What If I Mess Up?

Am I screwing up my child? Have I failed? I’m so afraid it’s too late. Ever have these fears? Well, you’re in good company. Parents, mothers mostly, worry far too much about failing as a parent. It can be a debilitating fear that obstructs making connection with a child.

I’d like to convince you that your failures can be your child’s best teachers—if you’re willing to own up to them and learn.

Hey, we’re all human. We all lose it, we all make mistakes, sometimes huge ones. That doesn’t mean we can’t recover and move on better than ever. Your children need to see you falling down and getting back up again so they can do that too. And when you mess up with your child, recovery means connection and repair. Repair teaches humanity, humility, responsibility, and strength.

The Do-Over is one of the most powerful repair tools a parent has. And the beauty of it is that you get to choose when to use it. No need to worry about doing your best at those times when you feel at your worst. It’s those moments when both you and your child are frustrated, tired, and no longer able to cope when everything goes south. That’s when you react in those ways you hate and hear your mother or father coming out of your mouth with words you swore you would never say. That’s when you think your child is trying to get power over you—because you feel like you have lost all yours.

These are the times your prefrontal cortex has been emotionally hijacked, and you can no longer reason, hard as you try to get your child to understand why he can’t play one more video game. Do the best you can to stay out of a power struggle and then put it on pause for as long as you need for your thinking brain to come back online.

Maybe it’s even the next day when you approach your child with, “Remember yesterday when we got into that fight over your video game? I’m really sorry for the way I reacted. I didn’t mean that you can’t ever play again. I was tired and angry, and I think maybe you were too.” Here’s the magic part: “What I wish I had said instead is ….” Your thinking is clear, and you can say what you mean. Think what kind of message this sends to your child. He learns:

  1. Making mistakes doesn’t mean I’m bad or wrong.
  2. Apologies can feel good.
  3. Later, I can make amends for what I said or did.
  4. Even Mom doesn’t do everything right the first time.

The problem comes when you think you have to “stand on principle”, never show your child weakness that can be leveraged, and have to be right all the time. Best formula for cutting off your influence. Nobody wants a perfect parent.

In Dan Siegel’s new book, The Power of Showing Up, he emphasizes that “repair builds resilience”. When you have had a chance to think about it and know you can speak reasonably about the situation, you get another chance to make it right, bridge the gap the fight created, and build a loving relationship with your child.

When you are able—and maybe more importantly, if you are willing—to repair the situation, you will approach it with more compassion, not blame, and your child will be able to hear you. You might even get back, “I’m sorry too, Dad. I didn’t mean that I hate you.” And you, “I know you didn’t. That’s just what happens when we lose our tempers. But we can talk about it again when we can both think straight.” That’s the time for problem solving—working out with your child what to do in the future about video games.

But you have to be willing to admit you were wrong. Can you do that? If you can, you have nothing to lose and only relationship to gain. Apologizing is a wonderful thing as long as you learn from your mistake. That’s why the do-over is brilliant. You can redo what you said so your apology isn’t empty. When all you do is lose it and apologize, your child no longer trusts the apologies.

You don’t have to have the answers. As a matter of fact, when you do have all the answers, your child will learn to look the other way. She doesn’t want your answers. She needs to find her own, and she will only do that when you don’t lay out yours. What do you want to do about that? What is your plan? How can we make this work for both of us? What do you think? are guiding questions that let your child know you trust her capability, you value her ideas, and you know that things can be worked out.

Isn’t the goal to have your children turn to you with their problems, to be influenced by your values, to depend on you for support and advice? That will happen when they know you will listen, not tell them what you think they should do. That will happen when they know you are vulnerable and not perfect. That will happen when you trust their capabilities even when you see few. That will happen when you stop expecting yourself to be perfect and are willing to get down in the muck with your kids and make mistakes.

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We punish our children in an attempt to keep them from pushing our buttons, often escalating the original problem into a cycle of anger and blame. When Your Kids Push Your Buttons is not about what to do to your kids to get them to stop pushing your buttons. This book is about how to be the parent you wish you could be-the parent that only you are holding yourself back from.

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