Thank you for your column. I am inspired by the ideas you teach but sometimes I think it's too late for me and my kids. I have a lot of regret over all the times when I haven't been the Captain. I've yelled and threatened and even said "Go live with your father if you think I'm so mean." I worry that I have ruined my chance to give them the kind of happy childhood I pictured. Have I damaged my kids permanently?
Thank you for sharing these words from your heart. I know it may seem that you speak only for yourself, but believe me when I say that I don't know of a parent who doesn't feel some degree of regret over things they have said or done in a difficult moment--myself included.
It is just plain hard to be a parent. Whoever says otherwise isn't telling the whole truth. It's exhausting, worrisome, relentless, and often thankless.
And remember--just because you became a parent doesn't mean you suddenly transformed into a member of a different species! Parents are still ordinary people--although it's hard for our kids to comprehend that. We still get tired, worried, overwhelmed, and stressed. We still need love and care, and we still feel fragile when we haven't had rest or food or the touch of a loving friend.
Here is what I believe: We are meant to do the best we can on any given day. Sometimes our best is amazing; we handle a child's whining just as the book described! Yay for us!
And other days, our best is simply getting them fed and keeping them safe. That's it. Our tank is empty and that is all we can muster up.
On those days, a child's defiance or meltdown pushes us past our limit and we collapse. Those are the times when a less-than-desirable version of ourselves shows up--the one who shouts, "Fine! Go live with your dad!" or "What is wrong with you? Your sister never had trouble with math!"
Sometimes it almost feels like we have been possessed with some demonic force that pushes words out of our mouths that we would never utter if we had our wits about us. But that's the thing: we don't always have our wits about us. Sometimes we lose our way. A child's refusal to put on her shoes becomes a personal affront to our authority. A teenager's insistence that she looks fine in that outfit is transformed into a life or death battle for control.
If you've read my columns, you know that I teach parents to address the underlying beliefs that cause us to lose our cool, rather than focus on changing a child's behavior so we aren't upset by it. By learning how to take a step back from the story we're telling ourselves about what our child's behavior means, we become better able to manage our reactivity.
Still, we will fall short. Heck, I've been a family therapist for decades and have written two parenting books and I still sometimes lost my cool with my son. Like you, I am a product of the childhood and parenting I received. My folks were well meaning, but like all parents, they only knew what they knew; no more, no less. Forging a path where I paused to consider the thoughts that fueled my hurt or anger was a new process; I am still on that path.
What is magnificent is that my now adult son and I talk about those moments when I wasn't the mother I aspired to be in a frank and tender way. I can apologize for times when I said things that were hurtful, and he can let me know what he might need to heal.
Mostly, he reassures me that from the vantage point of an adult, he now understands that every parent makes mistakes and has limits. I think my candid confession about the regret I feel over my missteps has helped Ari develop a greater capacity for self-acceptance and forgiveness. I know that speaking from that place of vulnerability has brought us closer together.
A little guilt isn't a bad thing; it can motivate you to stay on track. If you have been abusive toward your children, I highly recommend family counseling. It will be important to establish a way to recover and heal from times that you may have crossed a line.
But if your regret is over basic situations when you were impatient or unkind, release the idea that your kids have been permanently harmed. Apologize from your heart without defending your actions. Find out what they need to make things right. And humbly ask their forgiveness.
May you continue to learn and grow as a parent with a greater sense of kindness toward your children--and toward yourself.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.