Being a frontline soldier is a hard job. So is flying rescue helicopters in blizzards. Running a country seems like a tough gig, too.
Raising kids? The toughest! Or, not so much?
Parenting is undoubtedly exhausting, regularly frustrating, often boring, and sometimes overwhelming. Personally speaking, however, I don’t think of it as 'hard' (and I say this as the mother of a talkative and insatiably curious two year old who refused to nap at all for the first eight months of her life, and still wakes at least once at night). My suspicion is that daily challenges of wrangling small humans feel tougher because we’re constantly telling ourselves (and others) how hard it is.
On a scale of, say, coal miner to ER doctor, is raising children as difficult as we make it out to be – or is it our penchant for using terms like 'hard' and 'thankless' that makes it seem so tough?
A plethora of research shows that our inner monologue unquestionably shapes our experience. Most of us use negative words to talk to ourselves about most things – including parenting - and those negative thoughts can create feelings of anger, irritation, frustration, hopelessness and disappointment.
“The words that we use as our self-talk definitely create our reality. If our self-talk about parenting is negative, then we create negative emotions and even negative outcomes,” says clinical psychologist and parenting expert Dr Janet Hall.
“Our minds can be programmed to notice the negatives more than the positives. We may have learned that from our parents, too. It takes persistence and determination to turn the negatives off and focus on the positives.”
Not negative, just honest
For Bianca Wordley, mum to three girls aged five, seven and eight, using words like 'hard' to describe parenting isn’t about being negative – it’s about being honest.
“[Being] brutally honest makes me feel like a real person. Pretending everything is wonderful can be quite damaging to others who are struggling,” she says. “Honesty also makes me more aware and appreciative of the good. Parenting is hard work, and it is also one of the most amazing and wonderful rides of your life.”
This habit of thinking and talking about parenting in mostly negative terms crosses cultures. Parents from cultures in which it’s common for extended family to provide support and play an active role in childrearing also say that raising kids is hard work.
“I expected parenthood to be hard, because even though my family and friends are supportive, none of them live close-by. The reality is about what I expected,” says mother-of-two Letizia Froio, who is of Italian descent.
“I don’t feel that the words (I use) make a difference. My children are a handful because they are strong-willed,” says Froio.
"With the act of repeating a new thought over and over, we can very literally rewire neural pathways, changing our beliefs, and consequently changing our perception of reality."
Mum of one, Dorcas Sifa Bulea, whose background is Congolese, says family support often makes parenting seem harder because there’s added pressure to meet the expectations of more experienced parents.
“It’s very common in my culture for your family to help out, and I was well supported by my parents, [but] everything I do seems harder because I feel like I’m expected to do everything right at all times,” she says.
Research has also shown that swapping negative words for positive internal chatter not only makes us feel better, it makes us do better. Unfortunately, however, we humans have an unhelpful habit of being reluctant to change our minds.
“We filter information available to us from our surrounding environment to match our beliefs. For example, if someone has a belief that ‘parenting is tough’, they will delete contrary information and distort information to match this belief, so that they feel their perception of reality makes sense,” says Jem Switajewski, a neurolinguistic programming (NLP) practitioner and mindfulness coach.
“If someone says, ‘Parenting is hard’, she might say, ‘Which part of parenting is hard?’ thereby uncovering that there are other parts of parenting that aren’t ‘hard’ and undoing that blanket feeling,” he says.
Rather than slapping a general label like 'hard' on the job of parenting, it can be more helpful to think in less black-and-white terms, he says.
“Perhaps a healthier belief mindset could be, ‘Parenting is what it is - it presents joys and challenges, laughter and frustration, it rewards and tests us, and through all of it we grow.’”
Switajewski says the language we use, both in our self talk and with others, actually has a physiological effect on our brain’s wiring – so using more positive words can sink in on a cellular level.
“Awareness is the first, very powerful step. With the act of repeating a new thought over and over, we can very literally rewire neural pathways, changing our beliefs, and consequently changing our perception of reality.”
Adelaide dad Bryan Littlely says making a conscious effort to use positive language to think and talk about parenting has had a positive impact on his relationship with his six-year-old daughter.
“Positivity encourages positivity. Even when she's really pushing our buttons, both my wife and I take the approach that we have to work on attitude change – and not just hers,” he says. “Definitely a positive attitude from us as parents is rewarded with better behaviour from her.”
Talking the talk
Neuro linguitic programming (NLP) practitioner and mindfulness coach Jem Switajewski shares his top NLP tips for parents.
1. Think big picture
Research shows that we filter information from our environment – deleting, distorting or generalising - to match our global beliefs. In other words, if we’re convinced parenting is the toughest gig ever, we’ll dwell on the evidence that supports this idea and ignore everything else.
Simply being aware that this is how the human brain operates is the first step to making big changes, says Switajewski.
“Once we shine a light on our reactions to situations, we begin to create a moment to pause before reacting,” he explains. “Changing our global beliefs is possible through seeking out evidence of the new desired belief.”
2. Flip the script
Another unhelpful quirk of our wiring, says Switajewski, is that we often miss the prefix of a sentence – which can be particularly frustrating where kids are concerned. For example, when mum says, “Don’t run”, a toddler is likely to hear, “Run!”
“Rephrasing is simple: state what you do want, not what you don't,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘Don’t run’, say, ‘Hey, let’s walk.’ Rather than, ‘Don’t touch anything’, say, ‘Let’s keep our hands to ourselves.’”
3. Be specific
Next time you catch yourself thinking ‘this is so difficult’, break it down to specifics. Switajewski cites the work of late American social worker Virginia Satir, whose methods formed the foundations of NLP and who focused on specificity.
“For example, if someone says, ‘Parenting is hard’, she might say, ‘Which part of parenting is hard?’ thereby uncovering that there are other parts of parenting that aren’t ‘hard’ and undoing that blanket feeling,” he says.
4. Fake it til you make it
If all else fails and you’re really struggling to convince yourself that raising kids is anything other than relentless hard graft, simply fake it. Constantly repeat more positive messages and eventually they’ll sink in, Switajewski says.
“We can change our beliefs through repetition. I find a healthy and helpful belief is ‘children are innocent little ones behaving in a very human way given the resources available to them - they know no different.’ Anger requires energy, and depleted energy makes us tired and irritable. This belief means we don't get angry as much.”