How good does it feel to know that you are not expected to be a perfect parent? In fact, you can't be a perfect parent. It's not actually possible. We've all heard the age-old saying, "Parenting is the hardest job you'll ever love." Some days, however, you don't love it, and that's okay. You're human, you get frustrated, your kids challenge you to your core, you want a break, you NEED a break! Why is parenting so hard? And why won't you ever be a perfect parent? I am about to tell you.
Let me start with you - the parent. You are not your children, and your children are not you. (I know, this is obvious, but hear me out.) You came into this world with your own brain and nervous system. You were born with a temperament, which is some combination of your various ancestors' temperaments, passed down through DNA. In addition, you have been exposed to unique events, conditioned by your environment, and "pinged" with little (and sometimes big) stressors. These stressors affected you as you were growing in the womb of life, at your birth, and ever since. Everything you experience - the good, the bad, and the ugly - gets stored in your brain, your nervous system, and your body. Your unique experiences create the conscious and subconscious road map that will inform your perspectives, and guide your decisions, interpersonal relationships, and, ultimately, your life. Now, some of these inputs have a significant influence in your life and others just barely have a blip of an impact, or so it seems.
If you receive certain messages over and over again, the neurons in your brain will fire and wire repeatedly, forming what I call "synapse super highways" or beliefs. As an example, if you experience unconditional love, positive connection, and safety, repeatedly and consistently, (especially from a young age) the neurons in your brain fire and wire together, creating your beliefs that you are safe in the world, people can be trusted, and you are worthy of love. Another kind of road map is the firing and wiring of neurons that form the beliefs that the world is unsafe, people cannot be trusted, and "something must be wrong with me because people keep hurting me." Unfortunately, this kind of firing and wiring is all too common among children who grow up in homes of chronic abuse and neglect.
Beliefs are learned. Just as you learn addition and subtraction, or how to ride a bike or drive a car, the more an experience is repeated, the more ingrained the "synapse super highways" become, and eventually, you barely have to think about what you are doing. Beliefs are no different. They are the neuro-pathways that are formed from the experiences and messages you receive. Okay, now what does this have to do with being (or not being) a perfect parent? And how does this pertain to the challenges of parenting?
Well, take your unique temperament, your beliefs, values, and thoughts, which are all based upon your unique experiences, and really ask yourself how they influence your parenting. Now, understand that your child has her own unique temperament and is forming her own neuro-pathways, based upon her own experiences. Remember, these experiences are coming from everyone she encounters and the various environments that surround her - everything impacts her, more or less, based upon her innate temperament and sensitivities. But, remember those little "pings" I mentioned above - the little experiences that "barely have a blip of an impact" (or so it seems)? Sometimes, those little pings aren't as little as they seem. They, too, can have a big impact, but because they may not be repetitive, (in fact a particular ping may only happen once) it's easy to brush them aside. Those little pings, however, can cut like a knife, forming a lasting super highway, or they might bleed into the subconscious part of the mind, which still has a very big impact on how we perceive and react.
In a parent/child relationship, I call these pings "moments of misattunement." Misattunements can feel like threats to a child. They might feel like rejection or emotional pain. In young children, who do not yet know how to rationalize such feelings, a survival reaction of fight or flight might be triggered. Such reactions could look like outwardly expressed anger (fight) or internal rumination, which looks like withdrawal (flight). Not knowing what is causing these reactions might, in turn, cause you, the parent, to be confused and maybe even frustrated enough to continue (inadvertently) misattuning to the child, creating a very challenging circular action/reaction dynamic.
Let me give you a personal example of parent/child misattunement. When I was a young 5 or 6-year-old girl, I remember going out to the garage to get into the car for an outing with my mom. Feeling confident and very much like a big girl on that particular day, I thought it would be okay to take my plastic, lid-less cup of water in the car with me. No big deal, right? Wrong! My mom gently reprimanded me for attempting to bring the cup of water. She told me to take it back in the house, as we don't take cups from the house in the car. Anyway, that single moment had a significant impact on me. I still remember the feeling it gave me and the messages I took from it: "What's wrong with me?" ""How could I possibly have thought taking my cup of water in the car was okay?" "I can't trust myself to make good decisions." Oh my! While I recovered from those thoughts, my "big girl, confident me" felt hurt that afternoon. I think I withdrew a little bit (flight), giving my mom the silent treatment for the remainder of the day. My very wonderful, loving mother inadvertently, though deeply, "pinged" me but could not have possibly known the internal message that ping gave me.
A seemingly small message or experience can have a big impact on a child because of the child's innate sensitivities, temperament, and previous life experiences that have already started informing the child's sense of self. I'm sure I didn't make that afternoon easy on my mom, and she probably had no idea why I "over-reacted." I was too young to articulate why I had the reaction I did, and I'm sure my mom could not have possibly known what just happened inside of me. Even as adults, it's sometimes difficult to articulate why we have certain reactions when we experience misattunements by our partners, family members, or friends.
Misattunements happen all the time between people because we are all perceiving and reacting based on our own experiences and innate sensitivities. This is why you will never be a perfect parent - you cannot read your child's mind, you may not always understand when or why a simple message "pinged" their internal system. You can, however, slow down, take a deep breath, and remember that when your child is upset, there is a reason. From your point of view, the child may be "over-reacting," but to the child's young nervous system, your reaction to the "over-reaction" can make a HUGE difference.
So here you see how behaviors are learned, how momentary experiences "stick," how different children might experience similar events but respond differently, and how little "pings" can feel threatening, causing a child to respond with difficult-to-understand behaviors. Parents parent from their own beliefs, values, and perspectives, and cannot always know when a small, seemingly benign moment will have a big impact on a child. And, it's okay! These things happen. Chances are, that if your child consistently and repetitively receives messages of love, safety, connection, and belonging, he or she will have the resiliency to overcome the misattunements. See your child for his or her unique self, and continue doing your best. Notice when your own system is being "pinged," and take time for yourself. Ask yourself if there is any way that you might better attune to your child, and then remember that it's okay to not be perfect. You can't be perfect, so relax!