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The Single Most Important Parenting Strategy

parenthood personal experience

By catherine muthoniPublished about a month ago 8 min read
The Single Most Important Parenting Strategy
Photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash

Even though I'll be concentrating on parent-child relationships today, please understand that everything I discuss here is relevant to any important relationship. So let's get started with that in mind. I'm in my kitchen on a Sunday night. I'm tense because I just completed making dinner for my family. I mean, I haven't been sleeping well, and I'm exhausted. My unfinished to-do list is overwhelming me, and I'm nervous about the approaching workweek. Afterwards, my son enters the kitchen. He cries,

"Chicken again?" as he glances at the table.

"Disgusting”. That's all there is to it. I lose it.

"What's wrong with you?" I yell as I turn to face him.

“Is there anything in your life for which you are thankful?" and from there, things just get worse.

He lets out a yell, "I hate you." He slams the door to his bedroom as he bolts from the room. And with that, my moment of self-loathing commences, as I ask myself, "What is wrong with me? I'll always have damaged my child." As a parent, you have undoubtedly experienced that suffering. It carries an additional element of humiliation for me. After all, I'm a professional psychologist with a focus on improving parenting skills. That being said, it's also true that no parent is flawless. Struggles and mistakes are part of the work, but nobody ever advises us on what to do next. Shall we simply go on? Sort of like just acting like the entire thing never happened? Or what would I say, if I were to speak? As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I witnessed numerous clients struggle with this subject over the course of many years. And now that I've developed the parenting community and content platform "Good Inside," I understand that millions of parents worldwide have this problem. Every parent screams. Nobody is sure of what to do next. I'm resolved to close this gap, though. After all, very little in our interpersonal interactions has the same power to influence as mending. "What one parenting strategy should I focus on?" is a question I get asked by parents frequently. The same advice I give every time is to "get good at repair." What then is repair? To repair is to return to a moment of disconnection.

Accepting accountability for your actions and realizing how they affected other people. Furthermore, I wish to distinguish between a repair and an apology because the former frequently aims to end the discussion with a "Hey, I'm sorry I yelled." Can we now move on? A well-made fix makes one accessible. Learning how to make things better also involves a lot of possibility, optimism, and practical thinking. Repair assumes that there has been a break. So, in order to heal, you have to make errors or fail to live up to other people's expectations. So the next time I lose my temper with my kids, my partner, or a coworker, I try not to punish myself as much as I did that night in the kitchen.

I try to tell myself that I want to get better at fixing things. The first step is to rupture."I nailed it, so mark that one off." Repair is the second phase. "I can accomplish this. I am, in fact, on the right track." Let's go back to my example now. I'm in the kitchen, and my son is in his room. What would happen, then, if I didn't fix it? Understanding that is essential since it informs our choices on the optimal course of action. Alright, so these are the specifics. To be honest, my son is feeling alone, overwhelmed, and distressed because, well, his mom has turned into a scary person. He must now devise a plan to regain his sense of security and safety.

And if I don't go assist him in doing that by repairing it, he will be forced to turn to self-blame, which is one of his few available coping strategies. Self-blame is expressed as follows: "I have a problem. I'm not lovable. I'm the cause of unfortunate events. Perhaps the greatest way to put it was when Ronald Fairbairn said that, for children, it is preferable to be a sinner in a world where God rules than to live in a world where the devil rules. Put another way, a child's internalization of badness and blame is actually adaptive, as it allows them to cling to the notion that their parents and the world around them are good and safe. Moreover, although self-blame benefits us in childhood, we all know it works against us in adulthood.

“Something’s wrong with me, I make bad things happen, I’m unlovable.” These are the core fears of so many adults. But really, we see here, they are actually the childhood stories we wrote when we were left alone following distressing events that went unrepaired. Plus, adults with self-blame are vulnerable to depression, anxiety, deep feelings of worthlessness -- none of which we want for our kids. And we can do better. And it doesn't mean we have to be perfect. When you repair, you go further than removing a child's story of self-blame. You get to add in all the elements that were missing in the first place. Safety, connection, coherence, love, goodness. It's as if you're saying to a child, "I will not let this chapter of your life end in self-blame. Yes, this chapter will still contain the event of yelling, but I can ensure this chapter has a different ending, and therefore a different title, and theme and lesson learned."

We know that memory is original events combined with every other time you've remembered that event. This is why therapy's helpful, right? When you remember painful experiences from your past within a safer and more connected relationship, the event remains, but your story of the event, it changes, and then you change. With repair, we effectively change the past. So let's write a better story. Let's learn how to repair. Step one, repair with yourself. That's right. I mean, you can't offer compassion or groundedness or understanding to someone else before you access those qualities within yourself. Self-repair means separating your identity, who you are, from your behavior, what you did. For me, it means telling myself two things are true. I’m not proud of my latest behavior and my latest behavior doesn't define me. Even as I struggle on the outside, I remain good inside. I can then start to see that I'm a good parent -- identity -- who was having a hard time -- behavior. And no, this doesn't let me off the hook. This is precisely what leaves me on the hook for change.

I can now focus my energy on considering what I want to do better the next time, as grounded Ness has taken the place of my spiral. Oh, and I can go fix things with my son now that I have the energy. Step two: work with your child to mend. There's no precise recipe. Three things come to mind when I think about things: own up to what happened, accept responsibility, and say what you would do differently the next time. This is how it might come together: "Hey. I can't stop thinking about what happened in the kitchen the other night. I apologize for my outburst. That must have felt unsettling. It wasn't your fault either. I'm trying to control my temper, even when I'm angry." An intervention lasting 15 seconds can have a lasting effect.

I've replaced my child's story of self-blame with a story of self-trust and safety and connection. I mean, what a massive upgrade. And to give a little more clarity around how to repair, I want to share a few examples of what I call "not repair," which are things that come more naturally to most of us -- definitely me included. "Hey, I'm sorry I yelled at you in the kitchen, but if you wouldn't have complained about dinner, it wouldn't have happened. Been there? Been there? OK. Or "You know, you really need to be grateful for things in your life, like a home-cooked meal. Then, you won't get yelled at. Not only do these interventions fail at the goal of reconnection, they also insinuate that your child caused your reaction, which simply isn’t true and isn't a model of emotion regulation we want to pass on to the next generation. So let's say we've all resisted the "it was your fault, anyway" not-repairs, and have instead prioritized a repair that allows us to reconnect. What might the impact be? What might that look like in adulthood?

My adult child won’t spiral in self-blame when they make a mistake, and won’t take on blame for someone else’s mistake. My adult child will know how to take responsibility for their behavior, because you've modeled how to take responsibility for yours. Repairing with a child today sets the stage for these critical adult relationship patterns. Plus, it gets better -- now that I've reconnected with my son, I can do something really impactful. I can teach him a skill he didn't have in the first place, which is how kids actually change their behavior. So maybe the next day, I say "You know, you're not always going to like what I make for dinner. Instead of saying 'that's disgusting,' I wonder if you could say 'not my favorite.'" Now I'm teaching him how to regulate his understandable disappointment, and communicate effectively and respectfully with another person. That never would have happened if instead, I had been blaming him for my reaction. So here's the point where you might have a lingering concern. Maybe you're thinking, "You know, I have a feeling that my kid's older than your kid. "I think it's too late." Or "I have done a lot worse than you did in the kitchen. “Maybe it's too late." Well, I mean this -- if you have only one takeaway from this talk, please let this be it: It is not too late. It is never too late. How do I know? Well, imagine, right after this, you get a call from one of your parents, and if neither of your parents are alive, imagine finding and opening a letter you hadn't seen till that moment. OK, walk through this with me, here's the call. "Hey, I know this sounds out of the blue, but I've been thinking a lot about your childhood. And I think there were a lot of moments that felt really bad to you. And you are right to feel that way. Those moments weren't your fault. They were times when I was struggling, and if I could have gone back, I would have stepped aside, I would have calmed myself down, and then found you to help you with whatever you were struggling with. I'm sorry. And if you're ever willing to talk to me about any of those moments, I'll listen. I won't listen to have a rebuttal. I'll listen to understand. I love you." I don't know many adults who don't have a fairly visceral reaction to that exercise. I often hear, “Why am I crying?” Or "Listen, that wouldn't change everything. But it might change some things. I mean, I'm not really an expert in arithmetic, but this much I am convinced of. Your child, if you have one, is younger than you. Always accurate. Their life story is shorter and much more easily edited. If the hypothetical exercise has an effect on you, just think of the effect a real repair will have on your child. See? It is never too late, as I have stated. Thank you.

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    CMWritten by catherine muthoni

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