Dear Dr. Debbie,
I catch myself sounding like my mother, telling my child to: “Look where you’re going!” after she’s just tripped, or asking, “What were you thinking?” after she’s gotten permanent marker on a nice shirt. Her stunned expression brings up my own hurt feelings from long ago – thinking I couldn’t do anything right.
How can I stop this instant reaction and change the pattern for the next generation?
Oops Not Again
Thank you for asking about this. It’s normal to parent as we were parented unless a conscientious effort is made to be different.
It’s always best to give your child a positive direction to follow so you can prevent her from making a mistake in the first place. In the case of the permanent markers you might keep them in a place that she can’t get to so that you are aware of, and can supervise, their use. Ideally, she asks you about using them; you check what she’s wearing; you suggest changing clothes if warranted; you provide an appropriate area in which she can work; and you stay close to be sure no marker strokes are made on the wrong surfaces.
It’s nearly impossible to predict when a child might trip, but try to anticipate a stumble with such coaching as, “You’ll need to walk slowly when you carry that big box.” Or, “These rocks look loose. Let’s watch our footing.” Or, “How about you take your sandals off when you get to the sand? Then you can run more easily.”
The key is to anticipate the guidance she will need prior to the moment she needs to follow it. Get in the practice of giving well-timed, calmly delivered, positive directions.
This is not to say that you need to constantly control your child’s actions with your instructions. Depending on her age, personality, mood, and other circumstances, you should let her experience the natural consequences of her actions so that she can tell herself what she should do differently next time.
For example, if she can’t see where she’s going because she’s carrying a box of stuffed animals, and consequently bumps into the sofa, no permanent harm has been done. No words from you are needed. As she refills the box she might be reminding herself of the map in her head of the room’s furniture. She might be encouraging herself to get back up and get back to work moving her animals. She might be admonishing herself to move more slowly with this important mission. There are plenty of lessons she can teach herself from this mistake, if your words don’t get in the way.
Learning from her mistakes, by listening to herself, is an important part of growing up. Even though you will always be in her head to some degree, her own voice will eventually run her life.
Apologize – You’re Human
Likewise, you will stumble at times in your parenting. You are striving to depart from a family pattern of criticism. A research paper by Kiera James of Binghamton University correlates parenting that is overly critical with many negative impacts. Frequent criticism raises a child’s risk for depression and anxiety. Future relationships are also at risk. Frequent negative comments from parents will override any positive comments during childhood. This results in feelings of low self-esteem. Hearing only the bad and not the good about herself, even when compliments and other positive feedback are given, then becomes an ongoing reaction in her other relationships.
You are already paying attention to a consequence you do not like, that of re-experiencing the hurt feelings caused by your mother’s criticism. It will take effort for you to transform your parenting from criticizing to coaching. Fortunately, you are motivated to protect your child’s mental health and future relationships. When you slip up, tell yourself that you can do better. Then make amends with your child with some positive words about herself and a heartfelt apology for your mistake. Remind yourself, and your child, that you are trying to help her to do the right thing.
The words we hear about ourselves in childhood echo into adulthood. You have a chance to make a change.
She is offering a virtual workshop for parents, “Little Kids at Hope” on August 15 & 17.
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