Emma grew up afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid she was never good enough, afraid she wouldn’t be liked. Then Emma gave birth to Reilly. Overnight the story became that as a parent she would do the wrong thing, that she would never be good enough as a parent, and that her failure would mean Reilly would never be liked.
Almost overnight, the familiar negativity in her head began berating her as if it were on steroids: “You’re a failure as a parent. You’re making mistakes you can’t even imagine that will harm Reilly for life. What made you think you would be a good parent?”
Hard to imagine, but on any given day hundreds of millions of us walk the planet feeling the agony of endless, repetitive, worst case scenario thinking. Approximately 20% of adults worldwide struggle with the “what if” nature of the next moment. To make matters worse, if you’re a parent, these never-ending experiences of “danger, danger” often get worse because, well, the stakes are suddenly higher. The issue isn’t only all the things that can go wrong for you, but all the things that might/likely/inevitably will go wrong for the ones you most love.
I’m a developmental researcher and clinician and I want to address a particularly insidious form of chronic anxiety that many parents endure on a daily basis: The fear that they are not good enough as parents. This story is then linked to an even scarier story, that they are doing harm to their child.
I have some bad news for you: development research agrees that how we parent does directly relate to how safe and happy the child feels later in life.
Here’s the good news: parenting isn’t rocket science, it’s as foundational as anything we know in this life. If you happen to be a parent who chronically worries about making mistakes in parenting and not being good enough, there are two key messages from our decades of research that consistently reduce anxiety in parents and provide a roadmap for healthy parenting.
The 13th Flaw of Parenting
Pretend for a moment that every parent on the planet has this one simple fact in common: we all have exactly twelve flaws as parents. Not that these flaws are the same for everyone. Many of us have similar configurations fitting into similar patterns while also being stunningly unique in how messed up we actually are.
Now pretend that someone comes along and tells you that having these flaws isn’t actually a problem . . . unless you also have “the thirteenth parenting flaw,” the one that makes the other twelve almost impossible to deal with.
What’s this thirteenth flaw? The belief that you shouldn’t have the other twelve.
Here’s the deal about the thirteenth flaw: it always includes blame. This blame is always built on the illusion that there is always “the perfect way” to be a parent and we should already know it.
The hidden (insidious) message: “Imperfection does not belong in parenting.”
(Good luck with that.)
This much we know: All parents struggle. Every freaking parent on the planet. No one is perfect. Indeed, any attempt to be perfect is by its very nature a sign of imperfection.
When we fight our flaws they turn to stone and sit on us with a weight we can barely withstand. Then we either fall into shame and guilt – continually berating ourselves or we pretend that we don’t make mistakes and, inevitably, find someone else to blame (our children, our partner, our upbringing).
When we honor our inevitable flaws, when we can bring kindness, acceptance, and understanding to the mistakes we make as parents, something shifts. New possibility and wonderful surprises start showing up for us and our children.
Through the decades, this much I have learned: Blame has never helped a parent become a better parent. Being kind to ourselves flows from understanding that parenting is a remarkably difficult task, that we all make mistakes, and that our deep intention to do what’s best for our children is what matters.
Children are remarkably good at reading between the lines. They can tell when we’re anxious and self-critical. They can also recognize when we are able to honor ourselves for doing the best we can under (often) difficult circumstances. Being kind to ourselves increases our capacity to be kind to those we most love, especially our children.
Rupture and Repair
When we screw up as parents (welcome to the club) it is important to notice our part in what just happened, admit it (without blaming ourselves) and commit to finding a way to get through the difficulty with our child.
In the research world this is known as rupture and repair. As it turns out, the real problem for children isn’t that their parents make mistakes, the significant problem is the lack of connection that follows a parent’s mistake. For many of us as we were growing up, after a difficulty with our parents, a lack of connection remained. Their struggle went unacknowledged and we were left without resolution. This is a rupture without repair. Our lingering disconnection, especially if it included blame and/or banishment, created ongoing struggles we may still be experiencing. Think of it as a ditch (or a black hole) we want to make sure we never fall into again.
For example, we got angry at our father only to see him push back with outrage: “You do not get away with disrespecting me that way, go to your room.” Or, we started to cry and our mother tells us to “stop whining and put on a happy face.” In each circumstance the parent did not recognize or acknowledge their heavy-handed denial of our experience and the genuine feeling within us. If this remained a pattern repeated often, we likely learned to suppress our anger or deny our sadness. This is both understandable yet problematic for us within future relationships.
But what if your father had said: “Hey, my mistake. I’m not a fan of your being angry at me, but you sure have a right to tell me how you don’t like me when I set limits. I’m sorry I just shut you down and l want to find a way to work this out with you.”
What if your mother had said: “I know you’re sad about not getting invited to her party and I just told you to suck it up. I’m sorry. Why don’t you come over here and sit with me and we’ll talk about how bad it feels.”
Consider it a formula: inevitable mistake (rupture) followed by the parent’s recognition that connection is all important (repair). If we’re willing to learn this, we will see anxiety (and self-deprecation) in our children diminish dramatically.
Why? Because anxiety is highly correlated with a lack of trust. As it turns out, the lack of trust isn’t so much in the future, it’s a lack of trust in the predictable and available presence of another as we face a difficult future. When a child knows she has someone to turn to in times of trouble, anxiety is greatly reduced. When a child believes they will be forced to face trouble on their own, anxiety increases.
So. The issue is no longer your imperfection as a parent because all parents are imperfect. All we have to do is be “good enough.” And good enough has so much to do with recognizing our inevitable mistakes and rather than forcing our children to suffer the pain of our limitations on their own, finding a way to name the flaw and commit to the essential reconnection that will repair the hurt of feeling left alone.
Parenting is never easy, especially for parents prone to the chronic anxiety that they aren’t capable and/or likely to cause harm to their children based upon their inevitable failings as parents. What a difference it makes when the underlying message of parenting can include the message that all parents struggle, all parents make mistakes, all parents often get lost on the path to security for their children. When we can admit our imperfection as part of parenting and commit to recognizing our mistakes, while offering to work through the impact of these ruptures with our children, everyone feels more secure. It just may be that in our willingness to honor our twelve inevitable parenting flaws our children get what they need most of all.
Dr. Kent Hoffman is a clinician, developmental researcher, and co-originator of the Circle of Security. This article includes excerpts from: Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom to Explore, by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell, Guildford Press, 2017.