What to do When You’ve Made a Mistake With Your Child

By: Dr Justin Coulson

I recently received an anonymous message from a devastated mum. After reading one of my articles about why we should never threaten our child with abandonment – like “If you don’t get in the car right now I’ll leave you here at the park”, she wrote in anguish:

I had an unfortunate incident last night where I abandoned my child. She’s five. I was at the end of my rope. So, I said if she didn’t want to be a part of our family, I would lock her in our old house (it’s getting renovated and we have moved out) so she could see what it’s like to live on her own. I feel absolutely sick about it. She was very defiant. Did not cry. I kept giving her opportunities to change her mind, but she is very strong-willed. So, I left. I drove around the block and came back.

How can I fix this? How can I restore her trust in me? How can I let her know I will never, ever leave her and that I never intended to? Because I knew I wasn’t actually going to leave her there, but she doesn’t know that. I’m really struggling with the cruelty I showed her.

This is a heart-wrenching story. And what this mum did was both cruel and wrong. But judging this mum will not help her do better.

Furthermore, as parents, we’ve all done things we aren’t proud of, or that we wish we could undo. And while it isn’t always easy or quickly fixed, we can take steps to mend our children’s broken hearts and broken trust. As we do, we might even find that we mend our own.

Emotions can tell us lies

How does a parent make such a rash, wrong decision? In the heat of the moment, our emotions make us believe everything we are thinking and saying. But typically what we find is that high emotions = low intelligence.

When things cool down we often discover that our emotions can be liars. This is when we realise that we’ve made a mistake. That we’ve said or done something to harm our relationship with someone that we love. And this self-awareness will help drive us to make amends.

In the moment, when things are about to blow up, we actually need to do precisely the opposite of what our emotions are telling us to do. We want to explode. We need to explore. We want to reprimand. We need to lean in and understand. We want to be furious. We need to be curious.

Leaning in, softening our stance, attempting to work with our child in a trying moment – these are the approaches that reduce the likelihood that we will act in a way that leaves us regretful, and our child in fear or pain.

Restoring your relationship

When we do things that harm our relationships with others, we need to restore those relationships. Restoration often means stripping away old, damaged things to bring a beautiful item back to life. But how do we do that when it comes to relationships?

First, apologise. Apologise, and mean it. Ask for forgiveness and reassure your child that you’ll be better next time. Don’t blame anyone else for your poor choices. Own them.

Make a plan to do better. Talk to your child about how you’ll respond differently next time you feel challenged. Make a plan and stick to it. Collaborate with them on how you can both work together in tough times.

Spend time together. We can’t repair relationships on our own. Spend time with your child. Talk to them. Have fun together. Eat dinner together. Play in the garden or watch a movie. Do this consistently. You’re teaching one of the most important life lessons – we all make mistakes, but we can all recover. And that each of us has the power to repair our relationships.

Forgive yourself. You’ve made a mistake, but you are working very hard to fix it. Show yourself some compassion. Forgive yourself. You’re only human.

Moving forward

Despite our best efforts there will always be challenges in the future with our children. It’s important to remember that our children need our love the most when they are at their most challenging – when we feel they deserve it the least. When our children need disciplining, that really means they need teaching. But children don’t learn well when they are emotional.

Rather than acting when emotions are running high, our most effective teaching moments are when we stop trying to ‘do things to’ our kids and start to ‘work with’ them. Instead of yelling or punishing, stop, get down to their level and give them a hug. Or touch them gently and say, ‘I can see you’re really upset can we take a couple minutes just to be together. I think we can probably work this out’.

Once everyone is calm you will have an opportunity to talk about what went wrong and remedy the situation… together.

All relationships are a series of connections and disconnections. We are constantly making mistakes, fixing mistakes and learning from those mistakes. It’s important to remember… every time you reconnect with your child after you’ve made a mistake, you teach trust. And our sincere efforts to rebuild a loving connection will lead to a stronger relationship.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

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