Wouldn’t it be wonderful to parent with confidence that our mistakes and imperfections won’t harm our kids? That despite our flaws, they will grow up emotionally healthy and well-balanced? Clearly perfection isn't possible; we all make mistakes. But mistakes can make parents anxious, and anxiety gets in the way of parenting well.
So how do we make peace with mistakes and parent more confidently? Is it possible for imperfect parents to raise emotionally healthy children?
Nicole Schwarz, LMFT, parent coach and author of It Starts with You: How Imperfect Parents Can Find Calm and Connection with Their Kids, says unequivocally, "Yes! Children don't need parents who have everything figured out and never make mistakes," says Schwarz. "Children need parents who are willing and able to look at their own behavior before expecting their kids to manage their big feelings well."
Here's how to grow stronger, calmer connections with your kids by making peace with imperfection and learning to manage your own emotional growth and well-being.
OWN YOUR STORY. Reflect on your childhood and family of origin for clues. What were the expectations? How was conflict handled? What did you learn about managing emotions?
Family systems that feel normal are not always emotionally healthy. Identify assumptions and beliefs that impact your reactions and responses. Know your triggers and connect the dots between what you learned as a child and how you'd like to respond as a parent.
As you recognize areas for growth, you are in a better position to form new patterns. “Many of us are learning how to manage emotions well for the first time as adults,” says Schwarz. “It's OK for this to be a learning process.”
CALM YOUR BRAIN. According to neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran at the University of California San Diego, mirror neurons are brain cells that mimic behavior and feelings we see in others. This is why children mirror the emotional reactivity of their parents. When observing emotions or behaviors of a parent, the same neurons fire in a child's brain. A parent's calm presence engages the child's mirror neurons, helping him to calm down. Tapping into this calming effect can be as simple as taking a moment to pause before reacting.
“Take a few deep breaths or count to 20 in your head,” says Schwarz. “Interrupt your lecture or stop yourself before replying. Repeat a mantra like, ‘This is not an emergency’ or ‘He is having a hard time.’”
Maturity and brain development can't be rushed—in adults or children. But new neural pathways and connections form each time you practice a new response. Over time, the brain's elasticity makes it possible for new behaviors to become habits.
CONNECT WITH CONFIDENCE. As you learn to respond to frustrations with greater awareness of triggers and how to manage them, focus on building stronger connections with your kids. Connections that help them feel secure, seen, known and loved—even when emotions run high.
According to Schwarz, parents can stay connected in difficult moments by using language that models how to handle complicated emotions. Here are a few examples to try:
- "Yes, I am feeling sad right now. We all feel sad sometimes. I know how to help myself feel better. And I am still here to take care of you."
- "I can feel myself getting angry. I am going to take three deep breaths...OK, I can feel myself calming down."
- "Oops, I don't like how I said that. Let me try again."
Schwarz advises parents to put their phones away and give kids focused attention for a quick connection win. "Without the phone vying for your attention, you may have more time, energy and mental capacity to connect than you think!"
CELEBRATE PROGRESS. Being a calm and connected parent takes time and practice. Keep taking steps to become the healthiest version of yourself possible. Focus on making steady progress and celebrate the wins along the way.
Seek out like-minded parents for accountability—strive for improved emotional health together. If you need additional support, talk to a mental health professional.
Think of caring for your emotional well-being as putting on your oxygen mask before assisting your child with his. It won't make you a perfect parent, but that's not what kids need. They need emotionally healthy parents who, despite flaws and setbacks, help kids grow up knowing what it means to be human and how it feels to be secure and deeply loved.
Jody Lee Cates is the award-winning author of our column, “Parenting with Purpose.” She is also a local San Diego mom who blogs about healthy relationships at www.jodyleecates.com.
This article won an award from San Diego Press Club! Jody Cates won second place in the Column—Serious subject category for her “Parenting with Purpose" column, featuring this article. See all of San Diego Family's awards HERE.