Parenting with History in Mind: Does Your Child Trigger Your "Stuff"?
Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. No matter who you are, no matter how long you have been working on your "stuff," no matter how many self-help or parenting books you've read or years of therapy you've had. It also doesn't matter if your child is biological, adopted, step, or foster. Children are designed to find those places in our heart, mind and spirit that haven't yet healed, and draw our attention there with a razor sharp focus. Children are incredible catalysts for deep healing- especially "troubled" children. They are magic that way. . . though it doesn't always feeling *magical* at the time.
Ok, let's break this magic down a bit more.
When we are very small, we learn about our self, world, and relationships through our experiences with our most significant caregivers, usually our parents. Our parents shape our behavior through their actions. Sometimes, this is healthy, such as socializing us to share our toys and use our words instead of hitting. And other times, our parents shape us in ways that hurt us. Even the most perfect parents have their moments, which sometimes leave indelible marks on our spirits. Our parents' emotional withdrawal or neediness; fear and anxiety; anger and aggression; criticism or rejection; alcoholism, workaholism, or addiction to stress; lack of responsiveness to our needs; not signing you up for those ballet lessons you wanted. . . everything our parents did or didn't do will leave a mark. Some of these painful emotional experiences happened when we were too small to even remember; and yet, our bodies remember. The marks have been made.
And if these marks aren't big enough to really get in the way of living a happy life, we often don't feel called to heal them. We might not become clinically depressed or become an alcoholic. We may be totally functional in all our relationships and feel quite successful at work. But our wounds remain.
Children will call up all our old ghosts. We see ourselves in our children. We hope for them, we dream for them, we want to give them the whole world. We love them more than we've ever loved anyone or anything. We see them at different ages and remember when we were 5, 9, 12, 23. And, when we have children, more than ever, we see our parents in ourselves. We worry about measuring up to our own amazing parents who sacrificed everything for us. Or we worry about becoming our own imperfect parents, repeating their mistakes. Or both. It's a lot to bare.
Sometimes our children trigger us in ways that aren't always so easy to identify. I'm going to paint a picture of a fictional character for the sake of example. We'll call her Sally. Sally's Father's discipline style was reactive, loud, and sometimes physical. She never considered it "abuse," but it was very frightening to her. As a little girl, she never felt she had the right to say no or assert herself with her dad, and she certainly never felt safe enough to express anger toward him.
With her own child, Sally is trying desperately to parent differently than her dad. She has done everything to be calm and reasoned with her discipline and has vowed to never spank her son. Yet she notices huge waves of emotion when her son is defiant: Waves of anger totally out of proportion to the situation at hand. He's 10 and refusing to take out the trash; he's growling and now he's thrown a Kleenex box across the room at her. It's not the end of the world, but she feels personally attacked, belittled, full of an unparalleled rage, out for blood! Now she's yelling, totally out of control. Again. After the incident Sally cries in her room: "Why can't I stop yelling at my sweet little child? Why am I such a terrible mother? What is wrong with me?" She vows to try harder next time. She doesn't know why this keeps happening.
This little boy has found one of Sally's triggers. All of that anger she hid away as a little girl is coming out, now. Sally is angry, ashamed and confused, but meanwhile the trash still hasn't been taken out. An interaction that was supposed to be about teaching her son responsibility has turned into an interaction about Sally's childhood. How long will this pattern continues? Until this little boy learns to hide away his anger just like his Mom did. Or, until Sally is able to identify where this particular trigger comes from. Until Sally heals, and this no longer holds power over her and her family.
As a child therapist, I see children and parents every day who are doing the courageous work of healing history. When I work with a family with a troubled child, parents and I often discover wounds like Sally's. In fact, each and every parent I have known brings wounds into the relationship with their child. It doesn't mean they are broken. It means they are human. It means they are alive. Our histories impact us- plain and simple.
What happens when we are small changes the course of our lives, and we don't get a say in that. But what happens next is up to us. Our children will point the way, but are we open to seeing where we have been hurt? Are we ready to receive this gift from our kids? Are we open to growth and healing? Are we ready to change our family's history and leave a new legacy for our children and grandchildren?