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Beyond Apologizing: What Do You Do When You Lose Your Cool?

I’m by no means a perfect parent. I don’t strive for perfection, and I don’t think you should either. When we honor the fact that we are human, we give our children a gift. We give them the opportunity to witness what it means to take responsibility for your actions and your missteps. Our children learn so much just by observing how we handle ourselves; if we want them to embrace mistakes as a part of life and growth, we need to be able to do this ourselves, especially when it comes to the mistakes we make within our roles as parents.

Sometimes we slip up.

I was having a hard weekend. I was holding things together, but just barely. I try to be straightforward with my daughter; I don’t lie about my emotions to protect her because I know she can pick up on them anyway. I believe that telling our kids we are okay when we’re not teaches them they can’t trust their perceptions and dulls their intuition. That said, I do try to regulate my emotions so I’m not just a weepy mess when I’m going through a rough patch. Sometimes this works, but sometimes there’s deeper work that I need to do that’s not immediately accessible to me. In those instances, it takes a lot of effort not to just hole up in my room and cry.

I was on this exact emotional ledge as my husband and I started the process of making my daughter’s bed. This sounds simple enough, but it’s actually a finicky process. The bed frame is tight-fitting and the mattress is heavy, which makes it a two person job that involves a lot of lifting. As soon as we focused our attention on the bed, my daughter wanted to be part of the action, too. I asked her calmly to stay off the bed because I needed to lift the mattress.

It seemed like she was cooperating until she wasn’t. I was holding up the mattress and tucking my end of the sheet around it as she tried to climb on right next to me. I told her no, firmly, and used one arm to block her path and guide her off the mattress. I didn’t exactly push her, but that’s how she perceived it.

She started stuttering and holding back tears, saying, “I was just…” Instead of responding with empathy, I snapped, “It doesn’t matter!” Big tears and wailing ensued.

What can we do about it?

As I said, I’m not a perfect parent. I do a lot of introspective work and I make an effort to understand my daughter and where she’s coming from. Still, I don’t always show up for her the way I want to. It is so easy to fall into feelings of guilt and even shame in moments like this, but here’s the thing. That does nothing to heal the rift in the relationship. My guilt doesn’t rebuild her trust in me, model emotional responsibility, or help her build resilience. So, what can we imperfect parents do when we don’t meet our own or our child’s expectations of ourselves?

Apologize

Step one is always, always apologize for your actions. Even if your child doesn’t seem hurt, if you have acted out of integrity with your intentions, own that and apologize to your child. Apologizing allows you to acknowledge their experience and own your role in it. For me, this looked like saying I’m sorry, asking her if she was just trying to get to the other side of the bed, then giving her the space to explain her experience. Once she’d confirmed what her intention was, I owned my own actions: “You just wanted to get to the other side and I stopped you. I wasn’t very kind about it, and then when you tried to explain, I said it didn’t matter. It does matter. That wasn’t fair of me and it wasn’t okay. I’m so sorry.” I also explained that I got frustrated because it’s hard to lift the mattress, but my reaction wasn’t fair to her.

Keep the lines of communication open.

After the moment passes, be willing to revisit what happened with your child if necessary. Help them retell the story and make sense of what happened as time goes on. Children often need time and space to process, and we do them a great service when we help them retell their experience. Revisiting the story gives us additional opportunity to take ownership of our emotions and our actions, and it helps them develop the skills they need to process their own experiences and develop resilience. And when we take responsibility for our emotions and our actions consistently, it helps them see that they are not responsible for our emotions. This is so very important.

Continue to look inward and do our own work.

My reaction was directly related to the thoughts and emotions that I was working through. It wasn’t my daughter’s fault at all. I make an effort to see moments like this as signals that I have my own work to do. I might have let my inner work slide if I had been able to respond calmly to my daughter. My overreaction helped me see that I have work to do, and now I’m doing it.

Five Reflective Writing Prompts for Parents

Writing is a big part of my own reflective process. I’m constantly recommending it as a practice for parents who want to break cycles within their family and do things differently. If you think writing would help you, but you find it a little intimidating, I’m here to support you. I’ve created a set of five writing prompts to help you jump start your own writing practice. Just enter your email and I’ll send them your way!

2 Comments

  1. Loved this! We need to have grace with ourselves and each other. These steps are so helpful.

    1. Thank you, Sheila! I’m glad it resonated!

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