A Parenting Epiphany


People often think of an epiphany as a blinding moment of clarity that reframes one’s life or some aspect of one’s life. As such, there can be an assumption that the source of the epiphany is going to be so unusual that one could not help but be moved by the experience. I expect this is the case with major events in people’s lives. However, as a therapist and a parent, I have realized that common everyday material can be a catalyst for the same kind of lasting impact if one is open to the experience and its implications. The following personal epiphany is based on an experience no doubt common to many parents: that of reminding a child to do something that is expected.

As parents, we know that repetition and reminders are necessary to develop good habits. However, we often forget that for the child, the context and tone of the reminder make a difference in how the message is received. For instance, it has been shown that parents need to have a 4-to-1 positive to negative statement ratio for kids to be optimally listening. If we imagine that every time we say a positive thing such as “Thank you for setting the table” (referring to an action), “That’s taking care of the family” (explaining meaning), or “When I see that, I feel good” (conveying an emotional response), it is as if we are putting a quarter in the bank. Every time we say “Can you pick up your socks?” or the backhanded compliment, “Thanks for finally setting the table,” we are taking a dollar out. Having less than a 4-to-1 ratio means we are overdrawn and the kid has tuned out. This example shows the need to be open to the deeper meanings of relatively common interactions and the communication process that underlies these interactions.

When my daughter was 11, she would sometimes pour herself milk and then leave the unfinished cup of milk out. It had become so automatic for me to say “could you put your milk in the fridge” that when I said it this time, I was no longer thinking about the tone of the request. My daughter responded that I was angry with her. It was such a surprising accusation, that I did a quick self- check and determined that I truly was not angry with her. I said something like, “Really, I’m not angry with you. I was just saying to put your milk away.” My daughter responded, “Yes, but I experience it that way” meaning that I was angry.  It was at that moment that I had the epiphany. As a therapist, I realized that it was not my daughter’s responsibility to understand my emotional intention. As a father, it was my responsibility to communicate with her in such a way that she would understand that I was not angry with her.

This shift in awareness had a profound impact on me. I realized that I had to be explicit in clarifying the emotional states beneath my statements, and that even then, my daughter might have a subjective experience different from my intention. Of course, there were other contextual reasons why my daughter might experience me as angry or might make problematic inferences about my statements which were not based on interactions with me, and which I would have to be aware of and try to address. However, the core realization–which in this moment of clarity I knew and felt with conviction that I would have to act on going forward as a parent – was that it was my responsibility to try to make sure that I was understood rather than assume understanding. What’s more, the fact that my daughter had intuitively responded using vocabulary which would resonate with me and which identified her subjective truth showed that she unconsciously understood that from her perspective, I was not communicating effectively.  She sensed that my intentions did not match her experience, and that she needed me to both understand that her subjective experience was different from my intention and that I needed to change the way I was parenting her. Thus my conscious epiphany was triggered by an unconscious epiphany on her part.

In summary, sometimes we just have to listen and allow ourselves to hear and be open to what lies beneath the responses to our casual statements. As a therapist, I take it for granted that I need to communicate to my clients that I am a person of good will with “unconditional positive regard” for them. Yet it is easy for any of us to forget that in interpersonal interactions with the people who matter most, the important underlying emotional context of the message can easily be missed.

~ Philip M. Jackson, LCSW ~