“Have I messed up my kid?!”
You’ve just had a melt-down! After Tantrum #7 and many attempts to figure out how to calm your toddler you lost it. A few seconds later you feel as though you have just watched a bad movie, starring you as the Monster parent! “I can’t believe I screamed at my child! How could I have reacted that way? What an awful parent I am!” And it probably doesn’t stop there. You continue to beat yourself up periodically throughout the day.
The Perfect Parent
You remember all of those report cards. If you’re like most people in our culture, throughout your life you received messages about how well you were doing, not just in school, but perhaps in sports, in attractiveness, and in how “nice” you were. You may have been taught to strive for perfection.
And so you learned to measure and judge yourself. Am I smart enough? Fast enough? Pretty enough? And am I a good enough parent? With self-judgment often comes self-criticism, which may consist of some fairly harsh, negative, mental thrashing (e.g., “What a bad parent I am! Why did I lose my temper over something so silly?”). Clearly such negative thoughts serve to tear down our own sense of competence.
- There is no such thing as a “perfect parent” thank goodness! How would your child ever live up to the expectation to be like you if you were perfect! Talk about pressure!
- Parents are human beings. Human beings do not behave consistently all of the time. You, as a human being and a parent, have many emotions that sometimes just push through your attempts to be calm and rational. It’s human nature.
So while you may intend to always react calmly to your children, when the unexpected happens (e.g., You sniff out the stench in the house to discover your 10-year-old’s missing baseball socks under her bed, growing mold) you just might scream!
Instead of beating yourself up…
Try a little kindness. Your child is going to see you get upset for a variety of reasons from time to time. What’s important is that s/he also sees you treat yourself with compassion.
If you feel you have mishandled a situation with your child, rather than beat yourself up, try comforting yourself. You don’t deserve to be punished for your mistake, but that is what you are doing when you criticize yourself in a demeaning fashion.
According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D. the first step in a self-compassionate approach is to be aware of what’s going on inside:
- Take a moment to notice what you are saying to yourself. You might be thinking, “Of course I know what I’m saying to myself!” But most people don’t actually stop to hear the words and how harsh they sound; it has become automatic to say “What a dummy,” etc. We end up sending ourselves these critical messages over and over again. Unless you become more consciously aware of these messages, you continue to chip away at your own self-esteem.
- Pay attention to the “tone of voice” you are using in your self-talk. If you are calling yourself names, you probably sound angry, and harsh.
- Then, just as you would comfort your child, or a good friend, be compassionate with yourself. Soften your tone of voice. Choose words that serve to comfort. Practice an attitude of acceptance. You might tell yourself, “That didn’t turn out the way I wanted…. Like every other human being on this earth, I made a mistake.” You could smile, and even give yourself a hug. According to Dr. Neff, your body responds to that physical gesture of warmth and care. It may seem silly, but self-hugging can help to soothe distressing emotions.
- In this attitude of compassion, seek to repair the disconnect with your child. For example, you might say, “When I found your socks I really just lost it. I didn’t handle that well. Would you like a hug?” Then just listen. At a later time you can restate your expectation that your child will put dirty socks in the laundry room.In the case of the tantrumming toddler, just be present. Hold your child when s/he is ready to be held. In a soothing voice you might say, “You were very angry when I said we couldn’t go outside…..And then I got angry and I yelled. I’m just going to sit here now and be quiet. Do you want to sit with me?” Even if your little one is too young to understand your words, say them anyway. Your child will hear your compassion.
I highly recommend the book, Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., who writes openly about her own struggles with parenting her autistic child. Take a few moments to look at her website http://www.self-compassion.org, where she has a brief video clip and some guided meditations.