Every parent was a child once
I registered my son for high school today. Therapists aren’t generally in the habit of talking about their lives in public, but as a child and adolescent therapist, filled with a strange mélange of feelings this morning, I thought it was relevant. Apart from the usual where does the time go thoughts—the time just goes, it passes, I think I’m getting used to it—I was struck by memories of the messiness of my high school years. Elementary school is like an almost forgotten dream. Middle school is a bit more solid in my mind. But I remember the arc of high school, from early innocence to later, well-practiced cynicism. It was the distance between pop and punk, between pastels and basic black. Is this, I briefly wondered, what will happen to my sweet boy?
The effects of our pasts on our parenting
For reasons both complicated and layered, high school was not a positive experience for me. I know I am not alone. Some of this has to do with the rapid changes that happen physically, socially, and intellectually between the ages of fourteen and eighteen and the effects of those changes on the family system. Others are deeply rooted in that family system. A lot can go down between ninth and twelfth grade, serious stuff, with an intensity that ramps up as kids start to assert their independence. Parents handle this in a variety of ways.
As parents, we are affected by how we were parented and by the events of our childhood. Did we get what we needed? How were we disciplined? What were the behavioral expectations? Were they realistic? What was the our family’s experience with trauma across the generations? Were we poor? Discriminated against? Did addiction rob our families of closeness, safety, predictability, and connection? What was our experience with loss?
These experiences can create a filter through which we may interpret our children’s behavior, which further affects how we choose to handle that behavior. Sometimes we become aware that our past has reached its tentacles into the present. Other times it is less clear what may be pulling on us in the dark. Feelings come up, often unprocessed, which can get in the way of being fully there for our kids. So often these feelings are about what it means to be attached and connected.
An opportunity for healing and growth . . .
It seems particularly unfair that painful childhood experiences can continue to haunt us long after they are over, that our attachment wounds are so slow to heal. However, grappling with these experiences as parents offers an opportunity for healing and growth. Sometimes it is not until we have a child in front of us that we can comfort the child we once were. Given the right conditions and support system (and, perhaps, the right therapist!), it is possible to at least ease the influence of the past.
. . . that takes time and curiosity
Of course, it isn’t easy. It helps to take a curious stance about your reactions to your child and the feelings your child provokes, a wondering about the why instead of thinking in absolutes, an openness to questioning your assumptions about discipline and your child’s intentions (and perhaps your beliefs about human nature!). In the process, you will likely feel pain, anger, and grief—and perhaps some gratitude—tied to your own childhood experiences.
As your child reaches new developmental stages, particularly the teen years, the time of pulling away, you may find yourself flummoxed anew, hit in the gut with associations and pulled to either holding on too tight or letting absolutely go. This can also come up when they reach an age that was hard for you, an age when you didn’t get what you needed. Be kind to yourself. Forgiving. Try to hold the middle ground. Read some parenting books. Get support.
Over time, with practice and gentleness, you may feel a kind of joy, a freedom in making choices that separate the past from the present. You may feel the wonder of being a safe, stable, supportive parent—despite what you went through as a kid.
Faith in the connection
These days, after a lot of practice and ongoing gentleness, I am more familiar with the joys and privileges of parenthood. My high school days are long over. My son’s lie ahead of him. I am sure it will be messy. There will be conflict. I will not be a perfect parent. But I have a good feeling that we’ll be able to maintain a connection through the inevitable turmoil.