I hear people are commenting on their parenting skills: how unprepared for virtual schooling they feel, the stress of being together 24/7, coping with the realities of systemic inequality, and feeling generally unprepared for the big emotions that every one of every age is experiencing. These feelings can lead to parents feeling like they are somehow failing their children, though they are doing the best they can in the moment.
Psychological research and theory indicate that the only way to be a "perfect" parent is to make mistakes and fail sometime. If you are not sometimes out of sync with you child your parenting does not reflect the world, and this can make it harder for kids to know how to respond to their strong emotions when the world does not give them what they want or need. There is a whole theory in psychology devoted to this idea (Object Relations). While this theory is quite nuanced, the basic idea for when parent failure happens is:
For example, if you are mad because your child did something irritating or embarrassing and you lash out at them and tell them they can never, ever have candy again in their life, you get the opportunity to not only let the child know later that you made a mistake but also WHY you made the mistake.
To achieve those 2 ideas, there are 4 Steps to take when you got out of sync and made a mistake.
Step 1: Notice you made a mistake
Step 2: Admit your mistake and apologize
Step 3: Shift your reaction to a response
Step 4: Share your love
As a recap, here are the steps for perfectly imperfect parenting (to facilitate emotional growth and decreased reactivity in your child):
If the first time you try this approach and it doesn’t work the way you envisioned it in your mind, don’t worry; you have to find the way that works for both you and your child’s temperament. If you child throws your explanation back at you later, again, that is part of this adjustment and keeping calm is important for ongoing clear communication. You may want to have a trusted friend or partner to talk to as you make adjustments and your child tells you what they “really” think of you (this can be a reaction to change – which can hard for everyone). Keep in mind that your child loves you no matter what, even when they don’t like what you are doing.
Children’s minds are different than adult minds. While they sometimes know how to say the thing that can hurt the most, they don’t understand what it means to you. By teaching your child that their actions impact you and your actions impact them, you are building empathy in your child and helping them learn to navigate this world in a way that can promote life success.
If you feel like you need help with your child who is shutting you out, having major tantrums, or experimenting with dangerous things, therapy can help. Sometimes parents and children need help. Children (and parents) often need help during times of transition (new school, new city, divorce, marriage, new partner), times of loss (death, moving away, disaster), and times of high stress (COVID-19 SIP, lack of money/job, threat of loss of housing, applying to or participating in very competitive schools/activities, interpersonal violence/DV, substance dependence). Sometimes it can be difficult to ask for help, but it can be worth it. Therapy is a confidential and privileged relationship that can help provide you and your child with tools to navigate the difficulties you are facing to achieve growth, improved mental health, and success.
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Christy Hobza, Psy.D.