Parent Acts: When our kids hold a mirror to our shortcomings

Story highlights

  • In the "Parent Acts" video series, CNN's Kelly Wallace asks parents to role-play
  • Pressure to be perfect makes it hard when kids point out parents' shortcomings

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)When Grace Burley's daughter was 2, she sent her mom a very clear and expensive message.

"She was not at all a troublemaker, and she took my cell phone and threw it in the toilet," said Burley, a mom of two in Atlanta who is managing director of a strategic crisis firm, which means she is often fielding calls and emails when her kids are around.
    "I had to laugh," she said. "I was like, 'Yes, that is where that belongs.' "
    Burley admitted that one of her biggest shortcomings as a parent is having trouble being present with her kids.
    In the fourth installment of our new CNN Digital Video series "Parent Acts," we asked people to act out their shortcomings as parents and why it hurts so much when our kids point out those failings to us. We then had a parenting expert listen to their role play to weigh in with advice.
    Burley says her kids, ages 9 and 12, will say to her, "Pay attention to me" or "Listen to me."
    When she hears that, no surprise, it doesn't feel very good. "I mean, there's a lot of guilt, and it is sometimes hard to explain it and then shift the behavior, and it's a constant thing I'm working on, trying to listen to them, because I should be. That's my number one priority, but sometimes it's hard."
    I wish my mother knew ...
    I wish my mother knew mother's day message orig cm_00001206

      JUST WATCHED

      I wish my mother knew ...

    MUST WATCH

    I wish my mother knew ... 01:55
    I can relate. When I interviewed my younger daughter and her elementary school classmates for a Mother's Day video last year, asking children what they wish their mothers knew about them, my daughter said I "lose my cookies" too much. Translation: I get mad so quickly.
    Why does it hurt so much when our kids tell us something that we know is true?
    "We're human. We have to say, as parents, we often feel like we have to be perfect," said Erik Fisher, a psychologist working in the Atlanta area and co-author of "The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With."
    "I have to be good and strong and right, and don't you dare point out to me anything that is bad or wrong or weak. But that's more about us, and that's more about our inadequacy, because if we're not perfect, what does that mean to us?" Fisher asked.
    If we're not perfect, what does that say about the job we are doing as a parent?
    Bibbi Ransom, an Atlanta mom of two boys, ages 9 and 18, admits that she's a bit of a yeller and that her kids will tell her from time to time (maybe more than from time to time), "Don't yell at me."
    For instance, when her kids have a reading assignment and they don't want to do it, she might respond by screaming, "No, you need to do that now!"
    Fisher, who listened to Ransom's role-play, said that when we parents fail in the moment and find that anger has taken over, we can take a moment to step back and think about how we could have handled it better.
    You can say to your children, "Give me a few minutes so I can check myself," said Fisher. "And then what ... you're teaching them (is) 'Oh, it's OK. I don't have to fix this right now. I can step back.' "
    After some reflection, you can go back to your kids and explain why you reacted a certain way -- whether it was out of fear, guilt, shame, feelings of failure or inadequacy, whatever the reason. You also can praise your child for helping you learn more about yourself.
    "People learn better and more quickly when they feel they are also committing or contributing to the learning process of somebody else," Fisher said. "So when you have a child who is trying to teach and tell you something, you say, 'Wow, that was awesome. I loved what you taught me.' Then you are empowering them."
    In the case of Burley, the mom whose kids often tell her to pay attention to them, Fisher says she should do some self-reflection to figure out what is causing her to not be as engaged with her children as she would like to be, and then she should pose the question to her kids.
    "Are there situations where you see me check out? What are those situations?" Fisher suggested. Parents then need to be able to accept the truth from their kids and do something about it, he said. If you can't seem to change the behavior on your own, don't be afraid to ask someone else for help, whether it's a friend or a therapist, he said.
    Join the conversation

    See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    "As a parent, we might have every positive intention in the world to behave and be a certain way, but our behavior tells us something different, our kids are telling us something different, the world might be telling us something different, so you have to ask yourself, 'Why am I doing what I'm doing?' "
    Do your children point out your shortcomings? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.