Use Imperfect Parenting Moments to Help your Child Grow

As a child therapist, I’ve often witnessed parents show great embarrassment and shame related to their children’s misbehavior.  And why wouldn’t they? If you’ve parented a young child and experienced a (very age-appropriate) public temper tantrum, I am sure you can vividly remember the judgmental stares and possibly even some snide comments about how you should better control their child. Parents have one of the most important jobs on the planet. However, with little understanding from others surrounding any parenting mistakes, parents are often quick to judge themselves for being anything less than perfect.  Parents, just like children, are fallible humans. As such, parents are guaranteed to make mistakes for any number of reasons.  What if you could use these mistakes to actually strengthen the parent-child relationship and set an example for what it is like to take responsibility for ineffective behavior?

So How Do I Do This?

Dr. Garry Landreth, founder of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas and co-creator (along with Dr. Sue Bratton) of the Child Parent Relationship Training model upon which our Empowered Parenting groups are based, teaches parents that “it might not be what you do, but what you do after what you did”. Although I would never advise parents to scream at their children for spilling a glass of orange juice, I understand that sometimes you’ve had a long and stressful day at work and a huge spill on the carpet is enough to push you over the edge.  If you find yourself in this or similar situations, there are steps that you can take to repair your relationship with your child.

  1. Care for yourself first.

    Do whatever you need to calm yourself down. This is where your own self-care comes in. Step away and do some deep breathing to ground yourself, talk with your partner or a supportive friend, or go outside for some fresh air. Sometimes just labeling the emotion you’re feeling (overwhelmed/angry/anxious) can be enough to help you calm down.

  2. Avoid Slipping Into a Shame Spiral

    Recognize that you’ve made a mistake, but that this doesn’t make YOU a mistake. Shame can spiral quickly after we show our human side. It can also cause us to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves, such as refusing to admit fault or pretending the mistake never happened.  However, refusing to acknowledge your mistake will do little to create an environment in which your child feels safe to admit his or her own faults. This can unintentionally lead to self-protective behaviors such as lying and blaming others.

  3. Find the Right Time

    Approach your child at a moment when both of you are calm and there is time to talk. Right before dinner when everyone is hungry and you’re trying to get the family to the table might not be the best time, but after your child has gotten ready for bed and is beginning to relax for the night might be an option.

  4. Make the apology.

    Begin by acknowledging your child’s emotions. “I know you felt sad and scared when I yelled at you earlier.”  You can explain your own emotions during the time of the mistake, but avoid using this to evade responsibility or place blame on your child.  “I had a difficult day, and when I saw that juice spill, I felt overwhelmed and angry.”  Next, take ownership of the fact that you have done or said something that was ineffective.  While doing so, refrain from shaming or labeling yourself in front of your child.  Saying “Daddy was stupid” or jokes about “bad Mommy moments” may seem like you are admitting your mistake. However, this also models self-criticism that your child could adopt in their own imperfect moments.  Simply saying, “It was not okay for me to yell at you. I am so sorry I did that,” is more than effective.

  5. Plan For The Future

    Finally, make a commitment to try to do better in the future.  However, be careful not to make any promises you are unable to keep.  Saying “I will never yell at you again” might come back to bite you next time you have a hard day (because, after all, you’re only human!).  Instead, you can say something like: “If this happens again, I’ll try to remind myself to take a deep breath to calm down and then help you find a towel to clean up the mess”.

The Next Step

Of course, most parents would love to be calm and collected all the time. The good news is, however, that these imperfect moments can be the highly beneficial to your child’s growth into a functional, healthy, and compassionate person.  If you find yourself experiencing many imperfect parenting moments and would like further help knowing exactly “what to do after what you’ve done”, our play therapists at ParentingWorks can provide guidance on addressing your child’s behaviors and emotions through play and activity therapy, parent coaching, and Empowered Parenting groups.