Two years ago, I was teaching a parenting workshop. In the meat of some of the material and during some role-playing, a father raised his hand to ask a question. Calling upon him, he stood up and cleared his throat. His eyes were brimmed with tears. In a trembled voice he said, “I try so hard every day to do better for my kids. Better than what was done for me. But I mess up. All the time, I mess up. And while I probably already know the answer to my question, I need to hear it from you … Am I messing them up?” … He hung his head low, and much quieter now, he whispered, “I am terrified to mess them up.”
Am I Messing Up My Kids?
I spend a great deal of time looking into the effects of punishment and shame. I am acutely aware of how our words can cut deep and how the implicit and explicit messages of toxic discipline can last far beyond our youth. How do I know? Because I am a 36-year-old woman with emotions and reactions that sometimes seem to belong to a frightened five-year-old.
I am an emotional trauma survivor. And because of my own wounding, I am terrified of wounding my children. I am terrified of holding hostage their need for attachment for my own agenda and gain. I fear what will happen when I meet their meltdowns with yelling of my own. I beat myself up on those painfully long days when we find ourselves pushing against each other. When they go to bed at night, I wonder if the many small hurts of the day brush over them, scab and heal or if they stack to create something much more long-lasting.
I suppose it is because I love them so much, much more than I can actually put into words. I have never tried harder at anything in my life than I have at parenting, and I have never questioned my ability for any role as much as I have Motherhood.
So when that dad stood up that day of the parenting workshop, in all his vulnerability and strength, I deeply resonated with him. It could have just as easily been me, the parent-me, looking onward to the parent coach-me for the same reassurance, desperately needing to hear the words: You are enough. You are not your parents. You are not ruining your kids.
Maybe you need to hear those words too. If you do, read them again. Rinse and repeat until they land on your nervous system and your body accepts them as your truth.
The Fallacies Of Parenting
I think sometimes there is this fallacy in parenting that we have to be perfect. There is this all-or-nothing mentality. We either get it right or we don’t. We either keep calm in the face of our child’s dysregulation or we deeply fail them. We either organize all of our baggage or they must carry it.
In reality, our need for perfectionism, in and of itself, is a survival adaptation from our youth. We are biologically and evolutionarily designed to seek connection from our caregivers. If we were taught that approval meant love, we learned to color in the lines of life. Our worth became enmeshed with pleasing others and performing. This fixed mindset leaves little to no room for safe mistakes because the inner critic is far too loud.
While it is true that our mirror neurons are designed to resemble the nervous systems of those in front of us, there is no fine print that says parenting requires perfection nor does it require a constant state of calm.
In fact, research says that the number one predictive factor of raising resilient, healthy children is the presence of one safe, loving adult. Not a perfect one. And not a perfectly calm one.
When we hide our humanness, avoid conflict, and deny our own needs (which leads to boundary-less parenting), we achieve the opposite of what we want to achieve. We don’t protect our children, we disarm them.
You may be asking yourself, How do I know I am not repeating patterns? How do I know I am not messing up my children? Because you are here, standing in your awareness, asking these very hard questions.
Being Cycle Breakers
Whatever our wounding patterns are, we can step forward, pivoting for our lineage, by embracing some of these tips.
1. Model all emotions
We can talk until we are blue in the face, and yet our child’s nervous system is far more likely to absorb what we do more than what we say. This means that modeling behavior is paramount to all else.
When you feel happy and grateful, call it out. I see you picked up all of your toys, and I feel grateful for the teamwork.
When you feel mad or frustrated, call it out. I can feel my jaw clenching and my stomach tightening. I feel frustrated. With my hands on my belly, I am going to take some deep breaths.
Overwhelmed? Call it out. I have this thing inside me that when I see clutter, I feel overwhelmed. I am going to step outside for a minute to be with my body. I will be back.
Feeling sad? Call it out. My body feels heavy. Sadness is visiting me.
True regulation isn’t a state of calm but rather noticing and choosing to own whatever emotion you are feeling (instead of allowing that emotion to run you). Sharing that emotion with another not only helps you regulate but provides a platform for your child to do the same.
2. Apologize during mess-ups
Now, you’re not always going to be a pro at regulating your emotions. We are both teachers and students as many of us weren’t taught the skills of emotional regulation. This means that there will be times when your protective responses speak louder than your loving intent. The scared child within you will act out what was done long ago. Your child-self will come forward with whatever survival adaptation it has put in place. And you’ll know that moment has arrived when your reaction is disproportionate to what is actually happening in the present.
This is what I mean by showing your humanness. It is not about not messing up, it is about apologizing when we do. Because you will. (We all do)
Just as our child’s mirror neurons hook on to what we do when we are rocking that emotional regulation stuff, they also store what we do in the face of our mistakes. Their bodies often remember our apologies more than our mess-up. This is how we re-write narratives and shift the pain dynamics.
3. Take responsibility for your emotions
Your emotions are vibrations within you. They are not for anyone else to manage. In breaking cycles, I find it helpful to relay this to our children. I do this by:
- Ditching the narratives of “You make me so mad” or fill in whatever pleasant or unpleasant emotion you’re feeling. You can learn more about that here. Essentially, your children need to know that they are not responsible for your emotions, thoughts, or actions. You are, and they are responsible for theirs. When everyone knows their role in the family system, it is a much more empowering home to live in.
- Communicating with your child. I find myself often saying something like, “I am feeling really upset right now. It is not your job to make me happy, and I know that this emotion is just passing through. I am going to (fill in with a calming strategy) while my upset is visiting.”
4. Notice your triggers and channel them
Finally, we find ourselves here. This may be one of the most challenging tools because it requires us to face our wound patterns head-on. The next time you feel yourself resorting to your fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response, reflect on what is really living under the current moment. Doing a trigger worksheet breaks this process down into seven steps. Once you know the why to your emotional response, channel it. If you tend to yell, try this. If you shut down, read this. Ask yourself what your body needs so that your emotions can move through you productively. And then practice, in small ways, every day, because this parenting thing isn’t a checklist or a finish line. It is a journey of daily lived experiences.