When I set out on my journey as a single parent nearly 20 years ago I had no idea how blessed I’d feel now to have raised a child before the onset of social media. You could say that ignorance was bliss. I was just 24 when I had my son.
I also had no idea I’d end up working with children and families for the duration of that time, nor that I’d end up being a psychotherapist with a degree in child development. It wasn’t on the cards or part of the plan. But then neither was getting pregnant whilst still on the pill and living in a caravan on a farm. It is however a journey which I’m thankful for each and every day.
Parenting as a ‘thing’ has changed massively in that period of time. There have been many different styles and models of parenting put forward and the choice can be overwhelming for new parents, whether going it alone, co-parenting or as part of a traditional unit.
But what do I mean by parenting bravely and the concept of being brave as a whole?
Being a parent is, I believe, the hardest thing in the world. It’s not something any of us get right all of the time. Because being a parent to a small human will test our very capacity of what it is to be human each and every day.
My key area of research when I was doing my degree was Attachment theory, and more specifically how our attachment patterns play out in our daily lives. As a therapist and coach who specialised in trauma I now get to see first-hand how parenting screws us up. And I mean all of us. We are all the result of parenting whether good or bad. We are all a result of modelled social interaction too. Our fears, prejudices and stereotypes.
Now, more than ever before, we have access to the knowledge that as a social species our interaction with others creates our blueprint for being human. I believe this knowledge is also our Achilles heel. With this knowledge comes the fear of how easy it can be to get it wrong. I feel it is no wonder we are seemingly in an epidemic of stress and anxiety. Both for our kids, and for ourselves.
My work as a therapist for all ages and as an early year’s educator is intertwined. I witness the struggles adults face to move forward from their own childhood. I also witness the fear that they may get it wrong with their own children.
To be brave as a parent is to step in to our wholeness and our vulnerability. It is to acknowledge our failings and at the same time to be accountable. It is also to pass on that knowledge down the line so that our children may also be brave.
So I wish to impart some things I have learned, which I hope will help you be more gentle on yourself. After all you have a lifelong journey ahead.
Forgive yourself often
You will screw up and that’s ok. Your parents may well have screwed up too. One of the biggest steps in healing for many of the adults I work with now is they learn to forgive themselves. For the choices they’ve made in life, for the Sliding Door (film reference there) moments where life could have been so different. None of us are getting out of here alive but the path feels so much easier if you get off your own back.
Admit when you’re wrong but try to make it right
There will be days when you get it wrong with your kids. If you can admit you get it wrong it shows not only vulnerability but teaches your children how to be humble. It is not the fuck ups which damage our kids it’s the lack of repair. Many adults I work with now have tried to tell their own parents where it went wrong for them. If the parent can’t admit their failings it causes further rifts and damage. Your children will reach an age where they want answers and want to connect on a more grown up level. It starts with us being accountable for our mistakes and being brave enough to repair the damage.
Reconnect and repair often
This goes for with your friendships, partnerships and children. I’m not meaning in toxic situations where there often can be no answers. But we model connection to our children each and every day. If we bare grudges it harms not only us but also our children.
It takes courage to admit when we’ve screwed up but admitting our failings helps repair connection. If you’ve lost your cool, shouted or screamed, burst in to tears its ok. Secure attachment for your children is not about getting it right all the time but how you repair and tune back in with them when it goes wrong.
Know that you won’t always be liked
This can sometimes feel like the hardest thing of all. Your children will not always like you. If you’re putting in place boundaries and security then often you will be calling the shots, and they won’t like it. But they need you to be the one in charge.
Without boundaries and consistency your child will not have a felt sense of safety. Without a felt sense of safety they will not thrive. Without boundaries it can be likened to being in a dark room and feeling around for the walls. Your children will keep feeling for the walls and yet they won’t often like the walls being in place. Those walls need to be there though.
Know you will be judged
We all are, each and every day. You judge too. It’s very human and comes from an innate survival instinct. However our fear of judgement can stop us from moving forward. This fear can also be harnessed though to give us greater empathy. To know others are just feeling their way too. That they bring with them their own learning experiences.
Acceptance of this can give you courage as a parent and help our children find courage too. They won’t always fit in or be liked, or be the coolest or most popular. These however are society’s judgements, perpetuated by social media, by family, community and by culture.
Learning to step back from this will help you embrace your own human experience, with whole heartedness and loving self-compassion. We are all just finding our way on this interconnected journey.
It is easy to give yourself endlessly when you are a parent. Yet this can actually become toxic and prevent your child from developing autonomy if you place them at the pinnacle of your existence. It can lead to resentment and the expectation that your child should be grateful. Young children however aren’t grateful; they’re egocentric by nature as part of their survival. They will learn gratitude from you and how you model it to them by action.
Allow yourself the space and time to be you, to not lose sight of your own hopes and dreams. Self-care is not just about a bubble bath with the door closed away from prying eyes and endless questions, although this is important too. Self-care is also friendship groups maintained, hobbies remembered and passions kindled.
Check in with your body and slow down
Self-regulation is not just about losing your cool and still biting your tongue. Self-regulation on the deepest level is having awareness of your body state and going inwards where needed. It is the greatest healing tool you will learn. To check in with where your body is at. Painful past learning experiences leave their mark. Our body does indeed hold the score (Thank you Bessel van der Kolk for all your work on trauma physiology). It impacts on how we connect with others including our children.
Being brave as a parent is also about knowing where our own work and healing needs to be done. Understanding our triggers and our fears. As a parent it is so easy to reach burn out and not check in.
So slow down, take your foot off the gas. Breathe slowly and deeply, soften your muscles. Your children won’t thank you but they will feel the difference.
Get good at starting over
Give yourself permission to start over.
To reconnect and repair.
To forgive yourself when you get it wrong.
You are brave and you are worthy.