by Dr. Laura Markham
Dr Laura….I only found Aha! Parenting a month ago. Already things have improved so much with my kids and I no longer act like a crazy person when I get frustrated with them. But I keep wondering if I have messed my children up forever….”
Have you made mistakes as a parent? Join the club. The bad news is that you’re human, like all parents. So we all fall short.
The good news is, it is never too late to heal things with your child. The older your child is, the harder it will be, because kids develop emotional armor and they lash out to keep you from getting too close. But secretly, they desperately want your love.
The even better news is, your child does not need perfect parents. In fact, if your child sees you as perfect, he’ll feel worse about himself, since he knows that he’s not. What your child needs from you is a model of how to be a gracious human. That means admitting when you’ve been wrong. Being willing to grow. Giving yourself support to do better. Working hard to regulate your own emotions instead of acting like a crazy person, no matter what your child does.
Not so easy, right? That’s why loving your child unconditionally starts with loving yourself unconditionally.
I’m not excusing parents harming their children. I’m pointing out that you can’t simultaneously feel bad about what you’ve done, and feel good enough to do better. (Just like your child.) We all make mistakes. But if you use your past mistakes to guide you toward a better way in the future, that’s called a learning experience, not a mistake. Really. We’re all doing the best we can with whatever we know at the time.
Luckily, children are resilient. Your child may need to do some crying about those times when she felt so alone in the face of your anger. But whatever is happening in your relationship with your child, whatever mistakes you’ve made, however ugly your child is acting, however ugly you’ve acted — it is never too late. You can always transform your relationship with your child into a happier, closer, connection. Here’s how.
1. Lighten Up.
Most of our upsets with our kids stem from our own fear. (What if he NEVER learns? What if she gets in big trouble and ruins her life? What if I’ve damaged him forever?) But fear never helps us make good decisions. You can always choose a new course now and start moving in a better direction. And the truth is, most issues with kids are developmental, meaning that as the brain matures, the child matures. So lighten up, give yourself some compassion, and trust that your child will be ok. Just say to yourself, “He’s getting better parenting than I did, and I came out ok.”
2. Make self-regulation your highest priority.
If you can stay centered and pay attention, you can respond with love and creativity to whatever’s going on with your child. It’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll find yourself off-track. Take a deep breath, apologize, suggest a “Do Over” and try again. (That’s fantastic modeling for your child!)
3. Focus on connecting with your child, which means start where he is.
The healing comes when your child is able to show you all those hurt feelings from the past. If he’s in a place that hurts, he’ll be acting ugly. Summon up your patience and your courage and go in there after him. Let him express how upset he is about what’s happened in the past. If you can keep yourself calm and compassionate, your child will start to soften. Before you know it, the hurt will surface. Acknowledge and apologize: “I am so sorry that happened….I didn’t understand how much that hurt your feelings….That must have made you feel alone and scared…. I never want you to feel that way….I am always here for you and I love you so much.” This is how he heals from what’s happened in the past. It isn’t easy–for either of you–but it won’t go on forever. Don’t take it personally. Don’t try to teach him any lessons until he feels better. Don’t get lost in the dark in there with him. You’re the one who’s supposed to have the candle, remember? Bring your child back into connection with you, and he’ll be a whole different kid.
4. Focus on repair, not blame.
It wouldn’t be good for your child to have perfect parents, because then she’d never see you role- modeling self-forgiveness and repair. Use the inevitable little rifts of life as opportunities to get closer and make things better. To do that, you have to be willing to summon up your humility and humor and apologize, sometimes often. When you find yourself on the wrong path, STOP (what you’re doing), DROP (your agenda, just until you calm down) and BREATHE. Then, ask for a Do-Over: “I’m sorry I was starting to yell. Let’s try a do-over. I’m worried that we’re running out of time here, and I need you to do _________ now. How can we all work together to make this easy?”
5. Enjoy your child.
Often we’re so busy managing our children that we forget what kids really need. Children need us to enjoy them. That’s how they learn they’re of value! That’s also how they learn what joy is, what makes life worth living. So resist the lure of your screens to sit on the couch whenever possible, and focus on the invisible tasks of parenting. That’s what heals your relationship with your child. Empathizing…. Giggling together …. Healing hurt feelings…Tummy time with the baby … Floor time with the toddler…Bedtime snuggles with the elementary schooler…Couch time with the tween… Walks with the teen… Family game night…Helping children think about the world and explore their emerging passions… Supporting kids to solve their own problems… Pillow fights…Star-gazing…Listening…. Lighting candles … Connecting.
So show up, and lighten up. Let the past go. Accept your child’s hurt. Connect now. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to fix your child or the situation. All you have to do is stay present and try to choose love instead of fear. Your child doesn’t even need the red cup, or whatever she’s crying for. She needs your loving acceptance of her, complete with all her tangled up feelings. Her disappointment, rage, and grief? They’re all ok, part of a rich emotional life, and they will all pass without you doing a thing. Just love her–and yourself– through it. Unconditionally.
“Understanding alone cannot prevent disrupted connections from occurring. Some will inevitably happen. The challenge we all share is to embrace our humanity with humor and patience so that we can in turn relate to our children with openness and kindness. To continually chastise ourselves for our “errors” with our children keeps us involved in our own emotional issues and out of relationship with our children.” — Dan Siegel