When I was a little girl, I hold a very clear memory of planning (alongside my two younger sisters), a “breakfast in bed” for my mum’s birthday. As it goes with three siblings (all under the age of 12 at the time), what started out with the wonderful intention to make our mum’s birthday morning special, ended up in A LOT of arguing, frustration (and burnt toast). We just could not seem to communicate, negotiate, collaborate or work together. Not at all.
I will never forget, after 20 minutes of quite a lot of tension (I’m sure my mum was “pretending” to stay asleep through it all), my dad sharing with us these words:
“Girls, I know you want to make you mum’s birthday special. But even more special than breakfast in bed for your mother would just be for the three of you to get along for the day!”
Now, at the time I remember wanting to roll my eyes and start the, “but… she started it first”! I just don’t think at that point, though the conversation has always stuck in my mind, that my 12-year-old self could truly comprehend the truth of my dad’s words. However, decades later, as I parent three children ranging from 4-8 years of age (and particularly in the last 12 months of a global pandemic, lockdowns and working and schooling from home at times), no words have ever felt more painfully true!
The heavy ball and chain of internal conflict:
I cannot even begin to count how many times in my head I have heard my father’s words echo in my own head- “if only my children could get along!”. Across the past weekend, I am not sure if we even had more than 10 minutes where one of our children was not crying, fighting, arguing or squabbling with another – peace and harmonious play seemed to be anywhere but where I was. And, if I’m to be totally honest, it was also one of those weekends where I (as the grown-up), probably did more to fuel the fire than to dampen the flames… leaving me not only feeling exhausted but also a tad frustrated with myself.
If you are a parent, I have no doubt that you have experienced at least one day like the one I have described. A day where nothing goes right. A day where conflict either between your children or between yourself and your child seems to be tethered to you like a heavy ball and chain and you just cannot seem to break free from it. A day where once they are finally tucked into bed and the conflict should be over, the war in your mind begins to rage:
“I really shouldn’t have reacted like that. I shouldn’t have …..”
“I can’t believe how badly I parent. I just keep stuffing it all up.”
“I wish I could do ________ better. But I can’t. I wish I could be more like _________. She always seems so patient with her kids.”
“I’m a failure. I’m a bad parent. I’m so upset at myself.”
Our minds are so powerful and just as powerful and painful as external relational conflict can be, so too can our internal conflict. That little voice inside of our heads that continues to point out all we have “stuffed up” or all we could “do better”. That internal conflict leaves us feeling constantly unsettled in ourselves.
Dampening the flames of raging internal conflict:
I do not have all the technical answers to this internal conflict as a parent however, I can share (from within the trenches alongside you!) a few things I find helpful when my internal conflict is raging:
- Simply acknowledge how hard the day was. This might be to a partner or a close friend or it simply might be to yourself.
- Acknowledge and own your mistakes. Once again, this might be to a trusted friend or just to yourself.
- If required, model owning your mistakes to your children and openly seek forgiveness – “Today was hard and messy and I know I made some big mistakes. I’m sorry I snapped at you and didn’t listen to you well. Will you forgive me?”
- And just because I am a bit of a neuroscience nerd and I LOVE putting brain science into practical, everyday parenting I remind myself that the brain is wired by repeat experiences. In early childhood, the brain is developing most rapidly and therefore, every situation of conflict between our children or with our children, gifts us the opportunity to support neural (brain) pathways of relationship, connection, and RESOLUTION. Conflict does not have to remain damaging and in fact, it can provide a powerful opportunity for genuine, authentic connection when the adult models humility, patience, kindness, and the seeking of forgiveness.
As I sit here on Sunday night reflecting on the weekend, I have to go back to my own strategies listed above and put them into practice myself. And, tomorrow I will need to do my best to humbly seek forgiveness and model to my children what I was not able to do today. Conflict is part of being human. None of us are perfect and because of that our relationships, perceptions, experiences, and feelings will at times be distorted, resulting in conflict. But relationship and connection are also part of being human and our mistakes and our children’s mistakes are the most perfect learning opportunities.
Just as external conflict gifts us opportunities to strengthen the relationships we have with our children, so too can our internal conflict serve to help us build a better relationship and connection with ourselves.
Heidi Denner is a wife, mum and educator who is continually inspired by all she learns from the children she works with daily, (and in particular her own three children). As a mother to an autistic child, Heidi is an advocate for children’s needs, but also understands the significance of family mental health and wellbeing and how this is critical to a child’s overall development. As an avid reader and life-long learner regarding all things “neuroscience”, Heidi loves sharing current research regarding brain development so that families can understand how to best support their child’s needs and their own personal mental health and wellbeing.