When my son was a few months old, a friend and her daughter came to visit us. They arrived while my son was napping, and I took them into our kitchen to offer them something to drink.
Without realizing it, I left the baby monitor—which was usually attached to my hip—in the front room. We got to chatting and, after a little while, my friend suddenly said, “do you hear him?” My son was screaming his head off upstairs.
I flew up the stairs. When I reached him, it was clear that he had been crying for some time—his little face was red and he seemed more distressed than I had ever seen him. I was wracked with guilt.
How could I have forgotten the monitor? How long had he been crying?
Later that night, I happened to talk to a wise friend who works with children and adults who have suffered from trauma. I knew my son wasn’t damaged for life from this experience, but I wondered what I could do to help him feel that he was safe and could trust me to respond to him, even after I may have shaken his conviction in this fact earlier that day.
What she said has stayed with me, and has become a part of my own parenting journey as well as one of the primary things I share with other parents.
“You don’t have to do it ‘right’ 100% of the time. You just have to be sure to repair it when you screw up.”
I was reminded of this sage advice just this morning, when I struggled with my son to get him dressed and out the door for school. He was resisting, crying, and yelling, and in my haste to get us out the door, I was too rough with him and not as respectful as I want to be when things are hard.
Here’s what I recommend when you find yourself behaving like the parent you don’t want to be—either by accident or because you can’t seem to stop yourself.
1. Take time to reflect.
We all handle the stressful moments of parenting differently, and naturally we have different needs when it comes to recovering from those moments. But at least one thing is universal: we can’t help repair our relationship with our child if we are still angry, exasperated, or triggered. Take time to center yourself and think about what happened before trying to reconnect with your child. For some of us this process can be helped by doing something physical—jumping jacks can work in a pinch—and others need quiet reflection time like meditation or a walk in nature. It’s best not to wait too long before repairing a disconnection, but wait until you’re ready to meet your child with an open heart again.
2. Explain what happened.
When you and your child are calm, sit with him and talk about what happened. Just the facts at this point—no editorializing, judging, or blaming (of yourself or the child). For a young baby this might sound something like: “You woke up and were crying for me, and I didn’t hear you! You cried for a long time. I finally heard you and I rushed to be with you as quickly as I could.” For an older child, it might be more like: “I wanted you to get dressed this morning and you really didn’t want to. You cried and yelled. I said we needed to get you dressed so we wouldn’t be late, and then Daddy and I helped you get into your clothes. You said ‘no!’ and ‘I don’t want to get dressed!’”
3. Apologize from your heart.
“I am so sorry I didn’t hear you sooner, and that you cried for a long time before I got there. That must have felt a little scary to you. I’m here now, and you are safe. ”
“I’m sorry that I was not very patient with you this morning. I was worried that we were late and felt very frustrated that you didn’t want to get dressed. I grabbed your arm and I was rushing you. Next time I will try to slow down and be more gentle.”
4. Ask your child how it felt.
When our babies are tiny, it can feel strange to ask them questions that they can’t answer in words. But beginning to do this from the start keeps us curious. From a curious place we are much less likely to fall into judgment or blame. It also allows us to practice dialoguing with our child so that, by the time they can speak with us, two-way communication is already ingrained. Early on you might suggest to your baby how you imagine the experience felt—scary, unsettling, disconnected—and you might even be surprised by a small response from her body language or eye contact. Later, you may be surprised by just how much your toddler or older child is able to say.
5. Listen. Then listen some more.
Sometimes this is the hardest part—even though it requires the least amount of active work on our part. Listen to your child’s protests, upsets, anger, or cries. Sometimes they come out in that moment, and sometimes you’ll notice them later that day or week. You might notice after an upset that your child seems less resilient than usual, or more prone to cry. Offer a few soothing words, but mostly just try to keep your heart open until the storm passes—however long it takes.
Have you had success repairing upsets or difficult moments with your child? I’d love to hear about what works well for you, and what you struggle with, too.