I was terrified to have children.
I was afraid of two things: 1) That I would be an awful parent and 2) That the world is too harsh a place for children to grow up in.
I’ve worked hard on that first fear. I went to therapy; I still do. I took a lot of parenting courses, workshops, read parenting books, and talked to other parents about their experiences. Turns out, with lots of helpful information and working on my own stuff, I have become a good parent. Not perfect, but pretty good.
I still have fears about the world that kids have to grow up in. Especially right now. The problem is that I don’t know how to fix the world.
So, I continue to work on helping my children by working on myself.
Yes, I said it. The best way to help your children, is to work on yourself.
So often I’ve seen parents blame their children for their behavior, shame them for being disrespectful, for talking back, for yelling, for shutting down. Meanwhile, these are some of the same behaviours that the parents do.
One of the biggest lessons I learned in all my research on parenting, and especially in my experience working with children and in raising children, is that children will repeat the things that we say and do. (Unless they go through some sort of transformation or therapy to change that pattern).
This isn’t rocket science. The lesson was clear when I was mad at my partner and yelled at him to, “Leave me alone” when my son was two. Several times over the next few days, I heard my son raise his voice and say, “Leave me ‘lone” and it broke my heart.
So many times, especially now dealing with Covid, I’ve noticed that when I’m irritable, when I raise my voice, it isn’t long before my kids do the same.
I’m not saying that we need to be perfect as parents. Kids can be jerks sometimes. And they really know how to push our buttons. I still yell on occasion, and it still makes me feel guilty after. And the more I act disrespectful and rude, the more my kids do it.
Part of the solution is fairly easy. I’ve told several couples, parents, and families in therapy that it is such a silly thing for them to pay me money to tell them this advice (over and over):
When you’re mad and you can’t calm yourself, you have to walk away and breathe.
Simple as that. Don’t try to make your teen or child talk to you. Don’t grab them by the arm to get them to look at you. Don’t tell all the ways they’ve been a jerk (even if they have).
When you can’t calm your body, the logical part of your brain doesn’t work properly, and you end up saying and doing things that are hurtful, mean, and sometimes traumatizing.
Walk away to another room, take some deep breaths in and out, watch a show on your phone, go for a walk, exercise, talk to a partner or a friend, journal. Do something to calm yourself.
Then come back to talk when you’re calm. Only then will you be able to say reasonable, helpful things to work with your child toward a solution.
And if you don’t know how to calm your body, how to take a break, try mindfulness. Try exercising, taking self-care time, or seeing a therapist.
And the best part is that when our kids see us walking away when we’re angry, they will do the same. I’ve watched my kids start to raise their voices, stomp their feet, and then take a few deep breaths and walk away. Then we talk about it later.
Sure they still yell sometimes. And sometimes they say hurtful things. But they’re learning to be kinder, and learning how to calm their bodies.
We’re lucky to live in a world with so many opportunities and information for us to do better than some of own parents. It’s the most rewarding thing to know that we can give our children the skills they need to be healthy emotionally.
And it all starts with walking away and taking some deep breaths.
Michelle Weglarz, MSW, RSW