I can feel the heat of my heart pounding on my ears. I notice my daughter holding her breath as I sternly tell her how I “hate irresponsible people.” As I take my next breath, I stop dead in my tracks and realize, wow, complete mom fail. I have transformed my moment of teaching and showing my daughter about responsibility into a moment of shaming her. I stop and tell her I am too upset to speak and think this process through. Once together again in the car, I attempt to explain how “Mommy got to the point, where she was being hurtful rather than helpful.” The vulnerability of noticing my mistake and pausing to understand what was going on for me allowed me to come back to my daughter and have a second opportunity to teach her about the value of responsibility. This process made me analyze and process something that most of us psychotherapists take for granted. The ability to self-reflect is one that will help all relationships. It is particularly crucial in parenting, but unfortunately it is something very few parents tend to do.
Self-reflection takes time to learn and practice. In development, it should be a marker we reach in varying degrees through the age groups but should master at the end of adolescence. As Dan Siegel discusses in both of his books, Brainstorm and Mindsight, we need to be able to understand, ME, YOU and US, to make the best decisions as it pertains to relationship. In parenting this is how I see this breakdown.
Part of understanding the self is to understand and process how our past experiences influence our present moments. Multiple studies prove that once a parent becomes clear and reflective as it pertains to their relationship with their parents, past relationships and their life experiences up to the point of becoming a parent, then just that mere insight will help their children thrive. This is because we act out our old hurts and relationships in the present until we master that hurt. Have you ever heard the expression you married your parent? It's true. Sometimes that is a positive outcome, others, it is the cause of bad relationships. Also, if you have unfinished hurts from the past, for example not trusting others to tell you the truth, being afraid of being yourself because others will hurt you or thinking that everyone is out to get you, then, there is a very high possibility that you will play out these relational patterns with your children. It happens in different ways: the first time they lie, or you might resent them and feel guilty that you resent them because you find you have yet again put on a "mom" persona and you are not being yourself, and/or you are devastated when they tell you they don't love you anymore (a common statement for 4 y.o.and teens.)
Being able to be reflective in this area is the ability to be empathetic. Everyone claims to have compassion and empathy, but it's actually quite difficult to employ them on a consistent basis. Our neurology is programmed to look out for perceived threats. This keeps us scanning our environment for something as simple as high levels of carbon dioxide, which then cause us to to take a deep breath or short ones. It also causes us to judge others and their intentions towards us. To master the "you" part of self reflection, we have to practice less judgement and self protection and more wondering about how the other person is feeling and judging their interactions with us. I often tell my clients to become a "vulnerability detective." What I mean by that is that we need to look out for and listen to the vulnerable feelings that someone else may be feeling but that they tend to hide beneath anger, pride or acting powerful. Our children do this on a regular basis. So many little ones hit or push because they are disappointed or sometimes scared that your boundary is a rejection or proof that you don't love them. Their response to you is disrespectful, but what they are defending is their connection and love for you. I always tell parents and teachers the one that does the most hurting is the one that needs the most understanding and love. Love cures bullying, not singling them out and rejecting them. Next time you find yourself hurt or angry with your child, lover, boss or friend, wonder how are they feeling, what are they defending, how can I help them feel safe to connect with me?
The hard truth about a parent/child relationship is that it is a one-sided relationship. When children are under 12 years old it is the only time in the relational spectrum that codependency is necessary and mandatory for social emotional health. We cannot depend on our children for our happiness, sense of worth, and/or peace of mind. We are the mentor helping the disciple learn. The reward comes from watching them move on and become part of the world. This is a great example of the US part of self reflection. For a relationship to work, we have to be willing to give and take. We have to forgive and compromise in order for US to work.
Think these through. Deeply consider where you are in each of these. If you find that it is overwhelming, seek assistance. Your children and your relationships will flourish if you are willing to work through these three concepts. That I can guarantee.