“My young son was screaming for 45 minutes and I didn’t know how to comfort him. I finally screamed back, ‘Sometimes I hate you!’”
“My son was two and scratched his baby brother’s face so hard that he left marks. I spanked his bottom, like five hard swats. Then I left the room, walked down the hall, turned back around and spanked him probably five more swats again. I screamed at him so loud, I terrified him.”
“After I had told my daughter to watch out for her little brother running in front of the swing, she almost swung right into him. I was so mad that even in front of other people at the park I said to her, ‘What’s wrong with you, are you stupid?!’”
These are some pretty awful parenting moments, aren’t they? These “lash-out moments” are times when we’re so out of control that we say or do something we’d never let anyone else say or do to our child.
But, actually, the confessions above come from good parents whom I know personally. Like the rest of us, they lose it from time to time and say and do things they wish they hadn’t.
Can you add your own lash-out moment to the list above? Of course you can: you’re a parent, and you’re human.
And I can add one of my own. It’s a story I often tell when I’m giving one of my talks on parenting and the brain. It’s a long (and in retrospect, hilarious) story that ends with a horrible moment when my 4-year-old sticks out his tongue at me and I very maturely respond by yelling, “If you stick that tongue out one more time I’ll rip it out of your mouth!”
As I tell this story, the parents in the audience are locked in on me, eyes wide, leaning forward, smiling and listening to every word, like I’m telling a dirty secret. They laugh throughout the story, partially identifying, partially relieved they aren’t the only ones, and loving hearing that “a parenting expert” loses her mind to the point where she threatens to physically remove one of her child’s body parts.
We all lose it from time to time. We say mean things, we yell, we may even pull our child’s arm too firmly. As I’ll discuss in an upcoming post, there is something happening in our brains that explains these “lash-out” moments. And in another post, I’ll explain why it’s so important that we quickly reconnect with our children and repair whatever emotional and relational damage has been done.
But for now, I want to focus on why we don’t talk about moments like these with other parents. Why is it that when it comes to our lash-out moments with our kids, we all remain silent? Is it really such a shocking epiphany that all parents occasionally lose control of their emotions and their better judgment?
In the spirit of confession, let me admit to you that one of my guilty pleasures has been watching the TV program Desperate Housewives. In one episode, a mother melts down, and her friends, who are also mothers, find her crying on a soccer field. Her guard down, she tells them about her failures as a mother, and in response, her friends begin to share their own parenting blunders and shortcomings. She then looks at them through tears and asks, “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”
And that’s my question for all of us: Why do we keep our ugly parenting moments secret, even with the people closest to us? Do we feel ashamed? Do we feel like we’re the only ones who “go postal” from time to time? Do we think these episodes mean we are bad parents?
We freely share with each other many of the struggles we experience with our kids—she won’t eat anything besides waffles, he freaked out at swimming lessons, she clobbered someone at the park today. Sharing these struggles helps us feel normal as parents, and helps us feel like our kids are normal.
But what about our own struggles in our role as parents?
I am convinced that we pay a price when we choose to keep silent, rather than honestly sharing our own stories about times when we get furious with our kids and throw our own fits. Sharing our worst moments with each other allows us to comfort each other, to laugh about how crazy our kids are and how crazy we are right back, and then to look at our behavior with some insight so we can make better choices the next time.
Soon after it happened, I reluctantly told one of my friends about my “rip your tongue out” episode, and she responded by saying, “Oh, that’s nothing! One time I . . . .” My guilt evaporated. We laughed. We purged our secret parenting shame with more stories. Her vulnerable, empathetic, and understanding response made me feel normal and less alone.
So from that moment, I began watching for opportunities to share some of my “mean Mommy” moments—and I continue to get this type of response from friends who seem to be thirsting for a chance to confess and to be assured that they aren’t terrible parents. Whenever I’m willing to confess first, the floodgates fly open. I always love it when one of my friends now starts a conversation with “Listen to this one….” (And don’t say you wouldn’t be interested in a story that begins like that!)
Before I close, let me stress that there are two things that I’m not saying here. First, I’m not saying that there’s nothing wrong with losing control. In fact, when we lose control, it stresses our kids and usually further amplifies their distress. We want to be a haven in their storm, not the cause of it. But here, I’m simply saying that we all mess up to some degree, and that we’ll all benefit greatly if we share with each other those stories.
And second, I’m not talking about abuse. If you find yourself frequently losing control, or losing control in such a way that you are in danger of actually harming your child, I want to strongly encourage you to seek professional help, for your and your child’s sake.
But if you’re a loving, caring parent who, like the rest of us, occasionally screws up, then why not give it a shot? ‘Fess up to your friends. Maybe you’ll even be a bit less horrified the next time your kid freely shares with the teenager behind the counter at Baskin Robbins, “Mama said she was gonna rip out my tongue.”