How we deal with our own slip-ups can teach our children about self-love and compassion.
As parents we can sometimes be consumed by a fear of judgment from relatives, peers, or even strangers. We can be hard on ourselves, and this makes us more vulnerable to real or perceived judgment from the outside. It’s fairly typical to hold an internal dialogue of self-observation and criticism about how we parent– if we are strict enough, empathetic enough, loving enough, consistent enough, etc.
When we notice negative thoughts like these, it is important to take a step back. We may not even realize that we are holding this kind of internal discourse. But with a bit of perspective, we can become aware of and address the fallacy of the “perfect parent” in our culture and in our minds. There is, of course, no such thing– and if there were, it would teach our kids very little. Children need to see their parents struggle a bit, and most of all, make mistakes. It is how we handle these slip-ups that becomes important learning for our little ones.
In psychology, we call this type of parental modeling “failure and repair” or “disjunction, repair, and return” (Tronick, 1989). A few examples of ‘disjunction’ could be: you lost your temper, or were too self-absorbed to really hear your little one’s distress about school today, or you are just totally at a loss on how to handle his or her latest temper tantrum. The next step, ‘repair and return’, being ultimately the most important, is how you handle your misstep after the fact. Once you calm down from the ‘disjunction’ part, you can first forgive yourself, and then go to your child and admit your mistake.
It is important when taking the step of ‘repair and return’ to empathize with how it must have felt to him. The object here is to regain the attachment through empathy and love as well as acknowledging your error. You can both admit a mistake to your child and demonstrate how you handle yourself and your own shortcomings inside, through forgiveness and striving to learn a better way. Listen next to your child’s experience while showing her that you understand through words and eye contact. Regaining the attachment in this way will complete ‘repair and return’. This wonderful way of modeling humanness, will be picked up and internalized by your child in a deep way. Our youngsters watch us make mistakes, and observe very carefully how we handle them afterwards.
Because we are all on this planet to learn, you can predict that we won’t be perfect at forgiving ourselves either. We often need to practice compassionately re-parenting ourselves while we nurture and teach our children. I believe that part of why we are challenged as caregivers is because many of the struggles of parenting are the same ones that we may not have learned growing up. As we forgive ourselves, we show our children that we too are continuing to learn and strive to grow into more compassionate, loving human beings.
Creating a fertile environment where you can be compassionate and gentle with yourself is an important first step. One way to tailor a nurturing environment is to make sure that you set aside time for you each day. Whether it is when your child naps, while an older child is at school, or before the household wakes up in the morning, make time for consistent reflection and meditation even for just 5-10 minutes. Take that time to sit with yourself in a space of love and acceptance. You can imagine it coming from a higher power, from your own inner radiance, nature, or from a guardian angel, whatever helps you to perceive and take in the light that is surrounding and nurturing you. The more compassion and love that you can feel circulating inside of yourself, the more that your children will perceive this and incorporate that same ability into their own selves.
Once you have solidified this sense of warmth inside, practicing ‘repair and return’ with your children will be easier, especially when they are challenging, cranky, whiney, or having a tantrum. You then have more of an anchor inside, a resting place of love and forgiveness that will naturally radiate out towards your family during those hard times. An added benefit to becoming increasingly more self-nurturing is that parenting becomes more intuitive. After a ‘disjunction’, we can take the time to re-connect with ourselves (short parental time-outs are good for us and often enjoyable for our children). This provides a fertile environment for ‘repair and return’ where the acknowledging, the empathic understanding, and the intuition about what our child needs right now can come into focus. These easy steps can allow us even to value imperfection and thereby relax. This way, we can be more compassionate with ourselves while having the freedom to concentrate on the empathetic, intuitive, and joyful gift of parenting.
Katharina Sandizell, MA, MFT, PDHom is a Psychotherapist and mother of 2. She works with individual parents and couples on relationship and parenting issues in her Bay Area office and online over Skype. She is also a Classical Homeopath offering first aid prescribing classes online and in person. She works with parents from all over the world. The rest of the time she can be found romping with her kids at the beach, meditating, or singing with her husband. You can find her here.