Here’s a secret: Parents make mistakes. Odds are, you’ve probably made a couple today.
We all want the best for our kids, but parents are often still struggling to learn how to live life as their best selves. We hope our children can avoid the pitfalls we’ve tumbled into in the past — whether it be stints in rehab, arrests, a history of emotional issues or money problems, a general lack of direction until your late twenties, or the time you put a cigarette out on your arm to prove you were a tough guy (I know it can’t just be me!).
As much as we try to shelter kids from going down the wrong path — paths we may have walked before — the past will always influence your parenting decisions. Eventually, the time will come where you might have to admit that you aren’t, or weren’t always, the great example you strive to be every day. Despite that, you can still be a role model for how to make changes and move forward in life.
Taking accountability doesn’t equate to you pushing your child down the same slope. “You don’t have to feel like you’re giving your kid a hall pass to go out and use drugs,” says Allen Berger, a psychologist and the author of 12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety. “What you’re doing is sharing your experience that no one’s going to be perfect.” You are modeling growth, and that is a worthwhile and brave thing to do.
But confronting the past and accepting responsibility can be terrifying. Acknowledging our flaws in front of those we cherish is even more so. I spoke with four experts about productive methods to parent children effectively when your own past is imperfect.
Recognize your past mistakes, but don’t project them
Before having a conversation about your past with your kids, it’s important to fully process it and understand how it has impacted who you are today. “You want to make sure you really dealt with it yourself first,” says Stacey Younge, the owner and lead therapist at Sixth Street Wellness in Manhattan, who has also served as a clinician for people returning home from prison.
“The act of parenting brings out all the insecurities that we have,” says Gayani DeSilva, a psychiatrist and the author of A Psychiatrist’s Guide: Stop Teen Addiction Before It Starts. “Whatever we’ve done, it’s okay to look at it. It’s okay to talk to somebody about it. It’s okay to be transparent in our vulnerability.”
It’s also important to avoid projecting your shame onto your kids. “The things that we project [on others] are things that are incomplete in us. If I still have some issues about my past that are unresolved, I’m gonna have a tendency to project that onto my children and be afraid that they’re going to be living that,” says Berger. The first step is recognizing the problem is within ourselves so we can do something about it.
“Our kids might have our features, they might have our personality traits, but that doesn’t always mean that they’re going to make the same choices that we have,” Younge says.
We can’t heal from our past in a vacuum. Processing it with help from a therapist, a life coach, a religious mentor, or even a good friend can make a world of difference. Find someone you can be vulnerable with, who can accept your past without judgment, and who wants to help you move forward.
How to have an honest chat with your kids, at any age
The goal of this conversation with your kids is to teach them that people can grow, and that’s a lesson you can instill in them no matter their age. You definitely shouldn’t spark a conversation with a 6-year-old about jabbing needles into your arm, but you can go a bit deeper with a teenager. With a young child, you might speak generally about how mommy or daddy made mistakes, too, discussing simple yet fundamental lessons from your past.
Don’t be afraid to say the words “I’m sorry” if your actions affected your child. Apologizing sets an incredible example for little ones.
Kids are going to make mistakes, so one of the best gifts you can give them is an example of you letting go of shame. “They’re gonna make some really bad choices, and they’re gonna have to figure it out. So if we are open and transparent with our vulnerability to our children, our children are going to realize that, you know what, my parents were able to take care of whatever happened to them, so whatever happens to me, I’m going to be okay,” DeSilva says.
When choosing where to hold the conversation, focus on a setting where your child is comfortable to listen and share, whether that be in the kitchen while making dinner, in the car on the way to an activity, or over ice cream at their favorite eatery. It doesn’t have to be stern or serious. When you and your child are in a relaxed environment, a conversation may even just roll out organically.
Pretending your past didn’t happen helps no one. “Be honest about the lessons that you’ve learned and how it impacted your life — why [what you experienced] was a real challenge and what are some of the things that you really want them to know,” says Younge. Then, invite your child to share their feelings about what you just shared with them. Ask them if they’ve struggled with anything similar. The goal is for them to form their own opinions and know that they have autonomy over their own choices.
If you are still struggling with the subject of the conversation, it’s okay to say, “This is something that’s just too rough for me right now,” says Younge. “This is maybe where Partner A or Partner B or Grandma can come in and help have some conversations about it.” It’s likely that there are other people in your kid’s life that they can trust — people who are good influences, who will be happy to help you out here.
Change your mindset, so they can too
Model making mistakes and accepting constructive criticism. “Kids are going to respond to how you live your life more than what you tell them about how they should live their lives,” says Berger. Your actions are what really count, so make sure you empower your kids to know that growth is possible, and that it takes effort and time.
Don’t do things that you tell your kid not to, unless you have a good explanation as to why, says Jessica Lahey, a former teacher and the author of The Addiction Inoculation. Being specific about certain nuances can make a real difference in how your kids understand boundaries. For example, if your kids aren’t old enough to drink, but you sip wine with dinner, Lahey says, you should explain to them that “adolescent brains are different from adult brains. My brain is done developing, and yours won’t be done developing until your early to mid-20s.” Be clear about why certain rules exist.
Believing in yourself can be difficult if you feel that you don’t have the power to affect your situation in life, so teach kids how to have a growth mindset, not a fixed one. A growth mindset is the view that talent and intelligence is learned and cultivated with practice and effort; a fixed mindset tells you that there is no use trying to change.
Research has connected the growth mindset to greater motivation and resiliency, leading to higher academic achievements. A fixed mindset is a negative thinking pattern, and can lead to children who will run from their struggles, never seeking assistance or putting in effort to improve. A growth mindset can give your children the confidence to make mistakes and learn.
You can push back against a hopeless mentality by teaching self-efficacy, says Lahey, which she defined as “the belief that if you take an action, that it will result in change.”
Be careful how you speak about your children, and how you speak about yourself. Instead of labeling yourself, your child, or others with static terms such as “brilliant” or “gifted,” which reinforces the idea that people are valued for fixed characteristics and not the work they put in, teach kids to look for the long-term consequences of people’s actions, “showing them the opportunities for growth, showing them the opportunities to break cycles, showing them evidence of their own accomplishments,” says Lahey.
Research shows that children as young as 7 believe that seeking help is a sign of incompetence. Other studies have shown that potential helpers, including teachers and social workers, underestimate the shame and embarrassment about seeking help felt by their students, so it’s imperative we defuse the stigma by showing the benefits of reaching out. Examples of asking for help as an adult can vary from situation to situation — it could be calling a friend when you don’t know how to handle a situation, or signing up for food stamps.
Remember to model self-care — not only to teach your children how to help themselves, but also to allow yourself to be more present for your family. “It’s critical that you realize how important you are,” says DeSilva. “Anytime that you spend any effort [caring for] yourself, that translates to how you treat your kids.” Be an example of kindness and forgiveness to others, but especially to yourself.
Celebrate long-term growth. You are no longer the same person you were in the past. Recognize the work you’ve put in, and do the same for your child, helping them see that struggling with their homework today isn’t representative of where they will be a year from now. Point to their work from last year to show how far they have come. Chances are, you have, too.
Jay Deitcher is a stay-at-home dad, writer, and former social worker living in Albany, New York.
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