Conscious Parenting with Dr. Shefali Tsabary: Your How-To Guide
The following piece originally appeared as “Conscious Parenting: Your How-To Guide,” in the Fall / Winter 2024 issue of Tracy Anderson Magazine, available now for digital download and print orders. Members receive complimentary access to Tracy Anderson Magazine in the Online Studio.
An interview with top clinical psychologist Dr. Shefali about her tools, guidance, and philosophy around nurturing healthy parent-child relationships, and leaving toxic behaviors behind.
Parenting might just be the most important role we will ever play. We asked Dr. Shefali–renowned clinical psychologist, author, and founder of the Conscious Parenting Coaching Institute–to discuss how to better connect with our children, or any child with whom we have a sustainable relationship. In her own practice, Dr. Shefali integrates Eastern philosophy and Western psychology to define a new paradigm of connection. She tells us about the power of healing ourselves in order to heal others.
TA: How can we help our children feel safe and nurtured, while empowering their independence?
ST: A child’s essential core need is to feel safe–secure, seen and understood. We focus on safety by creating physical consistency in the environment as well as emotional consistency. We can also nurture autonomy by allowing our children to tap into their own inner voice, and their own inner knowing. Allowing children to make their own choices and deal with the consequences will foster independence. And finally, allowing our children to make mistakes–without fear of shame or disconnection from us–allows them to grow into their inner power and worth.
TA: You talk about dismantling the hierarchy of the parent-child relationship. How would you respond to parents struggling to teach their children healthy behavior?
ST: In the new model of conscious parenting, we reimagine the traditional hierarchy between parent and child. The parent begins to let go of dogmatic control. Behavioral issues are not “bad”, but reveal a deeper underlying need. Parents who are attuned and connected to their children don’t focus on surface behaviors but ask themselves, “What is my child trying to express?” When we focus on surface behaviors only, and seek to correct those behaviors through coercive means (fear, retaliation, punishment, shaming), we create an abyss between parent and child. We need to understand that behaviors signal a deeper need.
TA: You’ve written several New York Times bestsellers about parenting that debunk the myth of discipline. What’s your take on the old “carrot and stick” system of parenting?
ST: The old system is rooted in reward and punishment. Rather than incentivising or punishing behaviors, conscious parenting seeks to foster intrinsic motivation from deep within the child’s self. Also, children begin to rely on external shaming or motivation. When we reward our children, they do things for the reward without developing their own sense of purpose. When we punish our children, we create shame and fear. In response, children may develop additional emotional behavioral problems.
TA: Your books have helped so many parents define their objectives, and reconsider best approaches to raising happy, healthy kids. You often speak of the integration of Western psychology and Eastern philosophy–how has this shaped your unique perspective?
ST: The integration of Western psychology with Eastern philosophy has profoundly shaped my perspective and the principles of conscious parenting. Western psychology focuses on how childhood influences our life patterns, while Eastern practices bring a different perspective. Mindfulness, presence, the interconnectedness of all beings. The approach is more circular, flattening the tremendous power hierarchy between parent and child. The parent instructs the child, and the child is also the parent’s awakener and teacher. This holistic approach then guides us to deeper connection. The child is honored for their being. Being held in such high esteem by the parent–who views them as their spiritual partner in life’s journey–makes them feel empowered and worthy, while parents free themselves from the anxiety and stress of egoic control. This makes for a more enriching relationship all around.
TA: What daily practices do you suggest to spark joy and self-esteem in children?
ST: Active listening, spending quality time together, and encouraging open communication will allow the child to feel empowered. This is a gift of inestimable worth, because the parent is not using the child to meet their expectations and fantasies. The child is free to spark their own joy and self-empowerment.
TA: Without judgment or blame, what do you think is the most toxic parental behavior?
ST: I think the most toxic behavior is really the mindset of the traditional parenting model–the child must be fixed, and the parent has the right to do so. This myth of possession and control is toxic, and will stifle the child’s ability to kindle self-curiosity and self-growth, leading to silencing, suppression, and self-loathing within the child. Conscious parenting debunks this model.
TA: Parents aren’t the only determining factors of their child’s upbringing. What advice would you give parents on relenting control?
ST: This whole idea of control is an illusion. Yes, we as parents are in charge of our children’s well-being and safety, but control is an illusion, like chasing a rainbow. The only thing we can control is our own internal response system to life. When we realize that control is nothing more than an idea, we can actually turn the need for external control inward, and begin to foster a deep sense of inner discipline and alignment.
TA: You famously speak about how to talk to your kids about religion. What does a healthy spiritual relationship between parent and child look like?
ST: Many parents impose their belief systems on their children, ranging from religious beliefs, traditions, family norms, sexuality, gender, achievement, beauty, work ethic, all of it is being passed down to our children. When we do this unconsciously, we run the risk of stifling our children’s potential to discover their own answers to life’s great questions. A true connected relationship allows children the freedom to adopt our belief systems or not, according to their own inclinations. This requires courage, but allowing children to discover their own life paths will propagate the greatest freedom, empowerment and self-discovery in their child.
TA: In a two-parent home, how important is it for parents to always be on the same page?
ST: Most families do not achieve this, as they often have differing perspectives and upbringings. Instead of aiming for unilateral unification, it’s more important that each person expresses themselves in an authentic manner. I think that it is more valuable for children to observe how two adults can have respectful discourse without rancor, volatility or violence.
TA: If the relationship is challenged, how do you rebuild trust between parent and child?
ST: Trust can be rebuilt, particularly between parent and child, but this is predicated on the time, commitment, and energy one spends on that connection. If we take accountability and do the inner work that’s required to process the underlying behavior. Apologizing, creating a pathway for change, showing up in a new way, all of these are fundamental to regaining trust.
TA: Often other adults–grandparents, family friends, teachers, babysitters–play important roles in kids’ lives. Should parents have conversations with these adults about discipline, mutual respect, etc.?
ST: In their early years, it is so valuable for children to have extended care from a myriad of sources: teachers, caregivers, relatives, grandparents, friends. These influences create a “village” that allows the child to experiment and build the communication skills to negotiate different relationships. Isolating children to just biological or adoptive parents is unhealthy; extending the child’s relationships to include different sources is healthy and beneficial. We cannot bubble-wrap and protect our children from the vagrancies of life or the many relationships they will encounter. Different perspectives actually build their capacity to respond and adapt, to show flexibility, creativity and resourcefulness in life’s unique situations.
TA: How do you define the difference between projecting onto your child and creating space for your child to become who they choose to be?
ST: The difference between projecting onto your child and creating space for them to become who they choose to become lies in a fundamental parental quality called consciousness. Projecting involves unconsciously dumping your desires and fantasies onto your child and expecting them to be fulfilled. They may have very little connection to those fantasies, which actually originate from your own inner lack or scarcity, and your own childhood patterns. When we project onto our children, we use them as an instrument to meet our needs versus their own. When we create a safe space for our children to become who they choose to be, we are walking on this life path together but perhaps in different directions, and that is very healthy and natural for both parents and children. Creating the space means allowing our children to find their own unique voice, free from our own expectations.
TA: Can you talk about your Conscious Coaching Institute, and the work you do?
ST: The Conscious Coaching Institute is a fantastic, deeply transformational program that enables people to become life coaches, helping families to heal using the principles of conscious parenting. We have now trained over a thousand coaches globally, and we continue to spread the message of conscious parenting. The 5-month program is online, with two cohorts every year. It is a self-development program that provides coaches with tools and strategies to implement in their own lives as well as the lives of others. The Institute focuses on empowering individuals to become coaches, to develop a purpose and monetize it, creating a full-time, home-based career. Most of our coaches are people who have been deeply impacted by the methods of conscious parenting.
TA: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a parent yourself?
ST: I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from parenting my daughter is to truly develop my own inner self-love, self-trust and authenticity. The more connected I am to myself the more connected I am to her, and therefore she is to herself. So, the biggest lesson I keep learning in conscious parenting is that it all starts with me and my level of evolution. The more aware, connected, attuned and aligned I am with my own inner voice, the more present, giving, clear and consistent I can be with my child and with all relationships in my life.
TA: To readers who are new to the idea of conscious parenting, how should they start?
ST: Conscious parenting is radically, transformationally, and revolutionarily different from what I call the traditional parenting model. The traditional model was heavily embedded in principles of control, fear, and hierarchy, where the child was expected to follow the parent’s ways. Conscious parenting is a brand-new way of parenting our children. It’s all about parents raising themselves as they raise their children. Parents focus on healing themselves, integrating their own childhood baggage so that they don’t project the remnants of trauma onto their children. When parents understand their own patterns and limit internal projections onto their children, this empowers children to own their own lives and destinies, and to be as authentic as they need to be, rather than puppets to live out their parents’ fantasies.