What my worst parenting moment taught me about resilience
My daughter was born on New Year’s Day. How fun! You might think at first, which would be true without the competition any holiday-birthday package includes.
Think about the most emotionally loaded times of year, holidays being one, birthdays being another, Now think of the most emotionally charged people, like teenaged girls. Then there are emotionally loaded situations, as in parents planning separation, while snowed in, during covid that apply.
As you may have guessed, I’m describing the perfect storm which broke yesterday at my house. Without airing too much dirty laundry, suffice it to say that after an emotionally-laden 2-hour tirade, a bout of crying, and no speaking for an hour, the next morning I had some insights.
The first is that real knowledge and understanding don’t come from information sharing. Although I talk to clients all the time about how highly inaccurate and negatively biased memory is proven to be, I didn’t realize how much this perspective shaped my own kid’s view of her childhood.
What defines us is how well we rise after falling
To be clear, at the time, my daughter’s accusations were extremely painful. Especially because they were partially true. I had let her down in some ways (which mother hasn’t?), but in my mind I’d more than made up for it with all I’ve given her.
I looked around our house at the carefully chosen details to create the most supportive environment, proudly showing off the artwork she made in the dozens of classes she’s taken over the years. I thought of the way I’d tried to curate her childhood to be happy in all the ways I felt mine wasn’t.
But in the end, that’s not what my daughter notices or remembers. Not the road-trip adventures I took her on, the long summer trips to the beach, the theater and culture I made part of her life and definitely not the stuff I bought her.
The things she most remembers are perfectly logical in hindsight. The brain prioritizes safety and connection. So when mom is stressed or agitated by having too much on her plate; the driving, the volunteering, the cooking healthy food and everything else required as a parent, the negatively biased brain remembers that.
I know so many parents who overschedule, over-give, over-involve in order to give their kids if not the best, at least what they perceive “everyone else” has or does. Yet in the end, we’re all missing the boat.
Giving in on this level misses the opportunity to build some resilience, and although it may take some time, learn they don’t need to compete to fit in with the people that value them for who they are.
But more importantly, it shifts what you’re modeling for your kids. Overscheduled, stressed and harried instead of present, positive and resilient. At least that’s what I modeled I realize in hindsight.
Had I known, I would have taken the opportunity to replace most of the classes, some of the volunteer work, and a lot of the activism I thought was modeling good citizenship with my time and attention. What kids want most is to feel safe, seen, and valued by the people that matter most.
I didn’t have the tools when the kids were younger to model safety and connection. I too lacked a model for good coping skills and I too easily expressed my pain. While for me this was normal, my kids learned at an early age their parents’ relationship was unstable. I regret that deeply.
While this is hard to come to terms with, it also gives me the opportunity to talk about it with my daughter. That it’s not too late to model the emotional resilience and self-regulation I’ve developed since she was little, and to teach her the tools as well.
And to share what I’ve learned from the study of building resilience with parents who can benefit from it.
These 5 variables that contribute to resilience are inspired by the course U. Penn course, Positive Psychology: Resilience Skills taught by Karen Reivich, Ph.D. I’ve adapted them for parenting.
- Safety; maintain presence and self-awareness by putting on your mask first. Prioritize a daily stress-management practice like breathwork, meditation, qi gong or yoga to build mental fitness.
- Connection; show kids how they’re held within a support system of family, friends and community.
- Optimism; model noticing the good as a way to overcome negativity bias. Introduce a daily gratitude practice, like sharing 3 good things that happened each night before bedtime.
- Self-efficacy; Steer clear of victim framing and move toward a resourceful and solution-oriented narrative. Bad things happen, we can’t control that, but we can control our response, and figure out what we can learn from them.
- Self-regulation; manage your emotions using self-awareness practices to intercept a trigger or downregulate stress before it gets out of control. Simple breathing exercises are perfect for this.
That sounds like a lot right? And in our culture of “can’t do enough” for our kids, it’s hard to let go of the doing long enough to make time for the being. But in the end, it’s the being they’ll remember.
So instead of getting overwhelmed by this list or critiquing your parenting style, remember your most powerful tool for enacting change is empathy for self and others. As parents, we have a lot of forgiving to do, of our parents, of our kids and ultimately of ourselves. The path begins with presence.