“I’m an awful parent” is a common lament of many of the parents I work with professionally. These parents will enter my office with anger and regret tattooed from face to toes. A child or teen is commonly tugged in their wake, head downcast. Meeting individually with these parents to check-in regarding the cause of their disparaging facade, they commonly spill forth tales of their child’s becoming quite the little terror recently, to which they with all the heaviness of an over-stressed individual, responded in anger, only to deeply regret it later.
Now I’ll be the first to support healthy guilt when it produces behavior change. This seems to be much of the purpose behind our evolution of this crazy feeling we label “guilt.” However for many of these parents it appears that they walk in overburdened shame from shoulds rather than guilt. This shame is fertilized by high degrees of an assortment of cognitive distortions and unrealistic ideals about being the perfect parent. They thus become stuck in these distortions and their reinforced shame, therein they are prevented from the natural progression from guilt to behavior change to becoming a better parent.
However I argue that when as parents we feel at our worst, we teach our greatest lessons. Imagine a child who has commonly experienced parental anger as a catalyst to a cafeteria of abuse who is able to see a parent respond differently to their anger in a healthy way such as, hey I’m angry and this is what I’m going to do to deal with that. Yet when we are paralyzed by our own notions of perfectionism or shamful shoulding, we are hindered from having the necessary mindfulness to own our mistakes, our emotions, and take appropriate self-care measures. Imagine how awesome an opportunity for modeling healthy behaviors, including at times modeling an appropriate apology! Those little eyes are watching mom and dad’s responses and often seem to be learning most by what mom and dad do rather than all those colorful words and well crafted lectures that mom and dad deliver.
This is not to say that we as parents turn our kids into little therapists! Good parent-child boundaries appear paramount in healthy family systems; however our owning our emotions with honesty and taking full responsibility for our mistakes seems a powerful teaching moment for the children we are entrusted with teaching and guiding through life. And really there is no reasonable alternative because when we lie about being angry despite the fact that anger is tattooed across our entire body, we teach our children about dishonesty and deception.
In helping parents learn to own their mistakes, I am reminded that as helpers we often can model this in turn for the parents we seek to help by owning those little slips in empathy that commonly occurred during the afternoon of fatigued sessions. But this means that we helpers must also confront those thinking errors and irrational notions that perpetuate subtle suffering in our own lives first! May the lesson of these parents be a reminder to you this day as it has been to me to confront these shoulds and shames that tear our ability to help and heal to shambles!
Stephen Ratcliff is a Counselor in private practice in Albuquerque, NM. He specializes in helping Children and Adolescents with Addiction, Psychological Trauma, and Attachment Disorders. For more information or to contact Stephen, please visit www.familiesfirsttherapy.org.