One of the hardest aspects of parenting a child who struggles is that we don’t always know how to help. We can scour the internet late into the evening, looking for resources, insights and advice. We can seek out relationships with professionals. We can confer with other parents who have had a similar experience. We can deliberate over treatment decisions.
Then we can decide which interventions to pursue, which people we trust to help us, how to adapt our parenting, and how many different approaches our families can manage. It’s hard. It’s individual. And in the end, we can only do our best.
Why, then, do we beat ourselves up about whether we’re doing the right thing?
Nasty Guilt Trip
I have spoken to so many parents who feel guilty. Guilt is such a nasty emotion. It chips away at our well-being. Left unchecked, it can lead to depression. But we all feel it sometimes.
- We feel like the problems our kids face are somehow our fault. Like we’re bad parents. Like we should be doing more.
- Maybe we feel guilty that we didn’t realize how big the problem was. Or that we didn’t get help early enough… or we got the wrong help… or we wasted time working with someone who really wasn’t a good fit.
- Maybe we feel as if we haven’t done enough to develop a better understanding and connection with our kids. Or we feel guilty that it can be hard to accept life – and our kids – as they are.
- We may also feel guilty that we’re exhausted!
Anywhere you turn, you can beat yourself up. You can take a guilt trip and never come back.
But let’s not go that way!
Here are 3 ideas to help you break away from the grip of guilt:
- Take a U Turn
Think about this: Swirling away in guilt will only make you feel worse. And then your children will absorb and reflect those feelings. Our kids are sponges. If we try to cultivate positive emotions, we can kick guilt to the curb. Make a U turn to visit a nicer place.
Here’s a simple technique that has always helped me when I find myself second-guessing decisions or starting to go down the path of self-blame. I say to myself:
“I’m doing the best I can with what I know today.”
– or –
“I made the best decisions I could with what I knew at the time.”
This mantra is a simple way to stop ruminating over past decisions and focus on the here and now. It’s also a great way to acknowledge that you’re human, as in not perfect! Offering yourself kindness like this will have a bigger positive ripple effect than you might expect. Many studies, by Kristin Neff and others, are showing that self-compassion enhances our well-being, reducing anxiety, depression, stress, perfectionism and shame. It also sustains our ability to offer compassion to others, including our kids.
- Mind the Wobbly Bridge
In her book Not What I Expected, Rita Eichenstein, PhD explains how our negative emotions impact the whole family: “Think of your child’s condition as a wobbly wooden suspension bridge that sways when you walk across it. Your anger (or self-blame) is like the guy who stomps across the bridge making everyone else lose their footing . . . You’ve got to become mindful of that shaky bridge.” Do you want to feed the negativity beast and keep shaking the bridge, or contribute to making things feel better?
The S.T.O.P. technique, which is a foundational tool of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, is a powerful way to become aware of how you’re feeling in any given moment, and to give yourself the space to find the best path. For example, if you’re tempted to burst into the room and berate your child – yet again – to get off the computer, taking a S.T.O.P. break can help you slow down and assess all that you’re thinking and feeling, so you can proceed in the most peaceful and productive way.
You can link to the basics of S.T.O.P. here on my site, or watch Dr. Elisha Goldstein, a leader in mindfulness and psychotherapy and author of The Now Effect do a video demonstration of this simple practice.
- Go Down the Path of Acceptance
Many seasoned parents have told me they came to a realization – at some point – that they had been trying to fixtheir child, rather than accept their child. There’s a balance. We can accept our kids for who they are and still give them the support they need to become their best selves.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and bestselling author of Wherever You Go, There You Are, co-wrote a book with his wife Myla, called Everyday Blessings, The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting which explores the inner experience of parenting and explains how we can create moments of stillness to reconnect with ourselves and reflect on our parenting.
They created a list called “12 Exercises for Mindful Parenting” that I love. Here are 2 that help with moving towards acceptance:
Exercise 1: Try to imagine the world from your child’s point of view, purposefully letting go of your own. Do this every day for at least a few moments to remind you of who this child is and what he or she faces in the world.
Exercise 2: Practice seeing your children as perfect just the way they are. See if you can stay mindful of their sovereignty from moment to moment, and work at accepting them as they are when it is hardest for you to do so.
There’s an incredible freedom in letting go of expectations about how life should be and who our kids should be, and instead, just savoring the good stuff while chipping away at the issues.
It’s hard to remember, but the only person we really have control over is ourselves.