Dad Talk: Be the Mirror You Want Your Child to Look Into
Eric had a concept of what kind of dad he was going to be. He was going to be a better dad than his dad ever was to him. He was going to be kind, understanding, nonjudgmental, and wise- a shining beacon of what a man is to be for a child. For him, his life’s goal was to embody the concept of fatherly perfection, the type that would urge others to follow in his footsteps. Yet, after raising his boy from birth to the age of 18, what Eric found wasn’t what he had hoped to be. He found he was regretful, angry, exhausted, and defeated. To top it off, he discovered he was a horrible critic. Those things he discovered, though, were conversations he was having in his mind about himself, not about his son.
As a licensed psychotherapist, I come across fathers just like man I described above. Perhaps some of you fit into the same category as Eric. Even if you don’t fit the “Eric” bill, it’s very common for men and fathers to carry around guilt, shame, and negative self-talk for the things they should be doing and should have done. Boys, very early on, build a self-concept of who they need to become, and often that ideal is too high to be achieved. In the journey to become this self-made, “He-Man” of dads, we forget to take care of ourselves in the way we are trying to take care of our children. We become hard on ourselves and constantly question our decisions, emotions, and actions. We forget to be compassionate to the dad who cares for our children.
So, I pose this concept to reframe the role of the father- Be the mirror you want your child to look into.
From the time of birth until a child begins to individuate from parents, they see themselves as a direct reflection of their parents. If you want your child to be equipped with life-long skills and a steeled concept of self, make yourself the best reflection for them to follow. Consider these recommendations:
1. Be Kind to Yourself and Take Care of Your Needs First.
Flight attendants know what they are talking about. If you don’t put on that oxygen mask first, you won’t be available to get breathable air to your child when the plane is going down. The same can be said about physical and mental health. Reflect to your sons and daughters that your well-being is just as important as theirs. Develop healthy, personal boundaries. Say “no” when you need to. Learn skills based on mindfulness practices. Schedule time for physical activity and fun. Give yourself some well-deserved “dad-time” to recharge. As you engage in self-care, bring that conversation to the dinner table, car ride, or camping trip to express the importance of self-care to your children.
2. Put He-man Back in the Toy Box.
One concept I work on with men and fathers is accepting imperfection. Most men want to give their children more than their parents gave them. If only we could raise a magic sword to gain the might of a hundred men, oh- what a life we could live! The stark reality is that perfection is a self-made trap of worry, stress, anxiety, and anger, and your children will sense this. This concept of perfection is generally established through childhood experiences we have with our own parents, families, and communities. Realize that this is normal and that you are not alone. Begin to build a concept of a “realistic you”- one with strengths, hopes, faults, and scars. Never give up a chance to admit your mistakes and misconceptions. Be brave enough to allow your children to experience your vulnerability with intimate conversations about your humanity and humility; you’ll thank yourself for it in the future. You’ll then begin to realize it isn’t He-man that your children need, it was always just you.
3. Practice the Art of Forgiveness
You’ve probably realized that you aren’t always living up to the expectations you had set for yourself as a father. That can be pretty damning to a deeply rooted, self-concept, which may lead to thoughts of guilt and shame that are tough to shake. You may find yourself twenty-some years from now saying, “It’s my fault; I should have done more for my son/daughter,”. Now is the time to practice something that seems to be easier to give to others than ourselves- good, old-fashioned forgiveness.
If you’re looking to build a mirror for your children with HD quality, consider developing positive self-talk with a verbal, follow-up component. Be mindful of the thoughts that pop up when you are feeling self-doubt, guilt, or shame in your role as a father. Track those thoughts and develop the opposite to materialize cognitively and verbally. Feeling guilty that you were late to your daughter’s yellow-belt test for Tae Kwon Do? Maybe your initial thought is, “I’m a horrible father being late for this! I should have left work earlier!”. Try telling yourself, “I’m late and I made still made it; I just a man and father doing what I can do to support my family. She will forgive me; I need to forgive myself too,”. Say it to yourself, then verbalize it. Practice it. It took years to condition yourself with blame and negative self-talk; you’re used to it. It’s going to take practice to feel normal about forgiving yourself.
Negative self-talk, blame, guilt, and shame are snags that most dads deal with on a regular basis. Remember, you are worth the time to work on your personal wellness because your children are worth it. Continue to build a mirror for them that you want them to look into. With your help, you will be less worried about what you didn’t do for them when they were young, and more present with them as adults as you continue to cultivate your relationships with them.
Scott Allen, LMHC
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