Whether we’ve read all the books and have the world’s best support or not, we all know how to be parents. We were handed a road map in our childhood. We learned through experience and observation, and we tend to carry forth the same style of parenting we grew up with.
Until we wake up. Until we realize that we have the potential to parent our children differently. We can break the destructive patterns that have been passed on from generation to generation within our families. When we make this decision to do things differently, that’s when we start to feel a little lost.
We had a road map, but we threw it out the window. We can see the patterns we want to break, but we aren’t always sure how to do it or what to do instead. So how do you get started?
Step 1: Decide which habit you want to break.
Maybe you swore you’d never yell at your kids. Perhaps you find yourself getting angry and aggressive. Or maybe you’re looking for a way to get your kids to listen to you without taking away toys and privileges.
You know which pattern you want to break. Take the time right now to declare it and write it down.
“I am breaking the cycle of __________.”
Step 2: Look closer and break it down.
Once you’ve declared the change you’re making, take some time to get to know it. What emotion precedes your actions? Is it anger? Resentment? Fear? Name it.
When you feel yourself getting emotionally triggered, pay attention to the thoughts you have in the moment. You don’t need to change them, just notice them and name them. They can range from, “Why won’t they just listen to me?” to “I’m doing something wrong.” Everyone’s a little bit different, so it’s important to get to know what thought processes fuel your emotions.
Pay attention to when you are most likely to fall into this pattern as well. Are you most likely to be triggered in the mornings? At meal times? What specific circumstances feed into your reactions, and what beliefs do you have about those situations?
Let’s break it down further with an example. Let’s say your family struggles most with getting out of the house for school on time. Your kids know the routine, but you still find yourself having to prompt them throughout the whole routine. You get increasingly frustrated with each interaction. You remember to pay attention to your thoughts and you realize that you feel like you’re nagging, and you think “I shouldn’t have to nag them.” You find yourself thinking, “If I have to nag them, something’s wrong,” or “They know the routine, they should be able to follow it without so many reminders!”
Once you recognize your thoughts, you can start to see how the limitations they are creating, and you can begin to deliberately shift them so they are less likely to trigger a reaction. If you’re someone who thinks, “If they respected me, they would listen,” for example, rewriting that thought can be really empowering. Let’s say you shifted to “They are having trouble listening to me, something must be up.” It would remind you to look deeper and try to understand why they are having a hard time listening. It would help you shift from commanding to problem solving.
I always encourage parents to use writing as a tool for this kind of reflection. If you can get your thoughts out of your head and down on paper, you can start to analyze them and process them in a much more rational way. It’s easier to rewrite your thoughts if you can see them written out in front of you.
Step 3: Talk to your family about the change you’re wanting to make.
Step one is not easy, and it definitely takes time. Once you get a handle on what’s triggering your reactions, though, it’s important to bring it up with your family. The key is to keep the conversation focused on the change that you are trying to make. Tell them you’ve noticed that you have a habit of reacting in a certain way and you’re trying to break it.
Offer them words they can use to call you out if they see you falling back into old patterns, and give them permission to use them. Try to agree upon a reminder that won’t make your reaction worse. You might encourage them to say “I see your shadow,” but having them say, “You’re getting angry again!” might not be helpful.
Step 4: Practice catching yourself.
This is important. The primary responsibility for making this change should be on you, not your family. It is essential that you practice calling yourself out. None of us are perfect, and habits take time to break. You’re going to have slip ups, and that’s okay. When you do, try to notice it and name it. Say it out loud, “Oh, I’m getting frustrated. I’m working on not throwing things when I’m frustrated, so I’m going to take a moment to breathe. Want to breathe with me?”
Step 5: Be gentle and willing to apologize.
Breaking patterns requires compassion. Be gentle on yourself, and give yourself time. Remember that apologies go a long way, and it is okay to apologize to your kids if you lose your cool. Owning your missteps is a strength, not a weakness, and it will draw you closer to your kids in the long run.
Five Reflective Writing Prompts for Parents
Writing can be a powerful tool for personal growth, and it can be especially useful for understanding what triggers our habits. It can be challenging to get started, though, especially if writing has always felt like a chore. That’s why I’ve put together five writing prompts to help you get started. You can claim yours right here.