“PARENTING IS A MIRROR IN WHICH WE GET TO SEE THE BEST OF OURSELVES, AND THE WORST; THE RICHEST MOMENTS OF LIVING, AND THE MOST FRIGHTENING.” – JON AND MYLA KABAT-ZINN
Your child is a reflection of everything about you; your light and your shadow, your strengths, your fears, your passions.... In essence, your child is your mirror. If you truly want your child to be happy, take the job of making yourself happy as seriously as your paying job. Instead of putting your wishes, dreams and energy only into your child, become the adult you want your child to be. There is no better way to teach your children to have authentic success, to be resilient, to be kind, to enjoy life, to have high emotional intelligence...than to do so yourself. We are programmed to a certain reality by the family we grow up with. By making our own healing a priority, we free our children of the un- conscious chains that bind them to the pain of the past and allow them to grow into healthy, authentic and, with any luck, joyful humans who are full of life.
Do you love yourself? Do you appreciate your gifts? Your beauty? Your light? Do you love yourself as much as you love your children? I think I can count on one hand those who do. I’m still working on this myself. This inconsistency between our love for ourselves being less than the love for our children creates two major problems for our children. First: they are aware of this (sometimes the awareness is not conscious) and since they see themselves in our image, they wonder that something must be wrong with them if we do not love ourselves fully. Second, if you’re not thrilled about what you’ve got going on inside, you may unconsciously avoid spending time with your child in order to avoid “messing them up”. There are so many parents who don’t feel good about themselves and fear that their child will grow up to be just like them, so they don’t spend time with their children. It’s usually not a conscious decision. Very few people wake up and think to themselves, “I’d better stay away from Joshua so he doesn’t turn out like me,” but it happens all the time. Parents busy themselves, they have a lot of friends over so there’s less one on one time with their children, they become over-involved in sports, and in after school activities so they feel involved, but there is no alone and quiet time to deeply connect.
This is what I believe happened with my mother. She had a tough childhood and a lot of emotional issues that she didn’t heal by the time I came around when she was 24. When she was around, she wasn’t around...she would be doing something without me that I couldn’t share. And she wasn’t around much. I grew up fast, and the bond between us was never fully established. Because she had unhealed wounds, she would lash out at me which would make me distance myself even more. She wished we were closer, but during my childhood she wasn’t around much. Of course, I have positive memories and I love her, but truthfully I don’t feel love for her like a mother...more like an aunt or a cousin. It’s one of the reasons why I am so compelled to share this information and one of the reasons I left my high profile job at a hospital when I became a parent. I wanted to be available to my daughter in a way that my mother was not available to me. The parent-child relationship has a window. If you’re not around when they are growing up, there is a high chance you won’t be able to make up for lost time when it’s convenient for you.
People usually can clearly state what they don’t want to happen, what they don’t want to be like as a parent, but it’s reactionary. The pendulum swinging in the opposite direction is a reflex of trauma. For generations, humans have been going back and forth with being overly permissive or overly punitive to try to make amends with their experiences as a child. Unfortunately, knowing what you don’t want to do doesn’t really get usto where we want to be. Just because you know you don’t want to be a sewage tank engineer doesn’t help clarify what career is right for you. This is why we can’t just “not do” what was done to us as children or to do the opposite; we actually have to process our experiences so that our unconscious mind and primitive part of our brain isn’t running the show. We can begin with unraveling our story.
Unravel Your Story (How to Not Repeat What Was Done to You) Like a spool of thread that has been so twisted and knotted that you can’t even unwind, our stories bind us. They trap us into limited identities, limited roles, and limited (often small) concepts of our authentic self. Our childhood interpretations of stressful, traumatic, painful or lonely situations become our template for living, unless we unravel them. What we tell ourselves (or don’t tell ourselves) about our experi- ences creates our reality. Healing doesn’t have to be complicated. One of the primary ways to heal is simply by acknowledging our pain while expanding on our story with our adult perspective. We can have com- passion for our abuser and still be set free from fear of being victimized. We can grow out of the limiting labels we were given and become the joyful, healthy person of our own making. When we review our stories with the intention of acknowledging and releasing our pain, it allows our heart to open to healing, creates empathy so we don’t accidentally repeat what was done to us to our children, and allows us to receive the lessons we are meant to learn.
Unless you unravel your story and heal your pain, you may unconsciously replicate the pain that you experienced as a child, because your denial of your own pain has you pass on the pain to the next generation. Without acknowledging the pain we suffered, we close ourselves off, re- peat generational trauma, and unintentionally recreate the wounds that were passed down to us by our parents (and likely their parents before them and so on). One of the best ways to get motivated to change is by recognizing our anger, sadness, or the unfairness of a situation. So, in order to help you unravel your story, here are some of the most common painful childhood scenarios in the hopes that you will see yourself in some of them.
If you avoid learning of others’ suffering, perhaps you haven’t been able to see your own suffering fully. If so, this section will be especially helpful to you. You may see yourself in one of the stories. If you find yourself wanting to skip this section, chances are you probably tend toward denial. No judgement. I myself certainly lived very happily in denial for years. It was my children’s authentic laughter and tears as well as the courage of my therapy clients to express their pain that had me realize I had more work to do. It’s an ongoing process. Just bear with me and know I empathize with you along the way. Open your mind to see if any of these stories stay with you. Chances are, there’s something there to unravel.
The Child Left Alone Even if you were deeply loved and knew it, if your parents were away from you during most of your waking time, you probably fit into this category. Many children of single parents or children raised primarily by one parent will fall into this category because most of the time the parent who you were raised by had to do it all alone. Even though you knew you were loved and saw how hard your parent worked to help you have the best life possible, she or he was most likely not around. This left you having to cope for yourself, to reduce your needs, to depend only on yourself, to “suck it up.”
Tara wasn’t neglected, she wasn’t abused, her parents were just...busy. Tara’s parents were divorced. She only saw her father during the summers as he lived in another state, and her mother worked full time. She saw her mother for 30 minutes in the morning before she got on the school bus and for an hour in the evening before her bedtime. She got to school early, stayed as late as the after care program was open and didn’t participate in sports or enrichment activities as she had no one to drive her. She had to learn quickly how to do things for herself and often felt guilty for her mother’s exhaustion. She felt jealous of her friends whose parents came to see the school plays and events as her mother couldn’t get time off work.
The Emotionally Neglected Child John lives in a beautiful home with an ocean view in Malibu. As a child, he was a good student, a star athlete and had an enviable life. But in- side, he feels empty and unmotivated. When he shares about his childhood, the development of this emptiness becomes clear. His parents were wealthy and lived a grand life, but John was left out of it. As an only child with very social parents, he was at home alone a lot. When his parents were home and had dinner with him, he was rarely asked questions with the exception of “How are your grades?” or “Did you win the game?” Their response to his attempts at requesting praise and acknowledgment were “That’s nice,” or “good,” nothing else.
When they had visitors, he was often taken off guard when someone would ask him something about himself. Most of the time his mother would answer for him and cut him off. By the time he was 3, he learned that he didn’t have a voice. Even his attempts at tantrums didn’t evoke anger from his parents. They would just leave him in his room and lock the door. Sometimes the housekeeper would come in to calm him, but sometimes not. He was raised by nannies and sent to boarding school. At boarding school, his parents didn’t visit; there was always an excuse. John would see other parents hugging their children. Sometimes he would feel angry or jealous, but as he got older he just detached from his emotions entirely. As a 43-year-old adult, he can’t remember the last time he cried (he thinks maybe he was 6) or the last time he got excited or even angry. The emotional neglect he suffered left him feeling invisible, leading a life where he felt only half-alive.
If John’s story resonates with you, it’s important that you recognize the wound that neglect creates. Even though John had his physical and financial needs met, and he leads what many would consider a fortunate life, the emotional neglect he experienced as a child must be acknowledged in order for him to ensure he is emotionally present for his children (and himself).
The Child Who Was Pressured Too Much Myann’s parents immigrated to the US before she was born. The reasons for their move was not that they didn’t want to stay in their country, but that the ability to work and make enough money to live on was nearly impossible. They wanted a better life for their children. When they got to the US, they worked very, very hard and were treated with much discrimination and racism. When it was time for Myann to enroll in school, her parents feared that she, too would be treated poorly and worried that if she misbehaved she would be even more discriminated against, so they were very strict with her. They also insisted that she receive only the highest marks. They believed that in order for Myann to succeed, she must be absolutely top of her class. After school, they made her practice piano and do school work until dinner, then after dinner, they made her practice piano more. She was not allowed to socialize on the weekdays or to participate in sports. Myann did everything her parents asked of her, motivated by guilt for their struggle and fear of their disapproval. She went to the college they wanted her to go to, even became a lawyer because they told her that’s what she should do. Now in her 50s, Myann is miserable. She despises being a lawyer and realizes that for her entire life, the pressure she received to be the perfect child had led her to being a miserable adult. In therapy, she is working on saying “no” and, for the first time, discovering what actually makes her happy instead of what pleases others.
The Child Who Lived in Conflict Olivia’s father said “hate” a lot, especially about her mother. Olivia’s parents were divorced when she was three and her entire life she experienced nothing but conflict. It was in the air she breathed, at the dinner table, at bedtime, everywhere. Even as an infant, before her parents were divorced, there was so much yelling and screaming that Olivia’s attempts at tantrums were largely ignored. “Take care of your kid!” her mother would yell. “No, you take care of YOUR kid!” her father would retort. As you can imagine, Olivia quickly learned not to make things worse and became the perfect child. Straight As on every report card, star athlete, teacher’s pet, would always do her chores without being asked. Even as a teenager, she didn’t cause problems. But inside she was aching, yearning for a safe place. She began to smoke marijuana at a party, which dulled her a bit, then she experimented with cocaine and liked how it kept her thin. At the same time, she began to force herself to throw up after eating something unhealthy so she wouldn’t gain weight. After, she’d feel empty and calm which was a rare feeling. Around this time, her parents began to give her a lot of compliments on how pretty she was. But there was still a lot of screaming in her home and a constant tension. Olivia couldn’t control the chaos in her home life so she tried to control the chaos she felt inside by controlling what she ate. She developed an eating disorder and as an adult is working on processing the need to let go of feeling perfect or in control in order to feel safe.
The Child Who Came from a Mentally Ill Household London’s mother hasn’t been diagnosed, but everything London has described to me about his mother sounds exactly like mental illness. London’s childhood was extremely chaotic behind closed doors. In public, his mother put on the perfect face. At home, she would find dishes in the sink and come within two inches of London’s face yelling, “you are so selfish, you don’t care about me. Don’t you see what you do to hurt me every day?” Tearful, London would apologize profusely and go to clean the dishes. If the neighbor visited in the middle of this scene, London’s mother would answer the door with a smile. “Come on in, so good to see you.”
London did have his brother to help. Sometimes, he and his brother would hide in the closet when they heard their mother in one of her “moods,” fearful that she would scream at them. London noticed that when his mother screamed at them, her appearance changed dramatically and her face looked like a different person. She was “sick” a lot too. She would spend all day in bed, and London was expected to take care of her. He would make her meals and bring them to her. Eventually, his mother started asking him to stay home from school so he could help her. The school would call and his mother would answer, “Oh he’s sick and won’t be able to come in today,” although London was feeling perfectly healthy.
His father would witness the abuse and not say anything. Eventually, when London was in high school, his father left his mother and he was left to live with his mother and brother alone. That was when his mother began to threaten suicide on a regular basis. He would witness her control her outbursts in public but at home see her rage. Most of the rage was directed toward his father, but sometimes the rage was directed toward him and his brother.
When he went to college and took his first psychology class, he began to recognize some of what his professor was describing and realized his mother was mentally ill. Since then, he has been trying to get her to go to therapy, to get some professional help. Her response remains rageful, “there’s nothing wrong with me, how dare you!” He was entangled in a web of simultaneously fearing her and feeling the need to take care of her. Every weekend, every holiday, he would drive 200 miles to visit her; he really believed his visits were necessary so she wouldn’t kill herself. London is now 33 and his mother still subtly threatens suicide. “I’m not sure if anyone loves me; what’s the point of living,” she says.
London came to see me in therapy as he is trying to figure out who he really is, who he could be if only he had been allowed to be himself and to grow up without fear. He’s learning the important lesson that just because someone gave birth to you doesn’t mean that you are obliged to have a relationship with them. If only his mother had healed her wounds, she would have been able to have a relationship with her sons and to release her anger.
London now has kids of his own, and he’s very conscientious to handle his mental wellness. Because of his childhood, he is easily triggered by his children. He finds himself angry at how ungrateful they seem. At the same time, he finds himself wanting to support them, although he is not sure how. He spent so much of his life caring for his mother’s emotional needs that he doesn’t yet know what his own are.
If you resonate even a little with London, you will benefit from learning to listen to your own truth and freeing yourself of obligations. Live by your truth and don’t let others tell you what you should be doing. Because it wasn’t safe for you to be authentic, you will need extra practice as an adult. With authenticity you will begin to develop your intuition as well. These experiences are not unique. The National Association on Mental Illness estimates that 1 out of every 5 people (or approximately 18.5%) in the US experience mental illness and 1 in 25 experience serious mental illness that interferes with life functioning. Most mental illness goes undiagnosed and results in people trying to self-medicate their pain through alcohol or drugs. A majority of the time, mental illness is born from trauma, abuse, or neglect. So, if you grew up in a household that lacked stability, didn’t feel safe, or where drugs or alcohol were the norm, there is a likely chance that you have a family history of trauma.
The Child of Divorce (with Conflict) Josh’s parents were divorced when he was just a baby. In his infancy, there had been a lot of yelling and screaming in the house. His cries for attention competed with the constant fighting of his parents, and from a young age he learned to make himself small. His father angered easily. Josh can remember when he was 8 leaving his backpack at home while driving to school and his father screaming at him so loudly that he had to cover his ears (even as an adult, recalling this scares him so much that he has tears in his eyes). He quickly learned to be a “good boy” as to never upset his parents. However, nothing would upset his father as much as hearing his mother’s name. Josh lived with his father and saw his mother every other weekend and part of each summer. Josh’s mother called sometimes, but Josh’s father became so angry when he heard Josh answer the phone and respond meekly “Hi, Mom” that he pretended to be unhappy to receive his mother’s calls. Eventually his mother stopped calling.
Josh’s father hated his mother and said so (in front of Josh) ever since he can remember. He shared with Josh how awful she had been to him before they were divorced. Josh felt torn. Of course he loved his mother, but since he was a child, he assumed everything his father said was true. When he saw his aunts and uncles they would talk about how much he was like his mother. But Josh didn’t want to be like his mother. His mother must be a monster.
Over the years, his father continued to say awful things about his mother in front of him, and Josh and his mother grew apart. When Josh would stay with his mother on the weekends, he would lock himself in his room and listen to music because he wasn’t sure how to be around her. When Josh’s mother remarried and his stepfather had a son of his own, Josh felt certain that his father must be right. The conflicting emotions of the fear his father had created of the image of his mother along with the jealousy he felt toward his step-brother sent him further apart from his family emotionally. Josh grew up thinking that since everyone said he was so much like his mother, and his father said that his mother was so awful, there must surely be something wrong with him. When Josh was 38, he came to therapy for the first time. He wasn’t happy and felt like there was something so wrong with him, he could never get married or find someone to love him. After a few weeks in therapy, Josh was able to uncover that he had internalized the negative talk about his mother from a young age to be negative talk about him. It was his father that had something wrong with him, not Josh.
In this example, we learn that unresolved feelings about the child’s other parent can be internalized by the child. Even when parents disguise their upset about the other parent and don’t share the dislike in front of the child, the child still senses it. This is why neutral (even positive) feelings about the child’s other parent are so essential. Being a child in the middle of a divorce (especially one with conflict) can be extremely scarring. In your own parenting, if any of this example resonates with you, your lesson is not only to be authentic but to handle conflict peacefully. Transformational Communication (Chapter 9) would likely be especially beneficial to you. There are many more common childhood stories. Psychologists understand that our childhood stories become our template for living unless we unravel the stories we are tangled in. What is your story?