The famous psychologist D.W. Winnicott said that children don't need perfection from their parents; all we need to do is avoid harming them, and to offer them the “ordinary devotion" which has always been required of parents.
But unfortunately, most parents don't find this quite so easy.
Because, first of all, there is nothing ordinary about devotion. Devotion, as parents know, is walking the floor at 2am holding a screaming baby with an ear infection. Devotion is turning off your screens to play a board game with your kids. Devotion is forcing yourself into the kitchen to make your child dinner after a long day, when all you really want is to curl up on the couch and return a call to a friend. Devotion is taking off your jacket on a cold night to tuck it around a sleeping child in the back seat of the car.
This ordinary devotion is the same intense love that has caused parents throughout human history to hurl themselves between their child and danger, from flying glass to snarling wolves to enemy soldiers.
But even if, most of the time, we express our devotion in our willingness to put our children first, it is still not easy to be a "good enough" parent.
Because even we devoted parents often inadvertently scar our children. This includes parents who adore their children, who would be completely heroic and self sacrificing if the situation called for it. The reason is that while we would never consciously hurt our child, so much of parenting, like every relationship, happens outside of our conscious awareness.
The truth is that virtually all of us were wounded as children, and if we don't heal those wounds, they prevent us from parenting our children optimally. If there’s an area where you were scarred as a child, you can count on that area causing you grief as a parent -- and wounding your child.
We can all think of examples: the father who unwittingly repeats his father’s judgmental parenting with his own sons. The mother who can’t set limits on her children’s behavior because she can’t bear their anger at her, and ends up raising anxious, self-centered kids. The parents who work long hours at their jobs, leaving their babies in the care of nannies, because they doubt their own ability to be interested in (translate: to love) their infants.
The good news is that being parents gives us an opportunity to heal ourselves. Most parents say that loving their children has transformed them: made them more patient, more compassionate, more selfless. Loving our children helps us to heal those unloved places inside.
In fact, if we pay attention, our children have an unerring ability to show us our wounded places. Better than the best zen master or therapist, our children draw out our unreasonable fears and angers. Being parents gives us the perfect opportunity to grow and heal. Most of us run from this hard inner work, but what better motivation than our love for our children? Almost magically, as our wounds transform, we find that these hurt places inform us, motivate us, make us better parents. And happier people.
So how can we heal our own scars, to become the parents our children deserve?
1. Parent consciously.
If we pay attention, we notice where we're over-reacting, where we need to examine our own “stuff”. And truthfully, most of it is our own stuff. Not that kids don't act like kids -- they always do, and that's age appropriate. But we know that what triggers some parents would be greeted by others with a calm, warm attitude that helps kids WANT to behave -- which tells us that those are our individual issues. So whenever we get "triggered," we've stumbled on something that needs healing. Seriously. Your child knows how to push your buttons, but those buttons come from your own childhood.
2. Break the cycle by using your inner Pause button.
You don’t have to repeat history with your kids. Even if you're already well down the wrong path, STOP. Take a deep breath, and hit the pause button. Remind yourself of what is about to happen unless you choose another course. Walk out of the room. Don't be embarrassed; you're modeling good anger management. It's when you have a tantrum that you should be embarrassed. (See Handling Your Own Anger.)
3. Understand how emotions work.
Anger is a biological state. When we are in the grip of the chemical reactions that make us “angry,” we do and say things we would never choose to do otherwise. When your body and emotions are in "fight or flight" mode, your child always looks like the enemy. Take a breath and wait till you calm down.
4. Reflect on your own “story.”
If you had a painful childhood, you can’t change that. But what you can change is what you’re taking with you from that childhood. Your “story.” You do that by reflecting on it, feeling the painful feelings, but also considering new angles. If your father abandoned the family and you concluded that you weren’t good enough, it’s time to set the record straight and understand, from your adult vantage point, that you were more than enough and his leaving had nothing to do with you. If your mother hit you and you concluded that you were somehow bad inside, a more accurate understanding would be that your mother was frightened and would have hit even the most angelic child in the world. You were just like any child: reaching out for love and attention in the only ways you knew. Coming to terms with your story and rewriting it can be a painful process, but it’s liberating. It’s also the only path to being the parent you want to be to your child.
We all have a harder time being the best parents we can be when we’re stressed out. Develop a repertoire of habits that help you de-stress: regular exercise, yoga, hot baths, meditation. Can’t find the time? Involve the whole family. Put on music and dance together, go for a walk in the woods, put everyone to bed with books early on Friday night for a quiet, relaxing evening and catching up on your sleep.
6. Get support in working through old issues.
Parenting support groups can be invaluable in supporting you to re-frame your parenting positively. Therapy and counseling are designed to help you heal old issues and move forward more happily in your life. There is no shame in asking for help. The shame is in reneging on your responsibility as a parent by damaging your child physically or psychologically. If you think you need help, please don't wait. Reach out now.
No parent is perfect, because humans are by definition imperfect. No matter how much we work on ourselves, we will not always impact our children positively. But if we pay attention, use our inner Pause buttons, reflect on our own experience, and keep our stress at manageable levels, we can minimize the harm we do our children.
And, luckily, Winnicott seems to have been correct. Our children don’t need perfection from us. Research has shown that if we meet their physical, emotional and intellectual needs, we can usually count on the growth imperative of mother nature herself to nurture our children into basically healthy adults. And the places they're quirky? That just makes life more interesting.
Click here to watch Dr. Laura's videos on emotional regulation, "Every Parent's Number One Responsibility" and "When the Wounds of Your Childhood Affect Your Parenting."