A few years ago, I wrote this sentence down and stuck it on my bathroom counter so that I would see it when I started my day.  I wish that I could say it was a phrase that came into my head after a joyful and connected moment with my kids. Instead, it came to me as I cried on the way to work after rushing through a morning routine with irritability and frustration. 

Along our drive, I lectured everyone in the car about what they had done wrong and how this would impact my day. As I finally approached the school, my then six year old apologized and asked if my day really was ruined by being late. My stomach and heart sank as I became flooded with shame. While I had a right to be frustrated with their unhelpful behaviors, my irritation and actions hadn’t helped anyone and had made a bad situation worse.  

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As children grow, many parents find that the demands of parenthood, careers or household management (as well as responsibility for aging parents, friends and community) only increases. Often, what our children experience in our interactions with them may be the spillover of all of that stress and responsibility.  

In my professional life as a clinical psychologist, I support families in improving communication, understanding and compassion.  I also teach parents how to focus more on their own behavior, because it is easier to control than the behavior of their child or teenager.

Related: Your babies need a happy mom, not a perfect one

As a child development expert and advocate, it is hard for me to admit that my car rant was not a single incident. And while I don’t expect perfection of myself as a parent, it was a realization that I needed to spend more time focusing on my parental emotional regulation. When parents make a change, kids can more easily change, too.  

That day, I decided to make a plan of how I wanted to be in the morning, no matter what was happening around me or the behavior of my children. First, I decided to start my day with more intention and thus, I discontinued checking my work and personal email first thing in the morning. Immediately, I noticed the decrease in my stress level and the feeling of urgency to handle things at work.  I created a visual reminder of the mantra above (I wrote it on a sticky note) and placed it next to my toothbrush where I would see it each morning.  

I realized that I was doing a good job of “acting” more like that parent, but not always feeling that way on the inside.

I told my kids that I would no longer be yelling at them when we were running late, but that there would be some natural consequences for not being ready on time. If anyone missed the bus and I had to drive them to school, I put on music when we entered the car and wouldn’t speak until I felt more calm. 

Given how much time I spend driving my children to after-school activities, I decided that I wanted my car to be a place where we could talk and connect each day, not a place for lectures and criticism. I also re-evaluated my morning tasks and asked for some help. It wasn’t perfect, but how I felt each morning about myself and my performance as a mom clearly improved.   

Related: Mama, your best is more than enough

After a year of being more of the parent that I wanted my kids to remember, I realized that I was doing a good job of “acting” more like that parent, but not always feeling that way on the inside. Instead, I was exhausted and run down from being that person for them. I wasn’t realizing that in order to be my best self, I actually needed to fill my own tank in a meaningful way.   

What ensued has been a long, hard look at myself, the traits and values that I take pride in and the knowledge that I have gained in my professional career. I also swallowed my pride and examined the less helpful ways that I manage my stress and my life, such as accommodating, overdoing and not asking for help. While I think that some of my learning may be developmental, I wish that I had some of this personal insight sooner. If I can save another woman, mother or parent months or years of wasted time, then I hope to do so. From my own personal and clinical experience this is what I would suggest:

How to be the parent you want them to remember

Step 1: Use a parenting mantra

Use my mantra or create your own. Write the phrase down at the top of a piece of paper and think long and hard. What would that look like in your everyday life? How would you act? How would you behave in the morning?  Evening? What would you say when you greeted your children in the morning? Your partner? How would you behave when you walked in the door after work or the carpool?  

Step 2: Be specific in identifying behaviors that correlate with your mantra

How can you start to embody that behavior toward your family?  If you want them to see you as joyful, what actions could you take in order to be perceived that way?  Would it be playing fun music while you cook dinner or surprising everyone by letting them have ice cream for breakfast one day?

Figure out what helps you create the feelings that you want to share with your family. Joy, excitement and kindness can be depleted if you do not have any experiences that create those emotions for yourself. It can be simple things such as listening to music that puts you in a good mood or drinking a cup of your favorite tea.

Related: Perfect parents don’t exist—so why do we keep expecting them to?

We get one life and one shot at this family and parenting gig. It is the hardest job likely any of us will ever have, which means it is not always going to feel fun, exciting, warm, connected and calm. And our children are born with their own temperaments, likes and dislikes, and characteristics and quirks. We can’t make our children or our families be exactly what we want or imagined. But we can take a look at ourselves with kindness and ask if this is really who we want to be—for ourselves and for our family.

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