He was raging and I actually knew what to do.
I can’t remember exactly what he was mad about, but my 7-year-old was throwing things across his room and sobbing. He could barely catch his breath. He was angry and out of control. He didn’t know how to stop it, and a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been much help.
But, instead, I knew exactly what to do.
“You need to calm down and stop crying,” I told him.
“I can’t!” he shouted back.
“Yes you can,” I replied calmly. “Lie down. Remember the breathing I taught you?”
“Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and breathe out for four seconds. Let’s do it together.”
I took a deep breath and listened to him attempt to take a deep breath too through his gasps for air. I kept breathing. He breathed again, this time gaining more control.
“Good. Keep breathing,” I said.
After a few minutes, he was quiet. I told him to come sit with me and I held him close. We talked about whatever he was angry about, and we worked it out. He calmed down and was able to be rational when before, he barely heard my voice above his rage.
Several months ago, I started therapy. I was a bit out of control myself. I struggled with my own anger and frustrations raising three little kids, and struggled with self-esteem issues that were affecting my relationships. I had a flawed outlook on many things in my life and I worried constantly that I wasn’t living up to my own potential as a mother because of my insecurities and weaknesses.
While mental health issues are something prevalent in my family, and I felt that medication was probably in my future regardless, I decided to try DBT therapy first.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy, I learned, would give me cognitive skills I could use to deal with my struggles coping with day-to-day life. As a stay-at-home mom, that meant coping with the stresses of raising my family and running a household at the same time.
I went in with low expectations, considering I’d had a brief stint in therapy about a year before where I didn’t see much improvement. But this time, I could see the results.
I remember sitting in my group therapy sessions and also in my one-on-one therapy and thinking about my kids over and over.
This would help my 7-year-old with his negative thinking patterns.
Wow, this skill would help my 9-year-old communicate about her feelings easier without getting so frustrated.
When things get really frustrating with my 4-year-old, I can try this.
I took notes during therapy as I gained insight into my own issues and flawed thinking, but what I didn’t expect was to gain skills that I could turn around and teach my kids. Looking back, I wish I had started therapy years ago.
When I had my first child, I hoped that I would just be able to follow my instincts and figure things out. And for the most part, parents do. I made lots of mistakes with my first kid, did a little better with my second, and now that I have three, I’d like to think that I’ve improved on a lot of things just from good old fashioned trial and error.
Parenting doesn’t come with a handbook as we know, so we do the best we can with what we saw as children, and what we hope to be as parents.
But my guess is that many parents, just like myself, come into parenting with unresolved issues of their own that need healing. We vow to not make the mistakes our parents made, and sometimes we’re successful and sometimes we’re not. But we plow ahead anyway, thinking we’ll be able to manage it, because parenting is something everyone around us is doing, so why not us?
What we underestimate perhaps is how difficult it will be. There is no way to know before you have a colicky baby that cries for hours on end how you’ll react. There is no way to know how having kids will impact your marriage, or uproot your soul in a way that you didn’t expect.
Parenting brings out the best and the worst in all of us. I thought I was patient, for example, until I had kids. Maybe I still am, but I find more often than not I’m laughing at the thought that patience was ever a strength of mine. Parenting tests us in new ways that unveil a myriad of weaknesses — ones that were once buried under the surface of the egotistical worlds we lived in as childless adults.
As parents, we no longer can put ourselves first all the time, and we realize we still have a lot of growing up to do.
For me, I realized that I had a lot of unresolved issues. I found myself yelling when I vowed I never would, and I found myself slipping into patterns with my kids that I swore I wouldn’t repeat. Parenthood involves being raw and vulnerable while also trying to sculpt a new definition of yourself. It’s no wonder that some of us need a little help figuring it all out.
I went into therapy feeling pretty low. I felt that I was messing it all up. I wasn’t the mother I thought I would be before kids. We never are, are we? But, more than that, I was worried all the time about ruining my children. I had spiraled into a pattern of negative self talk so severe that I felt incapable of being the mother that my children deserved.
But slowly, I gained the skills and confidence I needed to realize that I was actually doing a lot of things right. And, with my newfound understanding and self-awareness, I gained the confidence I needed to finally stop judging myself for every single mistake I made as a mom. The bonus was gaining skills my children can now benefit from.
As a child, I didn’t know what to do with a lot of big emotions I felt. No one was teaching me about deep breathing, or how negative self-talk can be damaging. My parents did the best they could raising four kids, but I went into a adulthood unprepared for what was coming my way as a mother. Most of us do. After all, it’s hard to parent another person and teach them to control their anger when you don’t have control over your own.
We go to school to learn skills and gain knowledge about all sorts of things so we can have grown-up jobs and support ourselves. When we want to learn to knit, we might take a class, or read a book about the subject. When we want to learn how to swim, we take swim lessons. Most things in life we want to conquer come with a class, a period of study on the subject, or a test practicing a skill over and over.
One day in therapy, I realized something powerful: Mindfulness is a skill that I’m gaining not only to become a better person, but to become a better mom. Raising human beings is probably the greatest work I’ll do in this life. I mean, what’s more important that raising kind, good, contributing members of society? So, why not take a class (or 20) to help me figure out how to do it the best way I can with the gifts I already have?
My hope is that by being able to go to therapy, my kids will be one step further ahead than I was at their age. And watching my 7-year-old manage his own emotions in a healthy, positive way — with my gentle coaching — tells me I’m doing the best thing for myself, and them.
Therapy was the handbook that I didn’t know existed, and it’s slowly turning me into the mom I knew I always wanted to be.More On