Wednesday, December 04, 2019

The Courage To Admit We Were Wrong

It's a well known psychological fact that when someone is experiencing a strong "negative" emotion like anger, fear, or sadness, it is very difficult, sometimes even impossible, to actually think. I know it's true for me. As my loved ones will attest, when I'm in the throes I've been known to dig in my heels in the most irrational ways, usually requiring some form of apology or at least mea culpa in the aftermath. 

Every parent has been there with their child: upset and unable to listen to reason. We know that as loving parents our preferred response is to offer some version of "connect to redirect," to acknowledge their feeling, to let them know they are loved, to help them first un-flip their flipped lid. Only then can any amount of "reason" take place. And we all likewise know that it's not always easy. In our less mindful moments we've all reacted to our children's difficulties with difficulties of our own, by yelling, commanding, and generally behaving as an authoritarian, which may "work" in the sense that we've frightened or shamed them into compliance, but at the possible price of long term psychological harm if it becomes too frequent.

A recent Australian study took a look at parenting styles and what is called "psychological flexibility". Psychological flexibility is vital to good mental health and resilience, and is linked a whole host of positive psychological and behavioral outcomes. The researchers found that authoritarian parenting, the kind characterized by the my-way-or-the-highway approach, predicted low psychological flexibility in their children later in life. In other words, the kids learned it from their parents: inflexible parenting teaches inflexibility. Perhaps it's not a groundbreaking revelation, but it's worth thinking about, especially in the context of a child who is experiencing strong emotions and our own response. Children are always learning from us and each time we respond to their flipped lids with connection, we are role modeling psychological flexibility.

I'm not suggesting that our occasional moments of "authoritarianism" are damaging to our children, especially if we are, on balance the kind of calm, loving, respectful, and authoritative parents our children need. Indeed, what we teach them in our bad moments is that we are human too, that everyone flips their lids at times, that we can't always hold it together, and that it's normal. That's why the apology is so important, especially when accompanied by connection. It is never too late to connect. When we have the courage to admit that we were wrong, without first demanding an apology from our children, we show them the path home from the wilderness of anger, fear, and sadness.

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