Have you ever found yourself so frustrated by your child that you end up saying “what’s wrong with you?!” , “what were you thinking?!” or “I can’t believe you just did that!”?
What happens inside of us as parents that cause us to scream and resort to words that we know we will regret and feel guilt (and often shame) for later? The same words we hated when our parents said them to us as kids?
The reality of parenting is that our children trigger us left, right and center. So, how do we find peace in our relationship with our child, especially if that child is “challenging” us constantly?
The truth is that finding peace as a parent is more of an inside job than it is about getting your child to behave or turn into the “ideal” child you thought you always wanted. As gigantic a feat it may seem to find peace as a parent, it is possible, but only by shifting the relationship we have with ourselves first.
My turbulent ride of parenting
When I was pregnant with my son I had many romantic and idealistic notions of what it would be like to have this child and who this child would turn out to be. But that’s not what life had planned for me.
From the moment he was born I was challenged physically, mentally and emotionally. He barely slept, wouldn’t eat much, was in a lot of distress, vomited many times a day, was deemed “failure to thrive”, and didn’t meet his milestones. Over time the physical challenges got better and I saw some hopes for a normal family life, but eventually, the mental health challenges of anxiety, emotional outbursts, controlling and defiance took over. I was beyond wiped.
After countless doctors and specialist appointments, my son was diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum Disorder with High Functioning Autism. He also has several anxiety disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I tried everything possible to help this child and to “fix” him, only to be met with more challenges as soon as I had managed to fix a problem. I struggled with a lot of inner pain and turmoil. On the one hand, I loved my child so much, and on the other hand, I resented him and even regretted at times having a child. How could a mother regret having her child? How horrible was I? I lived in much shame about my mixed feelings about my child.
It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom with health challenges, and embarked upon a healing journey, that I started to understand that the severe discomfort I felt towards my “challenging” child was, in fact, reflecting my own severe discomfort of myself. My reactions to my child’s challenges and the emotional stress I experienced from it were actually a mirror showing me what was not healed within myself.
Why we react to our children
As parents, we often look at our children as something to fix, make better and perfect. Why do we do this? Perhaps that’s how many of us were parented. It’s like an automatic pattern ingrained in us from childhood and as soon as we become parents we go into auto-pilot, living out the same conditioned ways of parenting that were bestowed upon us.
The lens through which we see our children is often one of “lack, not enough, what is wrong (vs. right), what must be improved, what must be controlled, what must be changed and conformed to fit into society”.
If we see our children this way, it is likely we also see ourselves through this same lens: we must fit in, conform, be normal, stay controlled and fix what is wrong within us. Living life through this lens makes it very difficult to see your child in a positive way.
If you don’t like it when your child has an emotional outburst then this is a strong indicator that you are uncomfortable with your own strong emotions and believe that having big emotions is weak or wrong. If you see your child’s tantrums or defiance as something to be controlled or unacceptable, then you likely believe that your own emotions must be controlled and are not accepted by others. But where did you learn this? Most of us learned these beliefs in early childhood from our parents, teachers and society. We learned quickly that in order to be safe, loved, accepted and stay connected that we must change and conform to who others want us to be, even at the expense of shutting down our true expression of ourselves (which includes our big emotions).
I often saw my child as difficult and a lot of hard work. As he got older, I thought he was making my life harder on purpose. But as I questioned why I saw him this way, I quickly learned that it was because this is what I had been taught about myself. I was not comfortable with my emotions or my imperfections.
Deep down I felt I was “bad” and never felt good enough. So, all I could see in my son was “broken, imperfection and something I needed to fix”.
Changing The Lens To Get To Inner Peace
Once I awoke to the fact that I could not change my son into who I wanted him to be, no matter how hard I tried, I surrendered. But true surrender only came when I changed the lens through which I saw myself first. This was a paradigm shift, a shift in the core of who I was my whole life up until this point – someone who saw all the faults vs. all the gifts within the challenges and imperfections of myself and of life.
We can only truly give to our children what we can give to ourselves first.
From both my personal experience as well as many years of training as a whole-life coach, I’d like to invite you on a perspective-shifting path that can help you see your child through new eyes…ones that will lead you to greater inner peace:
Question your beliefs about yourself and your child.
Start by seeing what your child triggers in you. When your child is having a tantrum or meltdown, ask yourself: ‘What am I believing about my child right now?’ If it’s in the category of: ‘he’s being a nuisance and must be better behaved with only positive emotions’, then turn that belief back onto yourself. Do you believe that you’re being a “pain” if you are emotional? Or that you should never show your negative sides to others?
Most of our beliefs are learned in early childhood and we live through these beliefs unconsciously until we awaken and see that they are causing us more suffering than good.
What if you believed your child’s tantrum is a message for “he’s having a hard time and that’s ok, I can help him through this”?
Shifting your beliefs to ones that are more positive can help you stay connected to your children and teach them how to work through their challenges.
Question your values and establish new values that come from your true self.
If you value “proper behaviour” then ask yourself where you learned this value? Is it worth upholding this value at the expense of disconnection from your child? When we get angry at our kids for their strong emotions we become disconnected from their authentic experience of themselves in the moment. We mirror to them that it’s not ok to accept all parts of themselves. Our kids end up learning to not like these emotional parts and can develop strong inner critics instead of learning to be ok with all parts of them – good and bad.
If you value connection more than proper behaviour then it’s time to change your approach with your child.
Every time we choose a false learned value over connection with our children we drive our children further away, which is the opposite of what we want as parents.
Tune into your emotional state and practice accepting yourself in these states.
Notice the message behind your emotions. Emotions are just energy in motion. Being with your emotions and helping yourself process them in a healthy way allows you to be more present and accepting of your child’s emotional states. Most of us learned to suppress and be critical of our strong emotions, so we may need to learn to accept our full range of emotions as adults. When we can shift our perception of emotions to being more accepting and tolerating of them, we build resilience in our emotional, mental and physical health. As we learn to do this for ourselves and model it for our children, we can teach them to be ok with their own big emotions and build resilience in life too.
As parents, we can be pretty hard on ourselves. We are often trying to give our children everything and often feel that we’re not measuring up. We experience guilt and shame for our bad moments, which ends up perpetuating more of the same.
Practicing self-compassion during those very hard moments is one of the best resilience tools out there.
Studies have shown that self-compassion decreases stress, depression and increases success in life, especially for parents with higher-needs children. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have to be hard on ourselves or our kids to promote better behaviour and outcomes in life.
Say yes to ALL of your child!
This is all about unconditional acceptance. There really is no possibility of unconditional love without unconditional acceptance first.
Saying yes to all parts of our children – the good, bad and ugly – requires truly accepting all parts of ourselves.
Practice accepting the parts of you that overeat, have emotional days or want to be lazy and relax. As you become kinder to yourself, you will learn to accept all parts of your children and help them to love all parts of themselves too.
Fortunately, my “challenging” child became my greatest facilitator of change and within that, I was given my greatest gift. Not only was I able to shift the way I saw him, but I was able to learn to love and accept myself so much more for all parts of me, not just the perfect parts. Shifting the way we see our children can be incredibly empowering and life-giving… and with that follows a sense of inner peace that one cannot find by changing external circumstances alone. The irony is that as you take responsibility and shift your insides, the world around tends to shifts with you too!