Even with a literal Ph.D., sometimes I still royally mess up at parenting. This is a story about parenting mistakes and what we can learn from them. Keep reading below to learn how a standard dentist appointment went wrong with my 9-year-old. 

My 9-year-old has always done fine at dentist checkups, and it had been several years since I'd had a filling myself. These are my excuses for why I didn't see what was coming when my son had his first cavity filled. But here we were. He panicked at the sight of the needle heading toward his face, and the well-meaning dentist and assistant were now talking to him in the placating sing-song perhaps best used on a feral dog. The dentist was starting to talk about sending him to a specialist that could sedate him. My own efforts at calming him had not worked, and now I found myself at wit's end with his scream-crying, hissing into his ear, "if we have to pay for you to go to a specialist because you can't do this, you're losing TV tonight and you'll have to pay the extra money!"

Aye, what a mess! I went wrong in so many places. My first, and biggest mistake was that I didn't think it through, or help him prepare. If I'd thought about it, I know my kid. My kid hates pain and hates needles. I'd forgotten what the process was like, so I'd left him to be unpleasantly surprised. My second big mistake was losing my patience. Threats and bribes never work, and really never work in the heat of the moment. Would I really have made him pay the thousands of dollars it would have cost to go to a dental specialist? No, of course not. When I said that, it ended up just frightening him more, and also hurt the quality of my word. When we threaten big consequences we would never follow through on, our kids learn they don't have to take what we say seriously.

Fortunately, he muddled through and got his cavity filled. Unfortunately, we had more opportunities to practice. He had two more cavities to go, and the dentist could only fill one at a time due to their placement. The next two times, we did better.

First, I told him I was sorry for how things went the first time: that I hadn't prepared him well, and that I handled it poorly when things went wrong. Don't be afraid to apologize to children when mistakes are made. Sometimes parents worry that saying they were wrong will hurt their authority, but far from it: children learn by example how to take responsibility and learn from mistakes.

Next, my son and I came up with a plan together for how to get through the next two fillings. He brought in a fidget toy to hold and created his own playlist of songs he could listen to on headphones throughout the appointment. We reviewed ways he could help himself calm down if things were getting overwhelming, including taking slow, deep breaths and using visualization. He decided he'd like to think about Disney World and his favorite rides there. Crucially, we had this conversation a few days before his next appointment, when things were calm and relaxed. We also planned a reward for right after the dentist: once a milkshake, and once going to the store to pick out holiday decorations for our house. At both appointments, he did admirably well.

Parenting isn't easy, and we all make mistakes. Often, we learn more from our failures than from our successes. As we help our children learn and grow, we learn and grow alongside them. Have patience with yourself and with each other, knowing that mistakes are just part of the process of growing together.

Dr. E’s Mental Health Moment is written by Elizabeth Conway Williams Ph.D., psychologist, and behavioral health provider with Hendersonville Pediatrics.