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.

having 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.

Cloudy skies inside: Checking in with your emotional weather

This morning I lay in bed, too early to be awake, and felt my internal weather pattern shift and move—a roiling of clouds and keening winds. I didn’t try to make too much sense of these sensations, though they were informative: something is stirring me up. The source of this turbulence is not absolutely necessary to isolate and pick apart. I just know that I am agitated right now and need to honor that feeling without discharging it unthinkingly on others. The reasons will emerge. 

MODELING EMOTIONAL AWARENESS

I recently read The Emotionally Healthy Child by Maureen Healy. The author’s main thesis is that showing kids how to pay attention to and process emotional signals allows them to interrupt or slow down more challenging “big” feelings. With this ability to pause and process, children can make better behavioral and emotional choices. Healy provides many tools to support this learning process. Apart from specific techniques, she writes, the most important tools are parents. Caregivers can help their children become aware of and regulate their emotions through modeling and providing the language and thinking space to recognize emotions as they emerge.

This simple concept makes sense. However, it is much more easily said than done, particularly in the midst of a kid’s meltdown. Perhaps your workday was stressful. You didn’t get enough sleep. Your partner is distant. It could be this is the ninth tantrum this week over something seemingly inconsequential and you’ve used up what little patience you had. Other responsibilities and needs pull at you. Add in the way many of us learn early on to disregard our bodies’ signals, to block awareness of our emotional currents, modeling self-regulation becomes another impossible-seeming parenting (and human!) task.

PAYING ATTENTION TO YOUR EMOTIONAL SIGNALS

We learn to ignore emotional signals in childhood, often for reasons of self-preservation. The end result may have the flavor of emotional regulation. For example, most of us are able to contain our feelings of anger or sadness in social or professional situations and in less heated moments with family and friends. But those who are closest to us have a way of accessing our more intense feelings and familiar hurts. Life stress added to competing needs added to emotional and family history can equal adult meltdowns or emotional cutoffs. By the time our own “big feelings” emerge, it’s often too late to interrupt them.

making steps toward emotional awareness

The process to changing this pattern starts with a basic task. Once or twice a day, take a few minutes to check into your body. What’s going on inside? What hurts? What feels unsettled? Do those feelings have names? (Note: if you have a history of trauma, this task may be overwhelming. If this is the case, I recommend seeking out therapeutic support.)

A shift towards emotional awareness, however small, can be positive and beneficial to both you and your children. The daily body check-in task is a good beginning. Over time you can use it in situations when emotions are high. Narrating as you scan your body for indications of anger and frustration (or sadness…or other feelings that emerge) can help your kids better understand their own emotions and yours. This takes practice and time. Your efforts will be imperfect because you are human and we are imperfect. By making the process and your struggles with it transparent, you model a useful life skill.

Even therapists get the blues

I feel depleted. Perhaps it is the time of year, the sticky hangover of Halloween chocolate combined with autumn’s shorter days, or the way the school year feels serious now, entrenched at almost two months in. The end of year holidays await, little twinkles of light on the horizon, but as I write it is just another Thursday, an interstitial moment, neither the beginning nor end of anything.

what’s going on?

Friday is All Soul’s Day, the solemn counterpoint to the costumes and pretend gore of Halloween. Thought religion holds no pull for me, I like this idea of commemorating the dead, of making soul cakes or creating altars in the manner of Dia de Muertos. It could be that this is what is weighing on me, the heaviness of missing and the missing of comforting ritual to honor and remember those who have passed.

There are also the times in which we live, the tragic mess of last week—(thankfully) foiled bombings, the shooting in Kentucky, and the massacre in Pittsburgh, all (and more) against the backdrop of rising global fascism, starvation in Yemen, and the demonization of a group of migrants by a man who uses the stoked-up fear-based admiration of others to fill his emptiness. Generally, I cope with news overwhelm through a bit of healthy avoidance. This, comes, however, with attendant feelings of unease and the uncomfortable acknowledgment that my ability to avert my eyes with little consequence is a form of privilege.

looking for clues

These moments of malaise and times of high anxiety are part of being human. People often put a premium on denying these feelings. We ignore the tendrils of worry and dread that insinuate themselves into our psyche. Those tendrils grow in the dark. They obscure our ability to think and feel freely. But if we pay attention to the clues provided by our bodies and minds, we may remove some of their power.

For me, the first signs are in my sleeping and a suddenly casual approach to food. I wake at odd hours. I unthinkingly skip meals or am drawn to unhealthy snacks (like the bags of Pirate Booty I was eating for lunch a couple of Tuesdays in a row). My thinking process becomes sluggish. If I don’t pay attention to these signs, if I do not name the malaise, it starts to become more solid and feels less transitory.

but then what?

I’ve gotten better at noticing the preliminary signs. Figuring out what to do, if anything, about the feelings remains a process. Some things are simple (eat healthy, regular meals). Other things are difficult to do in the midst of a busy life (take a restorative break by, say, reading a book for fun). I always come back to writing out my feelings. For me, this makes those feelings more manageable. And today I’m adding the step of posting them in a public environment, as a professional, both as a way of feeling connected and hoping that I may help someone else feel less alone.

What works for me may not work for you. But the first step for all of us is to notice our internal weather patterns, to recognize what we are carrying in our bodies, and how it manifests itself in our moods. Recognition does not mean that the mood will lift, but it might help us realize that this, too, shall pass.