Damage Control When We Feel Like We’re Failing

A parent describes the past year as “brutal” and lists a series of traumatic life events. “I am not okay,” she admits, saying she doesn’t have the energy to remain unruffled when dealing with her kids and feels that she is failing them. While this mom is taking all the right steps to restore herself and find balance in her life, she wonders if Janet has advice about how to manage her needs and those of her children. “It’s not my magnificent kids’ fault,” she writes. “How do I make this time of failure less bad for my kids?”

Transcript of “Damage Control When We Feel Like We’re Failing”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I am going to be answering a question, an email I received from a parent who is concerned. She feels like she’s failing with her kids right now, because she has so many difficult situations going on in her life. She says, “How do I mitigate damage when I can’t stay unruffled right now?” And I’m going to be offering some perspective and hopefully helpful practical advice.

Here’s the email I received:

Janet, how can I mitigate damage when I can’t stay unruffled right now? 2020 was brutal. We moved across the country into a house that made my husband ill. My mom had cancer and accidentally moved into a meth house. We buried family members. My best friend’s marriage turned abusive. I started working again and also there was a global pandemic. I’m not okay. I’m on my phone too much, and I snap easily. We don’t have enough needs nothing time. And I don’t have the resources left to remain unruffled when my kids do kids stuff, even though I used your methods to great success in 2019.

I can see this is a me problem, or well, a world problem, but it’s not my magnificent kids’ fault. I’m doing my level best to restore myself: sleep, marriage counseling, getting my medical stuff, checked out, friend time, but the kids can’t wait a year for me to get it together. Do you have any advice for surviving in the meanwhile? How do I make this time of failure less bad for my kids? They only get one childhood.

Okay. So I feel for this parent, and the thoughts I want to share are not just for her children, but for her, or for any mom, or any dad, or any parent who is struggling this way, because that’s the thing about our relationships with children… they are always about both of us. There are feelings between us. They’re getting reflected back and forth. And we’ve all heard people say, what children really want is a happy parent, which doesn’t mean we’re supposed to make ourselves happy when we do have all these issues going on, but that reflects an understanding that our feelings are just as important to our child as our child’s feelings are to us.

So with that in mind, I want to comment that this parent is highly self-aware, which is a gift in itself. She understands the children’s behavior is often about her and the stress that she’s going through. This is all going to be really, really helpful to her. And of course, it’s fantastic that she is looking into taking care of herself with better sleep, counseling, friend time, getting that perspective from an outside source that cares about us.

So she’s doing it right. And I just want to help her to feel better.

The first thing I want to talk about is exiting the guilt cycle. I don’t know that she for sure is in a guilt cycle, but it commonly happens when we’re going through issues like these. We’re feeling uncomfortable. We’re feeling stressed. Our child is absorbing that from us and reflecting it back out the way children do, which is a lot of feelings, behavior that’s challenging a lot of the time. They’re resisting us. They’re pushing us away. They’re acting uncomfortable. They’re not at their best. I don’t know how old these children are in this case, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s all ages.

So now our children are behaving in ways that are making us upset. We’re losing our patience. And a lot of the reason that we do that is not only because we’re spent with all that we’re trying to manage and put out there in our lives, but our child’s behavior in the moment actually can push a guilt button in us. They’re reminding us every time they’re whining or crying or acting unreasonably, as children do, telling us “no” and not doing what we really need them to do. All of that makes us feel worse and reminds us how we maybe feel that we’re neglecting them at this time, that we’re not giving them what they need, or that we’re not doing it right as a parent.

So not only is the behavior on its face annoying, we’re letting it tap into us at a deeper level because we’re primed to be guilted by it.

Then we will be even more likely to lose our temper or just react to it in an uncomfortable manner that isn’t as helpful to our children ever, of course, as when we can be calm and centered and just help them stop doing whatever it is, or help them do whatever it is, and not have emotions around it. But when our children are not doing their best or they seem emotional or fragile, then yeah, we’re going to be more likely to take it personally when we’re already in that guilt cycle.

And then our child’s behavior, isn’t improving because of the way that we’re responding, snapping and all of that stuff this parent is saying is going on, which is very, very common. And now they’re less likely to behave well. So we’re going to be more likely to feel guilty. And on and on and on and on and on.

So how do we exit the cycle? We exit the cycle by understanding that however much this parent is going through, whatever troubles that she’s dealing with, whatever her moods are, how she’s feeling is going to directly influence her children. And that’s not to feel guilty about, it’s just what is. As this parent says…  first she says “it’s a me problem.” But then she said, “it’s a world problem,” but it’s not her magnificent kids fault. So yeah, it’s just what’s happening in her life. Acceptance of that can be helpful. That, yeah, I’m going through a lot. It’s going to be showing up in me, with my children, and they’re going to be reacting to that. Their behavior is going to reflect my discomfort.

So normalizing this for ourselves, instead of going to that other place, that extra uncomfortable place of this is all my fault and I’m messing up and my kids are unhappy and they’re not good kids, or however we might see that in the moment. Getting that perspective, that yes, our children will not be more comfortable than we are, generally, on a given day. It’s just the way it is. So, exiting the guilt cycle with acceptance and understanding of what’s going on and why my children are doing this.

And maybe this parent already does that. She seems to understand a lot, but it gets away from all of us. It’ll make it a little less likely for her to lose her temper, just remembering: oh yeah, of course, they’re acting like this. Of course they’re doing that. I’m just going to help them as best I can.

The other thing about these cycles, what can happen is that we don’t set boundaries as early as we normally would, or that we should. We feel in our gut: you know what? We should leave the park now. My kids are starting to look tired, and I really need to go, and I’m getting hungry. But then our kids are saying, “No, we want to stay. We want to stay.” And we feel a little guilty because we’ve been snapping lately and life has been tough for everybody and we want to be nicer to them. So we let them stay longer.

And then what often happens is they get over-tired and now they’re melting down. Now it’s harder to get them to leave. So we’re getting frustrated because we gave them that extra time. To be nice. And now it’s blowing up in our face, and we get snappy, naturally.

So that can be a recipe for more discomfort for everybody. And I would look at that. Am I setting boundaries early enough?

Oftentimes when we as a family are in these difficult times, it’s actually helpful to set boundaries even earlier and more firmly, because children, like all of us, when life is feeling chaotic and hard, we want to be nested in a little closer, to feel that those boundaries are around us. Even if we can’t ask for them. In fact, we’re resisting and saying, “We don’t want them.” It helps.

And then when we do get snappy or lose our temper, repair. It’s always the best thing. It makes us feel so much better because we’re going to that higher part of ourselves. We’re being honest. We’re coming clean. “This is what happened, and yeah, I snapped at you, and I’m sorry, you don’t deserve that. I regret it, and I’m really sorry.” It will help us to feel better about the situation, which again is so important.

The other suggestion I would like to make to this parent, and this is again for her and for her children is to carve out some time to be present, to put boundaries on ourselves so that happens. As this parent says, she says, “we don’t have enough needs nothing time.” So Magda Gerber has two kinds of quality time that she recommends. One is, “Wants Something Quality Time,” and one is, “Wants Nothing Quality Time.” That’s what she called it. Those were her terms.

“Wants Something Quality Time” is what I’ve talked about a lot, which is when we’re caregiving, when we’re changing diapers with a baby, when we’re giving a bath, when we’re helping our child to bed with bedtime rituals, brushing their hair or helping them to brush their teeth. Mealtime is another one. Those are the times that Magda recommended we put everything else away, unplug the phone, (well that was in the old days). But putting your devices away, clearing that space just to be present. Not trying to be lively, or be entertaining, or teaching our child something. Just being available. Because these are naturally intimate times with our children that we can take advantage of.

So if a parent is working outside the home, or she’s busy doing other things, then it won’t be maybe every meal or every bath, every toothbrushing, or every band-aid. But when she is available and she can put other things away, she takes advantage of those opportunities, because those will anchor her relationship with her children. And not only that, this will help this parent to escape from everything else that’s going on. This is something that children give us. This is the gift that they give us, one of the many — that they can take us out of all these other concerns. It’s not as easy an escape as having a drink, or getting a massage, or maybe going out with your friend, but it will be a more lasting feeling of escape.

If we have the boundaries, if we prioritize these times, we will get a respite. We will get a moment where we’re just looking at our child’s hair and how it’s changed since they were a baby and all the different colors that are in it as we’re combing and they’re going, “Oh, that hurts. That hurts.” And we’re letting them know, “I hear you, and you don’t like this.”

And of course, you’re going to especially get that in situations like these, because children will use these moments to share those feelings with us. And it’s often not even about the hair hurting so much, or the head hurting. It’s really about I’m here with you, and I’m sharing with the person I need to share with. And that can last all of five minutes, or two minutes, or 10 minutes, or 20 minutes.

These caregiving routines and meals, if we can put those boundaries on ourself to not be distracted, because we prioritize these times, we get a breather. And this is why you’ll hear, or you will maybe have experienced how we can be going through a very dark time, but the fact that we have a child means we have to keep going. They give us that perspective. Life goes on. I’m here. I need you, and I can’t let you drown in all these other concerns that you have. So we have this opportunity to escape.

Also, when this parent says, “How do I make this time of failure, less bad for my kids? They only get one childhood.” Yes, it’s true that they only get one childhood. But we only get one moment as well. We only get what’s going on right now. We only get this time. So it’s not just for our children, it’s for us, to ground ourselves in the moment whenever we can. Do it for you. Do it for your child and you and your bond.

And then when she says that “we don’t have needs nothing time” or what Magda Gerber called wants nothing time. “We don’t have enough.”

Well, the beauty of this approach that Magda taught is that it is enough when you connect during those caring activities — that the wants-nothing time when you’re just there while your child is playing or exploring, that is not as important. It’s wonderful to do when you can. But if you were connecting a few times a day, completely available to your child, that’s enough during times like these. We do our best. And again, we do it for our child, but we also do it for us.

And then the interesting thing that can happen is that we feel less guilt, because we know that we’ve given our child our all for a few minutes here and there throughout the day, or just in the evening, or the morning when we’re working outside the home, or we’re working at home but we have long hours. Whenever. But relish those times. Prioritize them.

When my first daughter was 17 months old, my father suddenly and tragically died. It was a suicide. I was also training with Magda Gerber at that time, which of course was very helpful, because she sort of became, during that period, almost like a therapist to me. But that’s where I first experienced how your child is a respite from all these other feelings.

Your child can snap you out of it for moments here and there just by their existence and the fact that they still need all the things that they needed before.

So I would try not to look at this as failure or damage. It’s just where you all are. It doesn’t have a label. It’s a period of your life that you can maybe find a little more to enjoy in. And at the same time, help give your children more of that connection.

There was a study that I may have mentioned on my podcast previously that researcher Sherry Turkle did. It was a five-year study with, I believe it was 300 adolescent children, where they interviewed the children about their parents’ tech use, mostly their phones. And the result was that children were far more bothered than they were able to express to their parents. They were not comfortable expressing how much it bothered them that their parents were constantly on their phone.

And there were certain particular moments when it bothered them most. And those were after a separation, when a parent would arrive home from work, or picking up our child from school, and the parent was looking at their phone or texting, or waiting for a response on text, or just had that sense of unavailability. So even if we’re not staring at our phone, there’s this feeling that children get. And Turkle found this in her interviews, that I never have my parents’ attention completely. Something could come along at any moment and take them away from me. They’re never comfortably mine. So it’s almost like children can’t quite exhale into that moment, because it could be gone any second.

The other two times, according to Turkle’s study, that children were particularly sensitive to their parents being distracted were mealtimes and when they were doing their extracurricular activities, like a sport or a lesson where they were applying themselves and trying to perform those skills. They really appreciated their parents’ full attention at those times. So anyway, it’s an interesting message about priorities and it really follows the caregiving advice that Magda gave.

And believe me, I know that being fully present is challenging, but it’s important to give children that message once in a while. And it’s been my experience that when we do that, we enjoy it more as well. And we feel good about ourselves that we’ve made ourselves put the phone away.

And if we can’t do it in those times, maybe we have to make a call or maybe there is something that we need to do during those caregiving times, or those transitional times. Then we acknowledge, because we know that this matters to our child. So we say, “Oh, I can’t wait to say hi to you, and I’ll be with you in one moment. I just have to do this one thing, and then we’re going to connect.” Or, “I can’t be with you for your bath tonight, sweetie. Daddy’s going to do it. I really wanted to, but I’ll be there to take you to bed.”

Again, we’re being honest. We’re letting our children know that we know that it matters, and that they can trust us. And it will make us feel more like heroes during these hard times.

I really hope some of that helps.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are a lot of them and they’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes & Noble and in audio at audible.com. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This is such a timely one. I just lost my temper with my son this evening at bedtime. Bedtime has been a struggle lately. I’m so lost on what to do when he flat out says “no” and refuses to put pajamas on, brush teeth, etc. Usually I have help from my husband but he was gone tonight. I was calm and tried a few different tactics (humor, helping, leaving the room), none of it worked and I lost it. I did damage control right away afterwards and told him I was sorry and I’m learning how to handle my big emotions. I’m trying to let it go and move on, not dwell or feel guilty. I appreciated the phone study as well. I need to put mine down more as I’m sure we all do. Thanks Janet!

  2. Really needed this post as I am going in a downward spiral of guilt at midnight. It’s been difficult since the birth of our second baby, even though it’s been eight months, I feel like my daughter is still unhappy and extra clingy. I will try my best to be honest and not project my own guilt on her. Thank you truly for the work you do.

    1. Sounds like she’s right on course and so are you. Let the feelings be — they are totally normal and expected. Nothing you need to try to fix. You’ve got this!

  3. What can I do when those connection times are the most stressful times of the day in our home?? Mealtimes are HORRIBLE in our house. Things can be calm and going well and we get to the table and everyone is crazy and whining and complaining. Those connection times don’t feel like connection times in our home because they’re endlessly frustrating. We’ve set boundaries around those times, but it just doesn’t seem to work. We’re exhausted and frustrated with the chaos.

    I should probably mention we’re a homeschooling family, 4 kids from ages 3 to 10.

    How can we make these times more connecting and less chaos???

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