We all have parenting moments we regret. Just the other day, I was hard on my son, and felt very badly about my behavior. Even though we may have the tools to do so, calming down when our kids are melting down, sometimes for the most ridiculous reasons, can feel impossible to do.
It is important to do relationship repair after rough parenting moments. This helps our relationship with our children deepen, stops trust-rifts from growing and also shows them how to have empathy -- a concept that can't really be taught. Taking time to address what we regret teaches our children how to admit when we are wrong, seeing the impact of our mistakes on another person.
Here are the steps to relationship repair with your child (and your partner, too):
1. Calm all the way down.
Eat, have a shower, go for a walk or close your eyes for a few minutes -- whatever calms you. Take time for the sad, mad or scared feelings to work their way through. How this happens will depend on your personality, as some people prefer to talk, sing or draw their feelings out whereas others feel like moving around.
2. Invite your child to speak with you well after everyone has had time to regroup.
Start by opening the communication door with a gentle tone and without direct eye contact (at first). Calmly invite your child to hear you out. If there is a closed door between you and you child, you can try this, "Hey. I made a mistake and would like to talk to you about that. May I come in?" When you go in, sit down beside your child, if possible. If she is in a chair that won't fit both of you, just sit nearby.
If your child is little and playing on her own, go sit beside her, initially avoiding eye contact. Try something like, "Hey. I made a mistake. I'd like to fix that."
3. Ask how your child feels about your behavior -- without defending yourself.
For a little one, try something like, "Did you feel scared when I shouted?" (Please brace yourself for the answer -- my kids have said, "YES! You scared me TOO MUCH, Mommy.")
With older children, perhaps something like this, "I feel badly about how I behaved. Are you feeling mad at me? It's OK if you do. I'd like to hear what you are feeling and thinking."
Leave lots of space for your child to respond. The more she is able to talk about what is going on in her mind and body, the more she will process the event, leaving less to hold as a grudge later.
4. Talk about what you regret. Name it.
In an age-appropriate way, validate your child's experience with you by explaining what you feel badly about. "I am very sad (use a feeling word) that I yelled so loudly at you." (Don't defend yourself by saying something like, "but you were freaking out about cutting the sandwich the wrong way... which is RIDICULOUS.") Perhaps what you child did was unreasonable and irrational, but that is what kids do. We can respond to that ridiculousness without hurting them.
5. Problem solve -- how are you going to respond in the future?
It's time to dust off your calm-down plan, which didn't work well enough for you in that parenting moment you regret. It is so very hard to stop ourselves from going into defend/ attack scream mode when someone flips out on us. The first step of shutting down that physical reaction can feel unmanageable, can't it?! Try some different plans until you find one that becomes automatic for you.
When I was having a tough time remembering my plan, I went back to the basics and told myself to just "freeze." Even that is hard to do! Each time you feel your blood boiling, tell yourself something like, "freeze," "pause," or "stop." That one word might be enough to regroup and remember the next step in your plan (mine is to count back from 11). After you are calm enough to think rationally, use your good reason to talk yourself and your child down.
This is the most important question when your child is losing it and you feel like doing the same: What does my child need right now?
Respond to that need, then take time later to ask yourself the same question. What do you need to feel more rested, less exhausted, less at the end of your rope? What can you do about that? Is there something compromising you that makes being friendly or logical hard?
6. Talk to your child about his/her calm-down plan.
If the bad parenting moment happened because your child was having a complete meltdown, talk with your child about his/her calm-down plan. Please know that it is just as hard for your child to reel in the automatic, intense instinct to shout, throw or yell as it is for you. It will take time to find a plan that actually stops people from "Letting their mad turn into mean."
Let the plan evolve as each freak-out happens. What is working? What isn't? Adjust as needed.
From the bottom of your heart, look your child in the eye, and say you are sorry. Hug and cry -- show your sadness. Explain to your child what you are going to do to stop yourself from behaving that way again. Discuss your action plan moving forward.
8. Walk your talk.
Remember what you told your child. Write the steps out and put them somewhere you can see them. The next moment of tension is an important one -- your response will affect how much your child trusts you. If you are able to do what you intended, your child will believe you, which can sustain your relationship through future snags.
If you have another regretful parenting moment, and another, and another, your child is likely to stop believing and trusting you. This belief usually translates to other aspects of life--your child may start to give up on you--that you will be able to be there for him/ her.
9. Understand that some moments are too big to recover from.
If a very scary, traumatic interaction happens between a parent and child like violence, alcoholism or drug use, threat of walking out, or long separations, it may not be possible to recover from that without long-term support from a skilled mental health professional.
If you have experienced difficult times in your life, which are affecting how you interact with your children, please consider getting help. Perhaps that help can come in the form of self-help books, chats with friends, journaling, or the treatment and care of a counselor, doctor, or other trusted practitioner.
I continually provide free parenting support on my Facebook page. I invite you over there to join our supportive group of parents.