It’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility.

July 15, 2015

We parent the way we were parented. That’s our instinct. If we want to parent a different way we have to make a conscious effort to change. It’s as simple as that, but it’s not easy. Fighting our instincts never is. Too often I hear myself say things to my child that my parents would have said to me. I recognise where these negative responses are coming from, and I’m not happy with them. Sometimes I feel angry and frustrated that I can’t always be the parent I want to be, and it would be so easy to simply blame my parents for this. However, as one of Dan Siegel’s patients once said to him; it’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility. For me, this seems to make sense of things so well, and is a phrase I’ve often returned to since I heard Dr Siegel talking about it at a conference some two years ago.

innocenceYou see, these negative responses that are ingrained in me may not be my fault, but it’s my responsibility to recognise where they’re coming from, the effect they can have on my child, and to self-reflect, and try to make changes for the better.

Now, following this logic, one could argue that in a similar way those negative responses that my parents passed down to me were not their fault either, since they inherited them from their own parents. But it was their responsibility. And this is where I’m struggling.

It’s only since becoming a parent myself that I’ve fully understood the profound effect my childhood has had on me. But despite this, and the emotional scars I’m still dealing with, I never really felt I held any of it against them. I’ve always known they never meant any harm.

And perhaps things could have stayed this way, with the past lying dormant. But it’s hard to let the past lie when it gets dragged into the present in the form of my parents’ negative responses to my own child. If not for this, I might have been able to leave it all undisturbed.

But since I have gone to the trouble to break the cycle, to get informed and learn about children’s emotional needs, and to take the business of parenting seriously, their behaviour towards my child is more than a little irritating to me. It really triggers something in me. It opens old wounds and makes me feel furiously protective of my own child.

Exacerbating the situation is their judgement and criticism of the way I choose to parent. No, I’m not doing it the way you did – that’s the point! Their inability to see this illustrates their total lack of self-reflection and refusal to take responsibility for themselves. And given the amount of self-reflection I’ve had to do, I find myself increasingly astonished and out of patience with the total lack of it I observe in other people.

But perhaps they know really, and it’s just too much to face up to. Because if they were to admit that what I’m doing is preferable to what they did, they would have to admit that what they did was wrong, had some ramifications. And that’s big.

Relations are now decidedly strained, for the first time since I was a teenager. And just as when I was a teenager, I seem to be expected to shoulder all the responsibility for this.

But the thing is, after years of victim blaming on their part (I was such a difficult teenager, you see), I’ve come to see that the situation back then, the culmination of everything that was wrong in our relationship, was entirely of their own making. After all these years they still can’t face up to this, nor, it seems, to the part they have played in creating the current situation.

Well I have enough responsibility of my own to deal with now, and I have enough issues from my childhood, thanks very much. I am no longer willing to take on anyone else’s. I know it’s not their fault, but it’s their responsibility.


Pressing pause

June 13, 2013

I recently went to hear Dr Dan Siegel speaking at a conference on “The Mindsight Approach to Parenting”. The focus of his talk was unusual I thought. He talked, as I expected, about the mind. But here’s the thing; it wasn’t about my child’s mind. It was about mine.

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about how babies’ brains develop, why toddlers have tantrums, what children can and can’t understand at certain ages, how children develop and manage their feelings, and why they might behave in certain ways etc etc. And I reckon I’ve also learnt  a fair bit about how to  respond to and treat children accordingly. So I know about validating feelings, being empathetic, not using punishments, the need to stay connected, what probably is and isn’t the right thing to say etc etc. I even write a blog about it.

So why, I often ask myself, do I sometimes hear words coming from my own mouth that I know are the opposite of what I should be saying, that I know will only make things worse, that I know will hurt my child’s feelings, that I know are not modelling the kind of person I want my child to be? It’s as if there’s some other person inside me saying these words on my behalf, but without my approval, and against my wishes. What the hell?

That’s where my own brain comes into the equation.

When I was preparing for the arrival of my child, I was having a conversation with someone about how I might deal with difficult behaviour. (Of course, I had some very clear ideas, all of which have been long forgotten). “They really can take you places you didn’t know you could go”, this person told me. And she didn’t mean nice places.  I thought this sounded a little, er, negative. Now I know exactly what she was talking about.

Never, before becoming a parent, had I experienced that moment when my patience is so completely drained, my anger and frustration so aroused, and I just totally lose it. It’s quite sudden, like a bomb exploding. I think all parents must know what I’m talking about – at least all the ones I’ve spoken to do, which is in some way reassuring.

So, what to do about it?

Prevention

When things go wrong, the plus side is that we can learn from them. What situation or set of circumstances led your child to behave in such a way that made you snap? Is there any way to do things differently next time?

If something’s a daily battle, do something about it. Try a different strategy, a different approach. Is your child going to magically change their behaviour in this same situation tomorrow? Probably not. Change the situation not the child.

See my posts here and here for some approaches, and strategies on gaining cooperation.

But to some extent, I think we have to accept that despite our best efforts and intentions, we all lose it occasionally….

pausePress pause

OK, so the prevention bit didn’t work this time and you’ve totally lost it. Press pause.

The important thing to understand is that it’s impossible to parent when we’re in a reactive state. The rational, thinking part of the brain simply isn’t functioning properly. Until you’ve really calmed down, don’t even try to respond.

Don’t speak. Anything you say is unlikely to be helpful at this stage. More likely to be the opposite. Don’t let those words come out of your mouth that you’ll later regret . Button it.

Dr Siegel also suggests putting your arms behind your back to help suppress any urge to push, pull or otherwise be more rough with your child than you would like.

We need to be able to recognise when we’re in this reactive state in order to then be able to stop ourselves saying or doing things that we know to be inappropriate and unhelpful. When a child behaves in a way that makes us really mad, we might need to take some immediate steps to keep them safe, but we don’t always need to say or do anything else right away. Wait until you’re both calm. Often your child is more likely to be in a state of mind to listen and learn later on as well.

Make a repair

If the pause button doesn’t work and your anger gets the better of you, it’s important to do what Dr Siegel refers to as ‘making a repair’. A repair to our relationship and connection with our child. When we yell, are rough with, or say unkind things to our children, we lose that connection with them, and when connection isn’t there, the things our children do that make us mad are more likely to keep happening.

So when you’ve calmed down, go to your child and apologise. And make this unconditional. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you made me really mad” won’t cut it. Just apologise. Admit that your behaviour was not OK. You can talk about your child’s behaviour, if you need to, later. It’s OK to admit to our children that we’re wrong sometimes. Nobody’s perfect, and saying sorry and making amends is important. Surely this is a lesson worth teaching?