“I’m scaring my kids,” she said as she sat in my office one summer day. “What scares me the most is that I don’t know how to make this different for me or for them.”
This is a common theme I hear from parents. They’re feeling completely spent, whether they’re going through a rough patch with their spouse, have just begun the process of separation or divorce, or perhaps there’s stress because there simply isn’t enough support to parent effectively.
And then I hear about the other ways they’re dealing with the stress. The eating. The not eating. The compulsive exercising. The not exercising. Yelling. Drinking a little too much. Throwing things. They’re not proud.
But I hear it quite a lot, actually. And I’ve done many of those things as a way of coping with my own stress because I’ve been undersupported, exhausted, spent, angry, sad, scared, depressed. And when we’re parenting from this place, we’re bound to make poor decisions. We’re well intentioned, but we can’t quite pull off being the parents we know deep down we’d like to be.
So what’s a parent to do?
The first thing is to recognize that our brain is capable of changing. It isn’t stuck this way. We aren’t doomed to keep doing the same thing if we want to change it.
Second, we can’t always keep it together, so please don’t “should” on yourself. This is why we have apologies. Going back and recognizing that we didn’t handle something well and acknowledging it to the other person it effected is the first step in changing your brain. The next part is figuring out what you could do different, often after the fact.
Third, Rewind, Repair, Replay is a great strategy taken from Pam Leo’s Connection Parenting. When you realize you have handled something in a way that doesn’t feel good for you or your child, allow yourself to back up, apologize, and do it over again. There is something really powerful about those three magical steps. The “doing it over the way you wanted it to go” part actually helps create new neural pathways in your brain. And it models for our children what they can do when they mess up, complete with a heart-felt apology. It’s really powerful.
For example, if you yell at your child, you first need to recognize that you handled something in a way that doesn’t feel good to you and your child. This part is critical. Without seeing that something needs to be different, you can go no further. You’ll keep doing what you’ve always done because you don’t see that there’s a problem. This part can be painful, though, because you are looking at something that isn’t working. But remember, there’s power here because this pain point is also something you can change with some awareness. Try not to get stuck here. This isn’t the end.
Once you recognize it, begin by asking yourself what you need right now in this moment. Perhaps it is much later and you’ve already calmed down. What did you need then? If it is closer to when it happened, what do you need to support yourself? Some fresh air? A little walk? A run? Call a friend?
I spoke with her several months later and she was in a completely different place. She was smiling from ear to ear and talking about what a different place she was in. She wasn’t yelling much anymore and had started a regular practice of moving with her kids to head off the stress responses for all of them. And she had started the practice of going outside for a quick walk around the block when she was feeling angry so that the energy could move through her body without hurting anyone. She said the difference in her family was incredible.
What I want you to hear about this story is that there is always hope.
We all have the power within us to change what we’re doing and to actually use those opportunities to create more connection. Attachment isn’t about parenting perfectly. It’s about reconnecting after we’ve disconnected. That means that not only is it ok to “mess up” but that it is necessary to have those messy moments to really bond with each other. That’s the strongest glue there is in a family. Try it and let me know how it goes by responding in the comments.