I grew up, as so many men in our society do, believing I was supposed to have it all together. We’ve been conditioned to believe that being a successful man means always being strong, knowing what to do, and keeping our vulnerabilities hidden. We were taught to project an attitude of absolute confidence in our social circles or careers, and that carries over to our parenting as well.
As I grew into adulthood, I achieved outward success. Internally, though, I was outrunning my own insecurities. I had learned to manage my persona and had mastered the art of appearing as if all was good. When I became a dad, that façade came crumbling down. How could I be so Zen everywhere else and yet lose it so easily with my children?
I feared I was being a bad father and my reactivity was scarring my kids for life. I ping-ponged from judging myself, to justifying myself by judging my kids. Often blaming others or feeling like the victim is a way to avoid the discomfort of self-judgment.
Perhaps you can relate. Many fathers I have talked to have the same issues, and we cope in all sorts of ways. Some of us compulsively work or find any excuse to have a business trip. Some of us complain incessantly about our lives and blame our circumstances for our suffering. Some of us drink or binge-watch TV to numb the pain. We develop all these coping mechanisms because we never learned a way to navigate our inner worlds.
It wasn’t easy, but I came to realize that if I wanted to be the best dad I could possibly be, I had to take a closer look at my own baggage. It required me to stop all the blaming. All the complaining. All the avoidance. And pay closer attention to the programming that was running my life.
The closer we allow someone to get to us, the more access they have to nudge at our deepest issues. That’s why often family and intimate partnerships can be so challenging for people. It’s like they know what buttons to push to trigger all our unresolved material. Many people will distance themselves from family, get divorced, or simply keep themselves guarded to avoid the surfacing of those wounds.
Unlike our other relationships, however, when our kids trigger us, we can’t just throw our hands up and walk away. Yet, they have a unique and extraordinary ability to bring up to the surface all the reactive parts of ourselves we’ve been avoiding. They are very transparent mirrors.
At first, we may blame them for how we react. But we can only do this for so long, particularly when they’re young. Eventually, a little voice deep inside starts to whisper to us. It tells us that we can do better. It’s important to be mindful of not shifting from blame “out there” to self-blame, because that’s just perpetuating the same victim dynamic.
The best way to break that pattern and take back our power is to take full responsibility for what’s coming up—and look at the ways in which our children are reflecting parts of us that are ready for our attention. What our children bring up in us is our issue, not theirs. The emotions we feel when they do something are ours to own. And that’s good news, because it means it’s within our power to change things.
Having our wounds reflected back to us is usually uncomfortable. That’s why so many of us try to deal with getting triggered by disconnecting. This is when the behaviors we are all so familiar with happen: the avoidance, the excessive working, the binging.
However, if you disconnect, you cut yourself off from one of the greatest opportunities to grow. That’s why I would invite you to stay connected. When I did, it changed my life for the better in every way I could imagine, and I’ve seen it happen for many other parents as well.
Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. When you’re in the moment and you’ve been triggered, it’s hard to know how to come back and re-center. That’s why I’d like to share some of the things that worked for me.
I believe, if you put them into practice, you’ll soon find that your relationship with your kids will become even richer. Best of all, your relationship with yourself will deepen exponentially.
In those moments when you’re losing it, the first thing you need to do is take a breath and center yourself. If it’s possible, take a little bit of space, too, so you aren’t just reacting to the emotions that are churning inside of you.
Once you do that, take ownership for getting off-center. In my experience, kids respond very well when you’re able to say, “Hey, I reacted poorly. That didn’t feel right for me. I’m sorry.” When we do that, we model what it’s like to take responsibility when we mess up. Kids don’t need a perfect parent, but they do need someone that shows them how to navigate the ups and downs.
This was so counter to my conditioning. Growing up, parents were always in the right and if they lost their patience, it was my fault because I was being a difficult kid. But I tested it out, and the results were undeniable. Now, it’s my kids who often take responsibility when they’re off, because we’ve established that it’s OK to mess up as long as you can own up to it.
Sometimes this accountability is immediate and sometimes it takes a bit longer. The key is not to have an expectation that they should apologize when we haven’t taken 100 percent responsibility for how we showed up ourselves.
“They just don’t listen” is probably a phrase most parents have used more than once. It goes hand in hand with “How many times do I have to repeat myself?” While it may be true that kids have a hard time listening, the same is true for parents. The only difference is we will go to greater lengths to make sure we’re heard (until the teenage years) because we think it’s their job to listen, and ours to tell them what to do. So, we get louder and punish them—or in the conscious vernacular, give them “consequences”—to get them to do what we want them to do.
I’m speaking from firsthand experience in this. Most of my interactions with my kids used to be about telling them what they should and should not be doing. The result? Everything was a battle, and everything was their fault. It was challenging for everyone, and it left me exhausted.
The problem is that, as parents, we’re convinced we always know better, so listening is not a priority. Don’t get me wrong: we certainly have a role to play which includes telling our kids what they can and can’t do, but we’re missing out on them by always doing the talking and making such little space for their opinions.
Next time you find that you’re repeating yourself, and they’re not listening, take a beat. Check in and see what’s going on in their world. Get curious about their little bubble. I’ve found that by first connecting with them and understanding where they’re at, I am much better at communicating what’s important to share. Of course, that seems like an ideal scenario when time isn’t of the essence, which it almost always is…or is it?
Time was my enemy. When relating with my kids, I treated almost everything with urgency. I think many parents do that. However, the reality is that 99 percent of situations don’t warrant that mindset.
If my kid was grabbing a knife and playing with it when he wasn’t at an age when he could handle a knife, that was an emergency. But if my kids weren’t brushing their teeth the instant that I asked them too, that was not an emergency.
The problem is that I approached everything with the same energy: “this must happen right now or else.” At first it was easier to understand that “pick up your toy” or “clear your dishes” weren’t emergencies, but I was still stubborn around things like “get out of the car” or “get ready for school.”
After all, I really value punctuality. Truth is, the rushed energy gets things done, but they come at a cost. I came to realize that I was losing more than I was gaining— my relationship with my kids was more important than making sure we were always on time.
So, I shifted my approach. I would notice when I was acting with urgency and would ask, “Is this really an emergency?” Most of the time, it wasn’t, and the simple act of realizing that gave me enough space to break the pattern. With that pause, I was capable of treating the situation with a little more levity. I could speak to them with more kindness. I didn’t always catch myself, but every time I did, it felt like our relationship deepened.
Taking responsibility and creating space also allowed me to get clear on what was triggering me. It helped me recognize that my kids weren’t the issue; the unresolved patterns I was playing out were. It was now up to me to tend to those if I wanted to stop hurting.
Let’s use the example of my kids taking too long to get ready in the morning, which meant they might be late to school. I would stress out, thinking about all the negative consequences that might happen if they were late. When I started to slow down what was happening, though, I realized the real culprit was my fear that I would be perceived as a bad parent. My ego didn’t want other people to see me as someone who couldn’t get my kids to school on time.
Recognizing that was humbling. I had been telling myself that my demands for them to be on time were my attempt to try and train them to be better people. But when I really looked at the core of why I was getting triggered, I saw that my upset came from my own insecurity about being judged.
If my annoyance and anger were coming from my own emotional baggage—the need to manage my image of a responsible dad—then I had to address that baggage within myself. Otherwise, it was just going to keep coming up.
I had to spend some time looking at old judgments I hadn’t forgiven. In other words, I had to go back to all those times when I had judged my own father. Because I wished he had been around more, at some point I made an unconscious vow to be the greatest dad possible for my children. I was now measuring myself against an idyllic image of what a dad should be.
If I didn’t find compassion for my father, that same judgment would find ways to criticize me anytime I didn’t measure up to perfection. Judgment needs to find something to focus on. And you know what? It’ll find it, either out there or in here.
Forgiving my judgments meant revisiting some memories of childhood and noticing he was doing the best he could given the circumstances. Releasing the judgements, by the way, didn’t mean losing my objectivity of the past; I could still have discernment.
There’s value in wanting to be punctual, but the baggage that comes when trying to enforce it isn’t necessary. By stripping the negative energetic load, I could choose to be the dad I wanted to be from a place of greater inner freedom. The world’s opinion about my parenting was no longer threatening. I could stop trying to sustain a standard of perfection, and instead, focus on my intention to be the best dad I could be, which included sometimes not getting to school on time.
Being a dad is challenging, but we can make it a whole lot easier if we start looking at our kids as teachers that are here to show us the conditioning that we’re ready to upgrade.
For more advice on how to create an even deeper and more loving relationship with your children, you can find The Mystery of You on Amazon.
Emilio Diez Barroso was a lifelong seeker—seeking recognition, achievement, love, success, and finally, the ultimate carrot: enlightenment. In his pursuit of enlightenment, he was forced to face what all the seeking had been trying to avoid: his own sense of unworthiness. Defeated at the game of avoiding and humbled by the realization of his true nature, he is now dedicated to alleviating suffering in the world. Emilio is married and is a father to three incredible teachers. He sits on the board of over a dozen companies, is the CEO of NALA Investments and is an active philanthropist, investor and entrepreneur. He has a master’s in spiritual psychology and resides in Los Angeles.