By Dr. Laura Markham
Have you ever:
- Been flooded by remorse because you lost your temper?
- Wished you could hit the erase button to wipe out something you said to your child?
- Worried that you’ve damaged your child’s psyche?
If you didn’t answer Yes to at least one of these questions, you’re probably not a parent.
We all have hard times when we know we’re messing up but just can’t seem to stop ourselves before we open our mouths. The bad news is, parenting is the toughest thing we do, and the hardest part of all is regulating ourselves. We’re only human, and that means there’s no way for us to be perfect.
But there’s good news, too. Our kids don’t need us to be perfect. In fact, it’s a good thing you’re not perfect! If you were, imagine what you’d be modelling for your child – an unattainable standard. Your poor child would feel like he could never measure up.
Your child knows he’s not perfect, so your imperfection gives him hope that he might actually be okay, just the way he is. What kids need from us is the space to be imperfect, to be loved and accepted for who they are. That’s the only place any of us can start from to grow.
What kids need from us is the space to be imperfect, to be loved and accepted for who they are.
Maybe worse, if you were a perfect parent, your child wouldn’t learn that all human relationships experience strains and small tears, but we can repair them and make them stronger. Our children learn this beginning in infancy, when we inevitably fail, at times, to attune to them. Let’s say we’ve been having a lovely time playing with our baby. We shake the rattle and he laughs uproariously. But after a while, his excitement overwhelms him. He feels himself spinning out of control, frightened. He needs to calm himself, to return to a lower level of arousal. He looks away.
Some parents would notice right away and realise their baby needs a break. But maybe, at least this time, not us. We’re having such a good time. It’s so exciting to see our little one so happy! And maybe there’s more; maybe we’re not feeling so great about our parenting right now because soothing the baby can be challenging, but look, we can make him laugh, and laugh more…So we miss his cue. He continues to look away, even though we get in his face and shake the rattle more insistently. He’s overwhelmed. His face crumples. He begins to cry.
So we misattuned. Our intrusiveness actually drove our baby to tears!
Is he damaged for life? Luckily, no. We can make a repair.
We take a deep breath and shift gears, from excitement to soothing. We pick our little guy up and begin to speak soothingly. He continues to cry, but less loudly, and his breathing slows. He’s calming down. He’s learned that the universe isn’t perfect and sometimes he has to raise his voice to be heard, but he has the power to repair a rift in your relationship. Because you responded quickly to his distress-which has been shown to be the most important attunement factor in how infants adjust-he’s learned that it’s a safe universe and he can count on you to respond when he needs you.