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Healing Forward: On Becoming a Peaceful Parent

Healing Forward: On Becoming a Peaceful Parent
By Ellen Rowland

Many years ago, I decided to become a gentle parent. It wasn’t enough to want to be that person, I first had to become her. It was a long process of confronting the disparity between the way I saw myself as a mother and the emotional mechanisms that got triggered with my children as a result of the way I was parented. I decided to share my journey in a blog post about becoming a “true mother,” which to me meant realizing my best self through the process of healing my childhood wounds, thus breaking a dysfunctional cycle. It resonated with a lot of people from all walks of life.

I had no idea at the time I shared my story that so many people longed to parent differently from the way they were raised but had no idea how to get there, the steps they needed to take or even what attachment or peaceful parenting looked like. More significantly, the reaction to the post brought to light a degree of adult pain, suffering, depression, anxiety, and a multitude of traumas, both first hand and ancestral, that needed to be healed.

But it also brought forth a collective voice of parents who got it, who saw and felt and understood the urgency for change in their relationships with their children, not just within the family, but on a societal level. This desire to parent peacefully is part of a collective consciousness that is emerging on a global level and is connected in meaningful ways to the restoration of human dignity, the abolition of “otherness,” children’s rights, feminism, freedom in education, and healing and preserving our planet.

The hum is getting louder each day, telling us we are not alone. We’re finding each other, connecting, sharing our stories, our knowledge, our pain and our healing. And in doing so, we are actively taking part in the collective movement of healing forward. If, by breaking a cycle of negative parenting we can halt destructive patterns that have been passed down to us, by embracing peaceful parenting, we can create and perpetuate a new narrative that will have lasting positive impact on generations to come.

Breaking the cycle is not easy. It takes courage, conviction, reflection, resilience, hard work, vulnerability, introspection and support. In that spirit, I offer a few important steps I needed to take along my journey to becoming a peaceful parent.

Learn to Ask for and Receive Forgiveness

Over the years, as my relationship with my children has deepened and evolved, I’ve learned that being a gentle parent requires maintenance. As much as we would like it to be so, we don’t get a certificate for going through all that hard inner work declaring that we are now officially a fully healed, infallible parent who will always handle every parenting situation with patience and compassion. We are human beings, and as parents, especially parents who are striving to create new ways of interacting with and nurturing our children, we will make mistakes. Old wounds will get triggered. Bad days will dawn. Patience will hide. There will be setbacks, even full-blown reversals. We will break our promises to ourselves and to our children. And when that happens, we will feel shame and self-loathing because that is our default space, that is the tape that has played over and over since we were children. It cannot be fully erased. But we can consciously lower the volume and eventually silence it by asking for forgiveness. We must ask it of ourselves first, then our children.

I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.

These words are hard for many people to say. I rarely heard them growing up because an apology meant admission of wrong-doing or guilt, which was so heavily laced with shame that it was too threatening to utter. So as an adult, and eventually a mother, I had to learn to say them with conviction and the responsibility of my actions. When an apology to another person, especially a child, is based in shame, it’s about you, not them, and thus loses its power and intention. That’s why it’s important to forgive yourself first, gently.

Our children need to know through our example that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from them. Messes and slips can be powerful opportunities for growth if we don’t stay stuck in guilt and shame, but instead ask ourselves how we can evolve from the experience.

Learn to Forgive Others

One of the first things I came to understand when I decided to break the transgenerational parenting cycle was that it all started with me. I alone needed to stand up and take ownership of my relationship with my children and in order to do that I needed to relinquish a life-time reliance on blaming others.

One of the hardest and most rewarding things I did on my journey was to confront my father about how he had hurt me as a child through his often loud, harsh, critical and demeaning behavior. I had a lot of questions for him and he answered them as best he could. At the time of our conversation, he was dying of cancer and he showed me very clearly that wounded children grow up to be wounded adults. He told me how he had been deprived of affection and love by his own mother and as he spoke, he became that child who just needed someone to listen, to tell him it wasn’t his fault. I didn’t shoulder his pain, but I forgave him because I understood that this was a vicious cycle of unresolved feelings and withdrawal and deeply buried grief.

When we are able to “map” our parents’ emotional history in this way, it can help us approach their stories with equanimity and compassion instead of blame. There is obviously a wide spectrum of childhood wounding and trauma. This is not to suggest in any way that a victim of violent abuse should allow the continuation of a toxic relationship. We can forgive someone in order to release the power they had/have over us, but do so from a safe distance when and where forgiveness feels appropriate.

Share Your Story with Your Children

When my children were old enough, I made my struggles and my intentions transparent from a position of strength rather than as a victim. I encouraged them to call me out when I crossed the line. I answered questions about my childhood and told them honestly how I had been hurt and why I sometimes reacted in ways that had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. This allowed me to give context to our relationship and the work I was doing in order to create trust and respect between us. It’s okay and even important to let your children be part of the process. Our society doesn’t like to acknowledge or address personal or collective suffering. But we can’t cope with a problem until we have consciously uncovered it, identified it and shared it. Simply stating that the wound exists, letting it be true, is the first step to healing.

My children will often say things like, “Mom, I think you’re upset because you feel left out.” Or, “I understand that you’re angry/sad/frustrated, but you don’t have to take it out on me.” That’s when I know I’m on the right path. Knowing that my children feel safe enough in our relationship to say what they need to say without fear means that a vast divide has been mended. And they are the bridge.

Practice Self-Love

If you want to become a peaceful parent, you first have to be gentle with yourself. We have learned to focus on our flaws, to hide our light, diminish our talents and strengths and stay small so that others can feel important. We have learned that every misstep is a means to reinforce the negative messages we’ve been telling ourselves over the years. Nothing could be more destructive to our efforts to parent with love and patience and trust and respect than to show up to the job believing we will never be good enough.

When conflicts arise, put on the oxygen mask before you assist those you love. Take a deep breath. Take time. Remind yourself that you are no longer that small person. You have power now. Your environment has changed because you made the choice to change it. You are safe. Your voice matters. You deserve to love and be loved. You are always good enough, even when you falter.

Acknowledge to yourself every single day that you are making a difference. In making the transformative choice to consciously parent with purpose and peace, you are bringing about meaningful change, not just in your relationship with your children, but in the world. You have created a new path. It belongs to you. Lead the way.

Ellen Rowland lives off the grid on a small island in Greece with her husband and two unschooled teenagers.  She is a writer of sustainable issues, fiction, humor, and poetry. She is the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.

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