by Sharon A. Hersh
The house I grew up in was always clean.
On Mondays we washed the sheets, Tuesdays were for dusting, Wednesdays for scrubbing bathrooms, Thursdays for organizing closets and on Fridays, we did the rest of the laundry. After I got married and had children, I followed the directions that had been programmed into my “GPS” without even thinking.
When my two toddlers with minds of their own made following my internal directions difficult, I was frustrated. On Mondays I was already angry and making threats for consequences if we didn’t complete our tasks. I couldn’t play games or read books on Tuesday if we were behind in our chores. I didn’t even have time for a moms’ group on Wednesdays because that would get us off schedule. You get the picture. Without making a conscious choice, I was becoming my mother.
Researchers have discovered that the single most important predictor of how we will parent is how we were parented as a child. It’s as if we have a GPS programmed in our brains that directs us in our parenting. This can be a blessing if we learned to respond with patience and encouragement. But it can be a curse if our internal programming directs us to yell and to criticize.
You may find yourself at a crossroads like I faced many years ago. I was filled with anger and despair. My children were cranky and bored. My internal GPS was telling me to turn toward cleaning and control, but everything in me wanted to change directions. Over the next years I learned to recalibrate my internal programming by recognizing an unhealthy direction, confronting me first and asking for help to go in a different direction.
Recognizing unhealthy patterns requires the courage to evaluate your responses to your children in a variety of situations. I kept a small notebook with me and recorded my responses every day for a month. For example, I took note of:
The purpose of this record is not to beat yourself up, but to become conscious of your internal programming. A conscious mom doesn’t operate on “automatic pilot,” but can change directions when her internal GPS is taking her into unhealthy territory.
- When we’re running late, I start to criticize and my voice gets harsh.
- When I’m tired, I withdraw, push my kids away and don’t interact.
- When I’m angry, I say mean things, yell or won’t speak at all.
Confronting “me” first means to have a growing awareness of my internal programming and to recognize triggers for unhealthy emotional responses (running late, fatigue, anger, etc.). When we are unaware of our internal programming, it’s easiest to confront our children first. This response will inevitably result in our being reactionary rather than responsive. When I confront myself first about what I’m feeling and why, then I can respond to my children in a way that acknowledges what they need.
Confronting “me” first admits I’m tired because I didn’t get any sleep last night. I need to give myself a break. Out of compassionate awareness I can then respond to my child, I’m tired and a little grouchy because I didn’t get any sleep. Let’s set the timer for 30 minutes of quiet time and then we’ll play a game.
Getting help in changing directions is essential because it’s not always easy or even possible to come up with healthy responses to situations that trigger us. We can certainly ask for help from a trusted friend or counselor. Sometimes bringing our unhealthy patterns into the light quickly reveals the places we could easily go another direction. Other times these patterns are so entrenched and entwined that we need to spend some time with a counselor. I can’t think of a better investment — not only will you grow confidence in your parenting, but also your children who see their mother in the process of getting help will be more likely to do the same.
We also can ask our children for help. There were probably over a thousand times when my children heard me acknowledge my own emotions: “I’m angry, tired, frustrated, sad,” and my needs — “I need you to be quiet, kind, helpful.” This offering of “I feel, I need,” is an invitation to connection and models for our children what we long for them to tell us so that we can be a part of their lives.
Our internal GPS is programmed by hundreds of thousands of experiences and can be permanently reprogrammed as we do one thing: Ask for God’s help every time we experience an emotional trigger. There are hundreds of moments a day to pray, God, show me the right direction. This act interrupts our automated unconscious response and begins to imprint a new pattern of asking God first before we respond.
When we begin by asking for his direction, we are more likely to end up where we really want to go! “What a God! His road stretches straight and smooth. Every God-direction is road-tested. Everyone who runs toward him makes it.” (Psalm 18:30, The Message).
Sharon A. Hersh is a licensed professional counselor, certified life coach, speaker and author of four parenting books including, Mom, I Hate My Life! and Mothering Without Guilt. Find her on Facebook or at sharonhersh.com.