a guest post by Sheena Hill of Parenting Works
“Everyone makes mistakes.
The wise are not people who never make mistakes,
but those who forgive themselves and learn from their mistakes.”
What to Do After You Lose It
It’s 4:30 in the afternoon; so far, today had been a success. The weather was finally nice enough for you to spend most of the morning playing and laughing in the yard together. Both kids napped for over an hour and dinner is waiting in the crockpot. But a meltdown is looming and your child is not its host. Now, your 2-year old is desperately pulling at your clothing as you sit down to feed your baby. The toddler scales your right side, narrowly missing the baby’s head with a stray kick. You attempt to coax her down but she insists on climbing all over you. Beyond touched out, you scream, “Get off me,” immediately regretting it as your sleeping baby startles in your arms and your toddler sulks away in tears. I’ve been there; I’ve lost my cool and reacted in ways that hurt my family. Being touched out is definitely my biggest trigger, but sometimes the toughest part of being pushed to my limit is managing my instant regret and guilt. Intellectually, I know that my goal should be to focus on the children’s feelings and our relationship, but in the moment, it can be really hard to get past my own strong emotions.
Although we’re not proud of it, there are times when we snap and simply lose it—spanking, shaming, or yelling at our kids—acting in ways that divide instead of connect us. These moments often occur when we are tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. When I teach emotional intelligence, I remind parents that children experience big emotions in small bodies, often leading to eruptions when the emotions get to be too much to handle. Adults are not exempt from these tantrums. Because they are incited by our intense emotions, knowledge of their potential harm alone fails to help us secure consistent emotional self-control. That’s one reason why these mistakes can be so distressing for those of us who strive to be the best parents we can be—the kind of parents our kids deserve. Losing it can feel like a failure and leave us scrambling to recover our relationships with our children. Though we may understand the many reasons we make mistakes, knowing how to actually bounce back from the guilt and stress they cause us can remain allusive.
Viewing mistakes as opportunities is the first step in getting beyond the guilt that results from losing it. Instead of letting our emotions keep us from connecting, we can remember that mistakes provide real opportunities for closeness. Addressing them offers us the chance to be honest and authentic with our children, modeling appropriate reactions to imperfection. Treating ourselves with kindness in the face of mistakes reinforces our capacity for unconditional love and growth (teaching our kids they don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of our love, either). Do-overs cultivate an environment which allows for mistakes. So offer second chances (and third and fourth chances) to your kids as well as yourself. When you lose it, acknowledge it, shake it off and move on.
However, gaining a healthy perspective on mistakes is about more than simply valuing them. It also requires us to consider getting back to normal as an essential part of healing because it allows us to have the energy to try again, learn key lessons and make progress. Daniel Siegel has been quoted as saying, “To continually chastise ourselves for our “errors” with our children keeps us involved in our own emotional issues and out of relationship with our children.” In other words, losing it is disconnecting enough, you don’t want to exacerbate that disconnection by failing to go back to normal. If we get caught up in our own emotions about losing it, we miss out on the family time which is affords us positive interactions.
Aside from feeling guilty or hoping it magically won’t happen again, what can we do to get past those unfortunate moments when our own emotions and stressors disrupt our vision and hard work as a parent? Should we act awkward after we lose it or pretend it didn’t happen? Should we distance ourselves and wait for the child to reach out to us? Should we be extra snuggly and overcompensate for our lack of self-control? The answer, like all things parenting, is to find the balance between the two extremes by focusing on recovery through connection.
Recovering from lashing out is not just about making it up to our kids. It is about modeling self-discipline and resiliency. We don’t to be weird and uncomfortable, but we don’t to be fake either. When we lose it, the best thing for everyone is to try to recognize and repair the rift through reconnection. Our objective is to focus on our children, helping them manage their own emotions and needs while we care for our own needs. Because this is quite a balancing act, repairing our relationships and connecting with our children is the most effective way for us to reset ourselves and get past our own big emotions. Without a reset, our day could be ruined, leaving everyone in a funk and minimizing the chance for reconnection later. It paves the way for us to have continue to have smooth interactions for the rest of the day and be open to connection the following day.
To reconnect after a physical or emotional outburst: recognize your mistake and your triggers, reconcile with your children, and work to resolve the situation. These steps are rooted in open communication; to be effectively reparative, resolutions often include an apology and discussion. Reconciliations build intimacy and lay the foundational work of moving on. Though the key element involves finding resolutions. Though your emphasis should be on taking responsibility, discussion should consist of problem-solving with your child—offering choices and asking questions. This will help them gain understanding of your perspective and communicates respect; reinforcing that their voice is considered in the resolution. Problem-solving signifies our commitment to the relationship and marks progress by confirming our willingness to change. One crucial way to plan for future triggers is to repair ourselves in order to proactively prevent and minimize imminent cases. Since the ultimate goal of reconnection is relationship recovery, push past the guilt and focus on doing what you can to reboot yourself, so that things can go back to normal.
Trust me, I know this is no small feat! It is a process which requires practice, patience and time. But, with consistency, there are clear ways we can benefit from a healthy perspective on mistakes and seamlessly get back to normal after we lose it. While this list may not be exclusive, starting here will get us moving in the right direction:
Empathize, Prioritize, Connect, Move On
- Empathize: First, focus on having empathy for yourself for being human, having emotions and making a mistake. Our goal as parents is to make progress, to be the parents we strive to be and to be the parents our kids deserve. This is not an overnight process. It is a role that you learn on the job every day. So forgive yourself. I know that is easier said than done but the best way to be able to unconditionally love your children is to love yourself unconditionally. Then, try to see things from your child’s perspective so that you can have empathy for the behavior or situation that pushed you over the edge. Remember that it is more likely that your own stress and big emotions caused you to lose it, not the actions of others.
- Prioritize: What is your child communicating with you? How they are expressing themselves conveys many things. Start with your basic things: are they hungry, tired, overstimulated or bored? If all these things are addressed, think about their emotional state. What are you trying to communicate, convey or teach in this moment? What are you hoping your child will gain or change? By thinking about your priorities, you can reshape your perception of the situation and focus on your child instead of your mistake.
- Connect: Go to your child, get on their level and make eye contact. Communicate your feelings and needs while encouraging them to discuss theirs. If both parties are comfortable, hug and re-connect through play and affection. At the very least, just sit quietly together until you are ready to talk or play. Simply being physically and emotionally present is an immeasurable aspect of maintaining relationships.
- Move On: it is crucial to repair your relationship after you lose it with your child–to be honest and authentic about your feelings and what you learned from the experience. But it is also important not to dwell on the incident. We all make mistakes. But you can’t waste time and energy holding onto them because you can’t feel bad about something you’ve done, and simultaneously feel good enough to work hard to do better in the future. Once you can identify what triggered you, what your goals are and what you can do instead of losing it next time, move on and get back to enjoying your life with your children.
I find that cooking for my family helps maintain connection, even when I am angry or resistant to being connected. It allows me to care for them even if I’m not emotionally available. Some other important ways to connect after a mistake and reset your body and emotions: hug, get outside, dance or move around, shake or do sensory activities. Honestly, I can’t feel disconnected when I’m reading aloud to my child. If you’re going use this reconnection technique, try books which are fun to read aloud, like Dr. Seuss, or poetry, like Jack Prelutsky or Shel Silverstein. Alternatively, you can listen to your child read to you. These things will help you refocus on what matters to you and the good things about your relationship with your children. They help you “fall in love again” with your child and help your child feel the love from you so you can all recover.
While addressing the rift is crucial, the importance of moving on afterwards cannot be overstated. The only way we can move on is by repairing the situation—by working to be honest and share our feelings while allowing our children to share theirs. You can further mend your relationship by using affectionate touch (if both parties are comfortable). So don’t hesitate to discuss and find solutions, but there is no need to go overboard. With time, each of us will grow more skilled at responding to emotional stressors, rather than reacting to them. Responding allows us to show restraint before we lose it, but getting there is certainly a journey. Remember to get support and be realistic. While I never condone spanking and know there are always alternatives to physical punishment, I understand that some parents may still yell on occasion. In this way, we may not completely free ourselves from verbally losing it again. But we can greatly reduce the number and intensity of occurrences, mitigating the damage it causes to our relationships with your children.
Sheena Hill, CBE, CPST, MFS, MAJE, is a homeschooling mom and child advocate with over 10 years of experience as a Certified Parent Education Specialist. As a social worker, she counseled families in the non-profit world for 8 years before going into private practice. As the founder and director of Parenting Works, she educates and empowers parents through group and private workshops and individual parent coaching. She designs and facilitates classes focusing on gentle discipline, healthy communication, and emotional intelligence. Through classes and private sessions, she supports and inspires parents to reach their full parenting potential by enabling them to be more responsive, respectful and consistent in their practices. Her enthusiastic approach to parent education keeps parents coming back. Aside from her ability to compose silly songs (entertaining and annoying her daughter), her super powers are helping families enhance their relationships and mitigate power struggles. You can learn more about her dynamic work on Facebook www.facebook.com/ParentingWorks and at the website http://parentingworks.weebly.com/.