Parenting is one of the most challenging and important enterprises human beings can undertake. I have the deepest respect for people who undertake this challenge consciously and who want to do it well. Such parents are preparing the future generation to live purposeful and good lives, and I respect this enterprise deeply. I hope to inspire parents to weave new ideas into the tapestry of their skills and techniques. I offer my observations as a psychologist who works with children, adolescents, and adults who have had both positive and negative parenting experiences. If you find yourself relating to my examples, perhaps you will feel moved to consider incorporating them into your parenting. I believe that good communication and healthy family life are promoted by building relationships based on the three C’s.
The three C's stand for Compassion, Containment, and Calm. Each concept has a message that we send to children and teens. When we give or withhold any of these concepts from children, we communicate a point. The message of Compassion is "you are important to me, to yourself, and to the rest of the world. You matter enough for me to care what you think and feel. When you hurt, a part of me hurts." The message of Containment is "I will not let you hurt yourself, me, or anyone else. I will not let others hurt you, including myself. Humans are capable of self-control, and I will teach and model this to you." The message of Calm is "I am in control of my feelings and actions, and this makes us both safe. You can trust me; I am your rock."

Many of us think that children don't respond to what we don't do. If we don't beat, yell at, touch inappropriately, or insult them, we're doing well enough. That is a starting place from which good parenting begins. That ensures their physical and psychological safety, but it is not the sum total of their needs. We also need to actively nourish them psychologically. These three concepts can contribute to that nourishment. Each concept brings a different dimension of caring to the youngster, and each can be adapted for the developmental needs of the child.

Compassion demonstrates empathy to your child, not just for the negative feeling states s/he has in response to upsetting events, but also for the positive feelings of pride, happiness, and love. Compassion is a way of noticing what the child needs at that moment and trying to fulfill it with a heartfelt response. For example, when a little boy gets hurt on the playground, the traditional response in the past has been “Oh, you’re a big boy, you’ll get over it” or “Boys don’t cry.” Compassion would have you put yourself in that little boy’s place and imagine what you would like to hear. It validates what they’re feeling and lets them know they’re being seen and understood. A more progressive parent might say, “Ouch, that must hurt. I feel bad for you right now. We’ll take care of it and you’ll feel better soon.” Alternatively, your 13-year-old daughter might come home and say that her best friend dumped her. Instead of saying, “Well I never liked her anyway, she’s a bad influence for you,” you might say, “I’m sorry to hear about that. What happened?”

When a child is happy or proud of something they’ve achieved, it’s also important to acknowledge this by being sensitive to what they need at that moment. “You must be so proud of yourself to learn to tie your shoe! I’m very happy for you!” is much more validating than “it’s about time you did that” or not even making any comment. Your words and actions have a lot of power, to uplift, to soothe, and to hurt. Try to remember this when you interact with your children, because they take you seriously (even when it seems by their actions that they don’t).

Containment is a hard concept for some parents to understand, because it overlaps with discipline and structure, which can be taken to extremes and become abusive. Not letting kids see their friends at all or punishing them to the point that they are physically or emotionally hurt, are examples of extreme containment. Healthy containment, by contrast, provides the message that the parent vows to keep their children safe and give them realistic feedback on how the world at large will receive their behavior. For example, letting young girls dress provocatively or act in ways that might put them in danger for sexual exploitation needs to be addressed, with respect and compassion. A parent might say, “Honey, you look pretty but I am really concerned about the way you’re dressed. I don’t want people to treat you like a sex object. I want you to put more clothes on.” You’re not likely to be well-liked at that moment. Yet you’ve sent a message to her that she’s important, worth protecting. You don’t want to see her hurt by others or by her own actions.

Some parents provide so little containment that their children feel confused, angry, and act in ways that make them disliked. Containment can help socialize children and prepare them to be well-liked and respected as adults. Sometimes parents worry that they will not allow their children to fully express themselves if they exert influence on their children’s behavior, and in extremely critical families this can occur. However, there is a fine line between being concerned with what society expects of kids and allowing them to be who they are. A child can intentionally hurt himself or his family, or community, without any consequence from his parents. That is an alarming state of affairs! Some of my acquaintances have spent thousands of dollars on residential treatment for both their children. One youth has substance abuse problems, and the younger teen has become highly disturbed. I predict these parents will continue spending money on these children in vain. The parents refuse to set limits with their children and follow through with their limits. A limit must be set with their son, now 22, so that he stops using drugs and alcohol while living under their roof. They also need to cooperate with the drug treatment programs they place him in my cooperating with his drug testing. They would also do well to set behavioral limits when their adolescent daughter insults, slaps, and screams at her mother. This is an extreme example of lack of limits, and it shows how desperate things can get when there are no consequences of maladaptive behavior.

When parents want to be liked to the extent that they don’t say “no” to unreasonable requests or behaviors, they fail in their role as protectors and preparers of their children for the real world. If a child is depressed and threatening suicide, he needs to know that his parents will protect him from his self-destructive impulses. Anorexic or bulimic youngsters may also need intensive treatment. Such youths often put up extreme resistance when her parents intervene. In the short run, young people with severe problems may say things like “I hate you!” or “this is so unfair!” It is a thankless position for the parent, since the self-destructive impulse is strong at that moment. Parents may need support at these times, since they need to intervene and contain their children in these life-threatening instances. If parents do not make these unpopular decisions, then who will?

Calm is actually beneficial for you as a parent as well as for the child or teen. Your ability to self-regulate your internal mood and anxiety can reduce the negative effects of stress on your body and mind. It also shows your child how to deal effectively with stressful situations, Being calm with your child allows the him or her to de-escalate when he or she is very upset with you or in your presence. If your child or teen is yelling at you, remaining calm can be very difficult. When anyone is yelling at us, destroying property, hurting deeply, or scared out of their minds, it can be hard to hold onto our sanity. The same empathy that allows us to have compassion for our children can also make it hard to separate ourselves from their intense emotional expression. Parents should definitely protect themselves from unfair attacks and destructive actions, no matter who the provocateur may be. Yet many of the interchanges with children that lead to escalation can usually be defused when the parent demonstrates a calm, self-respectful stance in response to their child’s upset.

In a way, being calm is another way of showing containment (you are in control of your feelings and behaviors), and compassion (you are sensitive to the kid’s needs and feelings, and see that in this moment you need to be more mature than they’re acting). Being calm may require putting aside your expectations for the child or for the situation. For example, when a child is experiencing intense fear, it helps to let them express that fear without injecting your own judgments or opinions about what they should be feeling in that moment. If you are afraid of the same thing they’re afraid of, you can acknowledge this. It’s healthy not to divulge too much and use the youngster as your confidante. Try to reach out to friends for emotional support instead. Being present and calm for your child is a gift that your child will remember and internalize, more than any tangible present you could give them.

One idea that can help if both the parent and child are angry in the moment, is that each one agrees to take a time out. This usually works with children eight yrs old and above who have the concept of “time out” down from earlier time out experiences. Both the child and adult can agree to talk about the issue when they have calmed down without yelling, punching walls, or insulting each other. Unfortunately, some parents have been abused physically, verbally or sexually as children. They have a harder time handling the intense emotions that are evoked by their own children. They know the temporary peace or compliance that can be bought by domination or violence. However, when they resort to that behavior themselves, they demonstrate to their children or adolescents that they are out-of-control themselves. Aside from the obvious breaking the law and risking their children’s physical safety, they damage their relationships with them. Their children may lose respect for them, distrust them, and it may actually desensitize their kids to the same extreme methods that they think work so well. After a while a kid may think, “I know I’ll get hit anyway, I might as well try doing what I want until I do get hit.” The parent may also feel very bad about themselves afterwards. They often have a hard time knowing how to regroup and get back on track. If you find yourself “losing it” physically or verbally with your sons or daughters and regretting it, please get some help ASAP. Some numbers for local parental stress agencies are at the bottom of the page. It takes more courage to obtain help than pretending there is no problem (which can happen when we’re ashamed of our actions). When you can demonstrate a calm, thoughtful response to a situation, you help your child be effective in the moment rather than out-of-control and reactive.

While the three C’s are not the sum total of parenting, they are some basic thoughts to consider in how you interact with your offspring. You send them the message that they are important, safe, and protected. This goes a long way to helping them have a happy and productive childhood and adolescence. Raising children and teenagers can be challenging and also very rewarding, so sometimes old patterns that don’t work for you might re-emerge. Remember that aiming for compassion, containment and calm can get you back on track to being the wonderful parent you were destined to be.

Parental Stress Links:

1. Family Paths: 800-829-3777
2. The San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Council: 415-441-KIDS
3. Parental Stress Service in Oakland, Hayward and Fremont: Crisis line: (510) 893-5444
(c) 2007 Lisa Larsen, PsyD

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Larsen is a licensed psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area who helps trauma survivors improve their relationships with themselves and others, and helps addicted people overcome harmful thought and behavior patterns. She obtained her doctor of psychology degree from John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, CA and has been in private practice helping children, adolescents and adults from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In working with children and families she has been able to see patterns that do and don't work, and has reflected on how she can assist families thrive in the face of challenges and stressors such as family violence, financial struggles, poor boundaries, and traumatic histories of one or both parents.