How to Create Space and Improve Your Parenting: An Interview with Dr. Shefali
Shefali Tsabary, PhD, is an international speaker, acclaimed author, and creator of the groundbreaking Conscious Parenting approach—which Oprah Winfrey has endorsed as revolutionary and life-changing. Dr. Shefali’s blend of clinical psychology and Eastern mindfulness sets her apart as a leader in the field of mindfulness psychology. Her New York Times best-selling books include The Conscious Parent and The Awakened Family.
1440: Emotional reactivity is pretty much the exact opposite of mindfulness. And, yet, parenthood is a time of so many exhausting and emotionally acute moments that trigger us. How can parents work to overcome their own reactivity and embrace consciousness?
Dr. Shefali: This is the core task. This is the core spiritual task of a conscious parent—to understand that it is in this journey that the reactivity of old triggers and old wounds will be the most intense. Therefore, you could look at parenting as an opportunity, or you could look at it as a calling to be stressed and overwhelmed. If you look at it as an opportunity, then you learn that reactivity is the default, and transcending reactivity is the call of consciousness.
Reactivity is really a desire to control because you’re feeling out of control.
You react because you’re feeling helpless and you believe that through the reaction, through the punishment, through the control, you will regain some of the lack of helplessness. You will regain ground and feel more powerful.
When you first understand the dynamics, you see why we react—because we feel helpless and we believe subconsciously that if we react, we will create the compensation to helplessness. Discipline and punishment are offshoots of this desire to regain power.
So, what do we do when we realize this? The key is to step back—that’s what mindfulness allows—and create the ability to detach from what we’re believing. In the out-of-control moment, we’re believing that I am a bad parent, I am helpless, I have no choice. Mindfulness helps us step back from those disempowering thoughts and have the ability, the space, and the expansiveness to create other thoughts: I’m not helpless. I am okay. This is normal. This will pass. These thoughts are soothing, they come from your adult self rather than your inner child.
When you are able to transcend reactivity, you discover different choices. Creating space enables this. You take a time out. You walk. You pause. You don’t catastrophize. You breathe. You count to ten. Then, you see other options for how to respond.
1440: What about parents who can’t transcend, or haven’t yet evolved the capacity to see their old wounds? What about parents who simply feel the anxiety and hear the confirmation from peers that parenting is an overwhelming, exhausting, anxious time—and that’s just how it is?
Dr. Shefali: When you don’t see your own patterns, when you’re not conscious, you’re simply under siege from the constant tantrumming and protesting of your inner child. So much so that the inner child runs the ship, and takes over the car, and it runs amuck through the town. And you don’t even see it happening—because you’re that asleep. That’s why it is so scary to be unconscious: your inner child is in the driver’s seat.
The process of consciousness means, psychologically, understanding that your inner child needs to be soothed. You’re being triggered because your inner child is in fear. You have to go through a whole process of psychological and spiritual evolution to transcend the old conditioning.
1440: Let’s talk about discipline. You suggest that old-school techniques—timeouts, punishments, loss of privileges—are often invoked to stop kids from exhibiting behaviors that trigger parents. Does that mean the evolution of self-awareness in parents omits the need for discipline? Or is there room for discipline in a conscious parenting approach?
Dr. Shefali: I don’t focus on discipline because the only person that needs to be disciplined is the parent’s own inner child. But I talk about the need for boundaries. I talk about the need for limits. I talk about the need for connection. Traditional discipline is a surefire saboteur of connection because it’s based on a fear-based power/control model.
New discipline requires the parent to step within and ask: What is needed here? What kind of boundary does my child need? Why am I afraid to create the boundary? How can I create the boundary to build a connection?
And then the parent must seek to create the action that needs to be taken versus seeking to punish the child because the parent feels badly. Most punishments are just arbitrary, random, lazy forms of knee-jerk reactivity that we call discipline. But that’s not discipline. Because now the parent is out of control, and the parent needs discipline.
1440: We live in a culture where marriages frequently don’t last, and children of divorce often face a culture clash between two households. What is the impact on a child when one parent is committed to a conscious approach, and the other is not? How would you would advise families in which the parents—whether together or apart—are not philosophically aligned?
Dr. Shefali: This is most common question I get asked—the most common.
Lack of alignment is more typical than not. And when you’re conscious, you understand why it’s more typical than not because consciousness is not the mainstream way, and it’s extremely hard to follow, and it’s extremely hard for many, especially men, to get on board with this kind of approach. So, I tell the one who’s conscious on this path: Expect to be lonely. Expect to clash with your partner. But know that you have the tools to shine brightly.
And don’t expect miracles, and don’t begrudge your partner for not walking this path. But, yes, it will make it harder for you, and you may divorce because of it. But children don’t get more screwed up because of it—it is better for them to have one than none.
1440: Do you think that is a myth that parents struggle with—this concept of a need for alignment?
Dr. Shefali: It’s a front. I say that the notion of parents providing a united front is mostly a front. You’re supposed to be different from your spouse. How can you be the same? If you’re the same, that’s wonderful. But please be similarly evolved. Very few people choose partners who are evolved in their twenties. So, it’s great if both grow—it’s amazing. But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen. Don’t be depressed if it isn’t happening.
1440: Stepping beyond family structure for a moment—the onslaught of fear-based thinking is a terribly real force in America. We see this reflected in so many narratives—gun violence, immigration, gender and sexuality, to name a few. What can parents do to identify their own fear-based thinking, and help their children navigate it?
Dr. Shefali: Yes, here is the root cause of all ills and all -isms in our society. And fear emerges because the parent was fed a delusional belief that they are separate from themselves, and separate from divinity. And when you grow up with the separate mindset, it’s quite natural that you are filled with biases, prejudices, and projections.
How do you become aware of it? You begin to awaken when you realize you’re living stressfully, you’re living competitively, you’re living comparing yourself, you’re living attached, deeply attached, to your possessions and your ego. But to be frank, so few people awaken to this. So they live addicted to fear.
Eventually, people will wake up, but this is how they’ve been conditioned, so to break out of this prison of fear is extremely hard, and it often takes pain to knock us out of it. That’s why people often need to hit some sort of big tragedy, or rock bottom, or terminal illness before they wake up.