Parenting rewards us with plenty of smiles, laughter and celebrations. There are lots of highs when kids accomplish new skills or utter those “out of the mouths of babes” comments. When parenting is great, it’s really great!
Being a parent also has its lows – sleepless nights, sick toddlers and the everyday pressure to keep kids fed, clean and expanding in moral development. It’s not an easy job and all parents know that some days it feels like too much. You’ve been there. I don’t know a parent who hasn’t been there. The pressure slowly builds up inside of you – your words start to sound snippy, your tone of voice raises or lowers, signaling that you’re nearing the end of your rope. So when a drink is spilled or siblings argue over a toy, the event becomes the last straw and you find yourself exploding with shouts of threats and shame. Of course this scares your kids – they cry and you hope the neighbors aren’t home to hear the commotion.
In many homes, this scene ends with some of all family members in separate rooms to step away from the conflict and calm down. After you calm down, you try to process what happened and why it ended so harshly. You might float back and forth between blaming the kids for being so selfish as to want the same red truck ( because there’s another truck exactly like it in the toy box!) and blaming yourself for and wondering why you were SO bothered over one little argument.
How Does the Guilt or Shame Show Up for You?
If you’re like most parents, you feel guilt or shame after a blow up with your kids. You might feel guilt that you yelled. After all, you’re a good parent who loves your kids. How could have screamed those awful things? You might feel stupid about the threats you made. You know that you’re not going to take the toys away for three months, so why would you say such a silly thing? Maybe you’re still wondering about your neighbors and what they think of your parenting skills. Did they hear you screaming uncontrollably?
When my son was two-ish, I lost it while sitting in a parking lot in front of the CVS pharmacy in Simpsonville, SC. I still remember exactly where I was and the direction my car was facing in the parking lot. I screamed at the top of my lungs at my precious little boy. (I posted his picture yesterday on the Think It Through Parenting facebook page. He was almost four in the picture.) My son was sitting in the back seat on the right side. I have a vivid visual memory of the event. All of the doors were closed in the car and the windows were rolled up. I don’t remember why I was upset or what triggered my yelling. I do remember getting out of the car and feeling shame when I saw a man walking past. I was positive he’d heard me screaming from inside of the car just seconds before. I was embarrassed for sure. As I opened the door to get my son out of his car seat, the man smiled and said, “Aren’t children beautiful!”
I remember feeling intense shame and to this day I feel guilt when I think back on this event that happened eighteen years ago. Back when this happened, in 1995 I’d just recently read Jane Nelsen’s book Positive Discipline for the first time. I was excited about the new ideas I’d read on parenting and was trying hard to implement some of them. After I yelled at my son, I felt intense guilt and wondered if I was going to be able to be a good parent.
In Daring Greatly, Brene’ Brown writes, “According to Dr. Hartling, in order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame.” How do you deal with the shame of making parenting mistakes?
What I Know Now That I’ve Learned from Positive Discipline
Since that day in 1995, I’ve learned tons about lowering my stress level. I’ve gained new skills to keep myself calm. I’ve acquired plenty of parenting tools to navigate differently around power struggles. (I’m sure my son and I were in some sort of power struggle when I yelled.) I’ve even practiced different ways to apologize when I make mistake. On top of all that, I view the mistake as a learning opportunity. I commit to making a new plan for how I will handle the situation differently the next time a similar one arises.
All of the tools above have helped me deal with my guilt in a way that is empowering for me as a person. And I’ve discovered some powerful teaching opportunities for my kids about my mistakes. I now understand that we all make mistakes as parents. To me the issue is – what do we do as parents after we make the mistake?
As parents, we have lots of choices of how we handle the mistake. Some of us don’t discuss the mistake. We’re too embarrassed and don’t want to bring up the awful subject again. Or maybe you’re the type who hugs your kids and says a short, “I’m sorry” and you move on through the day without discussing the issue. Possibly you’re the type who apologizes over and over to your kids throughout the rest of the day. I think I’ve tried all of these methods and other ones until I focused on learning the Three R’s of Recovery, one of the Positive Discipline Parenting Tools.
I’ve been working on this issue of recovering from parenting mistakes since 1995. I’m much better at being proactive about my mistakes rather than being reactive. I now know that the actions I take after I make a mistake can be wonderful teachable moments for my children. I can be a role model for what to do after I make a mistake. What an awesome gift to give to my children! And I don’t think my kids would learn these concepts as well if I was perfect and always kept my cool. I think they learn more from watching my example – seeing how I pick up the pieces after I’ve caused damage. I’m not saying that I don’t feel any guilt or shame at all now when I blow it with my kids. I do believe that feeling a healthy sense of guilt indicates that I experience empathy and have a moral conscience. But now I’ve learned proactive ways to mend my mistakes, acts that relieve my guilt in a refreshing way because I know I’m also teaching and modeling skills.
We Can All Learn New Skills
I should probably add that now I don’t “lose it” often with my kids and haven’t for years. Through practicing Positive Discipline, I’ve learned to walk away or take a break before I reach the point of flipping my lid as well as other conflict resolution tools. There are so many layers and variables to dealing with parenting guilt, but using great relationship tools after the blow up is one that has helped tremendously.