Here’s a secret: Parents make mistakes. Chances are, you probably made a few today.
We all want the best for our children, but parents often still struggle to learn how to live their best lives. We hope our kids can avoid the pitfalls we’ve fallen into in the past — whether it’s rehab, arrests, a history of emotional or money problems, a general lack of direction until your late twenties, or the time you in it sticks a cigarette on your arm to prove you were a tough guy (I know it can’t be just me!).
As much as we try to prevent children from going down the wrong path – paths we may have walked before – the past will always influence your parenting decisions. Eventually the time will come when you may have to admit that you are not, or not always, the great role model you try to be every day. Despite this, you can still be a role model for how to make changes and move forward in life.
Taking responsibility does not mean pushing your child on the same slope. “You don’t have to feel like you’re giving your kid a pass to go out and do drugs,” says Allen Bergera psychologist and the author of 12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety. “What you’re doing is sharing your experience that no one is going to be perfect.” You’re modeling growth, and that’s worth the effort and courage to do.
But facing the past and taking responsibility can be terrifying. Acknowledging our flaws to those we cherish is even more so. I spoke to four experts about productive methods of raising children effectively when your own past is imperfect.
Recognize your past mistakes, but don’t project them
Before you start talking to your kids about your past, it’s important to fully process it and understand how it has affected who you are today. “You want to make sure you really tackled it yourself first,” says Stacey Youngethe owner and principal therapist of Sixth Street Wellness in Manhattan, who has also served as a clinician for people returning home from prison.
“Parenting brings out all the insecurities we have,” says Gayani DeSilvaca psychiatrist and the author of A Psychiatrist’s Guide: Stop Teen Addiction Before It Begins. “Whatever we’ve done, it’s okay to look at it. It’s okay to talk to someone about it. It’s okay to be transparent about our vulnerability.”
It is also important to avoid projecting your shame onto your children. “The Things We Project” [on others] are things that are incomplete in us. If I still have problems with my past that have not been resolved, I will tend to project that onto my children and fear that they will live up to it,” Berger says. The first step is to recognize that the problem is within us so that we can do something about it.
“Our kids may have our traits, they may have our personality traits, but that doesn’t always mean they’re going to make the same choices we do,” Younge says.
We cannot heal from our past in a vacuum. Processing with the help of a therapist, life coach, religious mentor, or even a close friend can make a world of difference. Find someone with whom you can be vulnerable, who can accept your past without judgment, and who will help you move forward.
How to have an honest conversation with your children, at any age?
The purpose of this conversation with your children is to teach them that people can grow, and that is a lesson you can teach them, regardless of their age. You certainly shouldn’t have a conversation with a 6-year-old about sticking needles in your arm, but you can go a little deeper with a teenager. With a young child, you could generally talk about how Mom or Dad made mistakes, too, by discussing simple but fundamental lessons from your past.
Don’t be afraid to say the words “I’m sorry” if your actions have affected your child. Apologizing is an incredible example for the little ones.
Kids will make mistakes, so one of the best gifts you can give them is an example of how to let go of shame. “They’re going to make some really bad choices, and they’re going to have to figure it out. So if we’re open and transparent about our vulnerability to our kids, our kids will realize that, you know what, my parents were able to take care of what happened to them, so no matter what happens to me, I’m going to come good,” says DeSilva.
When choosing where to have the conversation, focus on an environment where your child can comfortably listen and share, whether that’s in the kitchen while eating, in the car on the way to an activity, or over an ice cream in their house. favorite eatery. It doesn’t have to be strict or serious. When you and your child are in a relaxed environment, a conversation can even just flow organically.
Pretending your past didn’t happen doesn’t help anyone. “Be honest about the lessons you’ve learned and how it’s affected your life – why [what you experienced] was a real challenge and what are some of the things you really want them to know,” says Younge. Then invite your child to share their feelings about what you just shared with them. Ask them if they have struggled with anything similar. The goal is for them to form their own opinion and know that they have autonomy over their own choices.
If you’re still struggling with the topic of the conversation, it’s okay to say, “This is something that’s just too rough for me right now,” Younge says. “This might be where partner A or partner B or grandma can come in and help talk a little bit about it.” It is likely that there are other people in your child’s life that they can trust – people with good influences, who will be happy to help you here.
Change your mindset so they can too
Making model mistakes and accepting constructive criticism. “Kids will respond more to how you live your life than to what you tell them about how they should be living their lives,” Berger says. Your actions are what really count, so make sure you empower your kids to know that growth is possible and it takes effort and time.
Don’t do things you tell your child not to do unless you have a good explanation why, say: Jessica Laheya former teacher and the author of The addiction vaccination. Being specific about certain nuances can make a real difference in how your kids understand boundaries. For example, if your kids aren’t old enough to drink, but you drink wine with dinner, Lahey says, explain to them that “Adolescents’ brains are different from adults. My brain is done developing, and yours won’t be until early to mid-twenties.’ Be clear about why certain rules exist.
Believing in yourself can be difficult when you feel like you don’t have the power to influence your situation in life, so teach kids how to have a growth mindset, not a fixed one. A growth mindset is the view that talent and intelligence are learned and cultivated with practice and effort; a fixed mindset tells you that there is no point in trying to change.
Research has linked the growth mindset to: more motivation and resiliencelead to higher academic performance. A fixed mindset is a negative thinking pattern and can cause children to run from their struggles, never seeking help or making an effort to improve. A growth mindset can give your kids the confidence to make mistakes and learn.
You can resist a hopeless mindset by teaching self-efficacy, says Lahey, who defined them as “the belief that if you take an action, it will result in change.”
Be careful how you talk about your children and how you talk about yourself. Instead of labeling yourself, your child, or others with static terms like “brilliant” or “gifted,” reinforcing the idea that people are valued for fixed characteristics and not for the work they put in, teach children to look for the long-term consequences of people’s actions, “showing them the potential for growth, showing them the potential to break cycles, showing them evidence of their own achievements,” says Lahey.
Research shows that children as young as 7 years old believe that seeking help is a sign of incompetence. Other studies have shown that potential helpers, including teachers and social workers, underestimate the shame and embarrassment of seeking help from their students, so it is imperative that we defuse the stigma by demonstrating the benefits of contact. Examples of asking for help as an adult can vary from situation to situation – it could be a friend when you don’t know how to handle a situation, or signing up for food stamps.
Don’t forget to model self-care – not only to teach your kids to help themselves, but also to make yourself more present to your family. “It’s critical that you realize how important you are,” says DeSilva. “Anytime you make any effort [caring for] yourself, that translates into how you treat your kids.” Be an example of kindness and forgiveness to others, but especially to yourself.
Celebrate long-term growth. You are no longer the same person you were in the past. Acknowledge the work you’ve done, and do the same for your child so they see that struggling with their homework today is not representative of where they will be a year from now. Point to their work from last year to show how far they’ve come. Chances are you have that too.
Jay Deitcher is a stay-at-home dad, writer, and former social worker living in Albany, New York.
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