What my young patients taught me about parenting

Despite meticulous time management and delegation as a doctor, there were times when I found cobwebs on the laundry left on the clothesline too long, or a moldy school lunch or squashed banana forgotten at the bottom of a school bag at home. I would ensure all the important school dates were in my diary, but I was often tripped up by the curriculum day when school was suddenly off without time to organize childcare.

On one such occasion, a prominent psychiatrist and his wife, also a psychiatrist, happened to be staying at my home and kindly offered to look after my young adolescent sons. I was riddled with guilt when I later heard that my children had disappeared to our shed for the day. When I asked them if anything was wrong, I laughed with relief at their dismissive response: “We were just scared they would diagnose us.”

Now that my sons are impossibly well-adjusted adults, I can reflect on what worked for me as a working parent. Some of the most powerful parenting lessons came from my young patients, who told me things like:

“My parents get up, go to work, get dinner, clean up, get ready for the next day. I feel I should be grateful, but this doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I don’t mind my mother working. Her work helps our family financially. What worries me is the way she is rushed, irritable and distant. She feels guilty and overreacts to things. We get away with murder when she is tired.”

“My mum hates work and takes it out on us and then says, ‘I’m doing all this for you.’ I feel like saying: ‘What exactly are you doing for us?’”

“When I look back on my school years, the most important thing that helped was that my mum really listened to me. I just wanted her to understand but not to worry, or overreact, or do anything, or give me advice. She would sometimes stop the car and give me her full attention, or stay up late with me just talking on my bed. Most of all she would fully listen with her kind eyes. She didn’t even have to tell me. I knew when she did this she really loved me.”

“Sometimes my mum comes into my room when I am studying hard for exams and quietly puts a hot chocolate on my desk then leaves without saying anything. She tells me she loves me and respects me when she doesn’t say anything or give me any advice. I love her.”

Which style of parenting protects children and adolescents and promotes resilience? Research supports what my young patients taught me about their need for parents who are warm, respectful, nurturing, firm and autonomy granting.

It is one of the amazing privileges of our work as doctors that we gain deep insights into people’s lives from diverse backgrounds, which in turn enrich our own lives and our relationships with our own families. “Fully listening with kind eyes” has been a valuable piece of advice for my work as a doctor and for parenting my sons as adolescents and adults.

What have the powerful voices of your patients taught you?

Leanne Rowe is a physician in Australia and is the co-author of Every Doctor

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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