When seeking to parent with gentleness and grace, often the hardest (and most important) part is controlling yourself and changing your own reactions.
As I’ve continued on this journey, I have found that when I shame and “punish” myself, I inevitably end up acting worse. So, I’ve been working towards “parenting” myself with the same grace and accountability I strive to parent my children with. As it turns out, gentle parenting principles work better on me, too.
When I am doing something wrong–for instance, being on my phone when my sons need me–I feel bad. This is a healthy thing. It’s my conscience letting me know that I need to change course and make things right. However, it’s easy to start internally berating and shaming myself instead: “why do I always do this? I’m being neglectful. I’m a bad mother.” Buuuut I’ve found when I go down that path, I often end up also snapping at them because of the shame I’m feeling, and/or continuing to go back to my phone to try and hide from the feelings of shame. Doesn’t help!
Instead, I am working on changing the script to something like, “Okay. I’m tired right now, and that is why I’m so easily drawn to my phone. My children need me. I’m going to put my phone up to help myself out.”
This does a few things. One, it shows understanding and grace instead of criticism and shame for myself in my weakness. Two, it doesn’t excuse it, but rather takes the action necessary to change course. This is important (and it’s something I am still working on daily). Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean excusing and continuing in sin! Repentance is crucial. A quick prayer in a moment like this is always a good thing, too.
Then I take charge again and try to do something that meets both our needs–like sitting and reading a book, so I can rest and they can have my attention.
When I do find myself wallowing in shame, I try to offer myself grace for that, too, and just adjust and keep trying. It takes a lot of time and intention to rewire your brain.
Another area I’ve been applying my parenting tools to myself is in handling emotions. Many of us had very little, if any, teaching on how to handle emotions in a healthy way. Most of us were taught to stuff emotions down. As you’re probably figuring out by now, that does not work. In fact, not only does it eventually lead to explosions or emotional breakdown, it can actually cause health problems. Emotions do need to be felt and expressed. However, just as suppressing them is unhealthy, so is venting any old way! What’s a person to do??
Here are a few tools that I use on myself to express and manage emotions in a healthier way:
- Body scan. Notice any tightness. Notice breathing and heart rate. What emotion might my body be expressing? Tightness in the chest might mean anxiety. Tightness in the throat area might mean sadness. Tightness in the shoulders might mean stress. Tightness in the jaw and/or back might mean anger. Elevated heart rate probably indicates fight/flight/freeze mode. How is it presenting right now? Why?
- Name the emotion silently or aloud. This helps bring your prefrontal cortex online, which helps calm your amygdala–which makes it so you can work through things more mindfully instead of being reactive.
- Deep breaths. Helps calm the nervous system.
- Move your body. Helps integrate the different parts of the brain and bring you into regulation. Note: violent actions such as punching or hitting do not help long term. Try jumping, running, push ups, jumping jacks, and things like that.
- Stop. Lie down on the floor or a bed. Or whatever else you need to do to stop yourself. Then take some deep breaths, connect with your senses, and when you’re feeling more steady again, re-engage.
- Ask for help. If your spouse is available, or someone else who can help, ask them to take over while you calm down. You can also ask for a hug or whatever else might help you in the moment. I’ve asked my 3 year old for a hug when I’m having a hard time, and it helps!
- Daniel Tiger Songs. Yes, I’m serious! (I also might be grinning a bit.) But they really have helped me, so I included them here, haha. (I use The Daniel Tiger app for Parents. My 3 year old loves listening to the songs and watching the short clips, and I find them helpful too.)
- Journaling and/or verbally processing with someone else (or even alone).
Those are just a couple examples, but you’ll find that nearly any tool or principle you learn for your children can be used on yourself, too. Trying gentle parenting on myself early on was one of the things that convinced me most that this does, indeed, work.
Interestingly, some children pick up on how their parents talk to themselves, and that affects them as much or perhaps even more than how their parents talk to them! Yet another reason to treat yourself with more gentleness and grace.
Here is some additional reading, if you’d like to explore some of the concepts and tools I’ve mentioned here in more depth:
Narrative Expressive Journaling