never letting myself see, feel and hear the abject emotional malnourishment of my childhood, had left me bereft. How could I nourish another when my insides were parched?

Her words, her message, her truth has set countless parents on a liberating path of rediscovery to the dark and solitary places within that we ignore all of our lives. Her message is simple and profound: there is nothing wrong with our children; they are our mirrors, reflecting back at us what we refuse to see. And so, the best way we can help our children is to raise ourselves. Parenting is about the child within you, not the child in front of you. It is really our children who heal us.

Today, Dr Shefali is acknowledged as the pioneer of Conscious Parenting. But when she first published her book The Conscious Parent, no one really spoke the way she did about raising children. She had literally gone to the scary and tender places that most balk at. In her heart, she knew, as she yelled at her three-year-old daughter, that traditional parenting was damaging her child and that the problem was her, not the tiny being she had birthed. She says, “No one told me that I would not be raising my children. I would be re-enacting all my emotional crap. No one told me that.” Her truth has given life to thousands of parents, started a revolution in the way we look within ourselves and liberated children from suffering their parents’ unhealed wounds. Yes, she is world famous, being lauded for her work by the likes of Oprah and having written three New York Times bestselling books on raising ourselves. But once you sit in her presence, it quickly becomes clear how detached she truly is from the adulation and success. There is no ego, there is only a mission: of service, of illuminating the deepest wounds we have suffered so we can look ourselves in the eye with understanding, with presence and with love. It is this love that matters above all. It is this love that our children, and us, have always needed. This is the wisdom that she embodies so generously.

Her latest book, The Parenting Map, is a gift. How can we be this parent to our children? How do we even begin to be this person to ourselves? Facing the trials our children endure everyday is lonely. It can debilitate even the most capable of us. And so, we opened the forum to you to ask Dr Shefali what it is you struggle with. The challenges of parenting are immense but there is always healing. You are not alone.

The challenge: “My son is bullied and cannot stand up for himself. How can I help him?”

Dr Shefali: The way you perceive your son matters. If you keep focusing on the surface behaviours, you will constantly feel anxious and helpless. Instead, focus on the whole picture. Instead of thinking your son has “no confidence”, think to yourself, “What are his strengths?”. Your son may have a highly sensitive and empathic temperament. Instead of focusing on his lacks, focus on his superpowers and then from this place of abundance, teach him to protect himself. Tell him that his kindness and sensitivity is actually a blessing and that if he just balanced it with more assertiveness, he would be fine. Give him the confidence you feel he is lacking by reframing what you perceive as limitations into superpowers.

The challenge: “My husband is never present with the children.”

Dr Shefali: Your husband is unable to connect with his children or you because of his own intimacy issues. This is going to eventually show up as an issue in other areas of his life as well. What you need to do is focus on yourself and show up for yourself. Don’t let your mind obsess with what he is doing or the impact it will have on his children because you cannot control that. Only focus on how you are present with your children and embody the joy of being with them to the fullest. This will be a great antidote to his absence.

The challenge: “My mother-in-law and husband gang up against me as I try to parent my child consciously”

Dr Shefali: Your conscious parenting will continue to have a huge impact on your children. It is not ideal that your husband and his mother are doing this and maybe you need to create stronger boundaries around that. Maybe you need to solicit the help of other family or a coach to help you set better boundaries with them. Your husband’s focus should not be on what his mother says or doesn’t say. He is not aligned in the right way. His alignment should be with you not his mother. Be strong and continue to embody the principles of consciousness that you know are right for you and your children.

The challenge: “I want my daughter and me to be best friends. Is this wrong?”

Dr Shefali: Your daughter can consider you her best friend, but she is not yours. Why? Because what you go through as an adult should be reserved for your adult friends. Children should not be burdened by the details of their parents’ lives beyond the basics. Don’t enmesh your daughter to you for the sake of the feeling of closeness. That feeling needs to come from your adult relationships. If she calls you and considers you her best friend, that is fine. But it should not be the other way around.

The challenge: “I have a hard time controlling my temper and have raised my hand on my daughter.”

Dr Shefali: It is a good thing that you wish to change your behaviours because beating a child is never a good way to raise them and, in fact, causes great problems later on in life. Maybe you can read books or take a course on anger management and learn tools to regulate yourself better in those moments of getting triggered. The beating must stop immediately as it is extremely toxic for children’s self-esteem and well-being.

The challenge: “My husband is a narcissist and disappoints our children who love him. We are separated.”

Dr Shefali: Creating as much distance and protection from him is the ideal way. If this cannot happen consistently then the best way you can protect them is by being regulated and calm yourself. Let them express their feelings to you and allow them the space to feel free and safe with you. Also, as they grow older, you can expose them to books on narcissistic parents so that they can understand that it is not their fault that he is this way. The main thing with children of narcissistic parents is to teach them that it is not their fault and that they do not have to feel shame and guilt around their father.

The challenge: “My son has been diagnosed with ADHD. How can I help him without medication?”

Dr Shefali: Simplifying the child’s schedule and limiting addictive screens is the key. Allowing your child to have a consistent structure and schedule is very important. Movement and nature play are also key. Finally, looking past the diagnosis is also important because you don’t want to be limited by it.

The challenge: “I am very uncomfortable about the school using iPads in the first grade.”

Dr Shefali: Technology at such a young age is not ideal at all. Our children do not need to be in front of screens at such an early age. The more you can resist this in your children’s life is best.

The challenge: “What kind of school would be good for our children?”

Dr Shefali: That is a sweeping question, so it is hard to answer. The most important thing about education is choosing a place that matches both the child and the family. Economics plays a big role in this. Finding a school that is less focused on strict competition and grades is always better for the child. Also, a school that focuses on the arts and nature is wonderful.

The challenge: “My daughter will be bedridden for the rest of her life. I struggle every day and try to make sense of why this has happened to me.”

Dr Shefali: Yes, it is very painful to watch a child suffer this way, but perhaps there are ways you can connect with her that bring you joy. If you feel like a victim in this situation, you will suffer more. Make sure you are compassionate with yourself through this rough situation. Getting the help you need to receive self-care is very important so that you can move from chaos and suffering to greater surrender and abundance.

Kavita (@conscious.parent on Insta) is a parenting coach based in Dubai

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