**I can’t tell you how honored and excited I am to have Dr. Laura Markham from Aha! Parenting here today with this wonderful, insightful, and encouraging guest post. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while now and regularly read her words of wisdom and advice when it comes to this roller coaster that is parenting. What’s more is she just released her new book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and will be giving away a free copy to one of our lucky readers. Just leave a comment below for your chance to add this invaluable book to your parenting library.**
Have you ever:
- Been flooded by remorse because you lost your temper?
- Wished you could hit the erase button to wipe out something you said to your child?
- Worried that you’ve damaged your child’s psyche?
If you didn’t answer Yes to at least one of these questions, you’re probably not a parent.
We all have hard times when we know we’re messing up but just can’t seem to stop ourselves before we open our mouths. The bad news is, parenting is the toughest thing we do, and the hardest part of all is regulating ourselves. We’re only human, and that means there’s no way for us to be perfect.
But there’s good news, too. Our kids don’t need us to be perfect. In fact, it’s a good thing you’re not perfect! If you were, imagine what you’d be modeling for your child – an unattainable standard. Your poor child would feel like he could never measure up. What kids need from us is the space to be imperfect, to be loved and accepted exactly as they are. That’s the only place any of us can start from to grow.
Maybe worse, if you were a perfect parent, your child wouldn’t learn that all human relationships experience strains and small tears, but we can repair them and make them stronger. Our children learn this beginning in infancy, when we inevitably fail, at times, to attune to them. Let’s say we’ve been having a lovely time playing with our baby. We shake the rattle and he laughs uproariously. But after a while, his excitement overwhelms him. He feels himself spinning out of control, frightened. He needs to calm himself, to return to a lower level of arousal. He looks away.
Some parents would notice right away and realize their baby needs a break. But maybe, at least this time, not us. We’re having such a good time. It’s so exciting to see our little one so happy! And maybe there’s more; maybe we’re not feeling so great about our parenting right now because soothing the baby can be challenging, but look, we can make him laugh, and laugh more…So we miss his cue. He continues to look away, even though we get in his face and shake the rattle more insistently. He’s overwhelmed. His face crumples. He begins to cry.
So we misattuned. Our intrusiveness actually drove our baby to tears! Is he damaged for life? Luckily, no. We can make a repair.
We take a deep breath and shift gears, from excitement to soothing. We pick our little guy up and begin to speak soothingly. He continues to cry, but less loudly, and his breathing slows. He’s calming down. He’s learned that the universe isn’t perfect and sometimes he has to raise his voice to be heard, but he has the power to repair a rift in your relationship. Because you responded quickly to his distress— which has been shown to be the most important attunement factor in how infants adjust—he’s learned that it’s a safe universe and he can count on you to respond when he needs you.
Your little one has just learned an important lesson about relationships and trust. He’s also learned an important skill. Quick parental repair after a rupture in empathy is part of how children build resilience, or the faith that things will work out if they just keep trying. In fact, every time we misattune, our little one gets a small chance to practice regulating himself without our help. Sometimes he won’t be able to, but often he will, and with practice he’ll learn how— just like taking those first steps. So while you don’t want to intentionally create difficult experiences for your child— life will supply plenty without your assistance— your misattunements really are learning opportunities as long as they’re followed by reconnection and outweighed by positive moments.
Is this also true for older children? Yes! When we respond to our child’s anger by yelling, we’re misattuned. (If we were attuned to our child’s upset, we’d realize that her anger is a red flag that she needs help with some deeper tears and fears, and we wouldn’t take her anger personally – so we wouldn’t yell.)
Luckily, we can model how to repair a relationship rupture. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you, Sweetie…You don’t ever deserve to be yelled at….Let’s try a Do-Over….Here’s what I meant to say.” As long as our parenting blunders are followed by reconnection and outweighed by positive moments, they’re learning opportunities for our children.
What if we don’t catch ourselves quickly? It’s never too late to apologize. When we step up and do the hard emotional work to let go of being right, to open our hearts, we teach our children how to do that, too.
Just think. If you never apologized, your child would never learn how to apologize, either.
Aren’t you glad you aren’t perfect?
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and the editor of AhaParenting.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter (@DrLauraMarkham). Leave a comment below to win your free copy of her new book. One of your comments will be chosen at random this Friday December 14, 2012 and the winner will be notified by email.