Parenting with insight and awareness and honoring your feelings
When we have children, it’s impossible to know how the challenges they personally face will trigger and unearth our own. We learn about our reactions steadily throughout their development and in our experiences in parenting them.
Patients have recalled to me having visceral reactions when their child reached the same age when they themselves experienced trauma (big T or little t). Pondering how their child would have coped under similar circumstances. Also sadly recognizing where they were at developmentally when they experienced what they did.
I have several patients with children who have challenging behavioral issues. Because they have histories of parent(s) with inconsistent and volatile behavior, their own children’s behavior induces a considerable amount of anxiety, frustration, and exasperation. A patient explained, “When my daughter comes home from school, I never know which mood will show up with her.” It was reminiscent of the experience she faced when her father came home from work.
I see other patients where their child is struggling with their impulsivity, academics, socialization, career, intimate relationships, weight, and many other issues. Parents recall the feelings being “raw”, “mind-blowing”, “worrisome” and “deeply painful.” In many circumstances, parents report having difficulty modulating their mood and being mindful of their actions and reactions because of the intensity of negative thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations it evokes.
As parents, when these issues arise it can result in a hurtful impact on our kids, retraumatizing and distressing experience for us, and continuance of negative and maladaptive patterns of relationships and behavior in families. It can be extremely difficult to remain composed and mindful when such a surge of emotions surface. Our first instinct may be too reactive and counterproductive. There may be a better way to handle these circumstances so that real change can happen, and the process of true healing can occur.
What To Do When Intense Thoughts & Feelings Surface:
- On a scale from one (low level) to five (high level), evaluate the thoughts and feelings for its intensity and rawness. If it’s at a high level, expect that there’s more than meets the eye and it’s rubbing up against something formative and most often has some family of origin history behind it. Identify what it is. It’s usually around feeling unlovable, ineffective, and/or hopeless. For example, if you worked hard throughout the years at being sociable after experiencing some social isolation as a child and have distressing and/or insecure feelings about it, seeing your child struggle socially is bound to bring up a plethora of strong thoughts and feelings.
- Identify the thoughts and feelings that are attached to what the circumstances are. Go beyond likely feelings of anger and frustration. Look toward fear, sadness, and disappointment which may underlie those other feelings. With the example above, the thoughts may be, “the way they act, no wonder they’re home all weekend” “why can’t he just get his act together” or “she’s always going to be this way.” Feelings that are likely to be evoked are feelings of worry, disappointment, and/or sadness.
- In those moments, recognize how those thoughts and feelings are driving your reaction and interaction with your child. With the example above, you may criticize the behavior in attempt to change it or because you’re frustrated by it. You may be quick to offer advice, rather than fully hear what the core issues are and empower your child to problem solve. You may also just be in denial or ignore it because it’s too painful to bear or otherwise feel hopeless in trying to help them to work through it.
- Contemplate if the way in which you are looking to help your child is a recapitulation of your working through and vicariously living through them, or whether it is truly in the best interest of your child. For example, you may impose the way you think your child should be behaving which can be directly in opposition with their abilities, who they are, what their preferences are, and very different than others you may be comparing them to.
- Defuse from your emotionally raw and intense thoughts, feelings, and behaviors by observing and noticing them. Reflect on where they may be coming from in your history. Purposefully and mindfully act on behalf of your core parenting values and deliberate what your child may want and need in the moment. You do not need to know that instinctually; elicit that feedback from them directly and thoughtfully. For example, ask them more global questions about what they are proud of, what they may want to make progress on, and how they see you personally impacting them (e.g., see you as negatively contributing to the challenge or effectively assisting them through it). Either way, inquire how you can be more supportive and helpful to them in the future.
- Consider working directly on those underlying evoking issues because they are bound to resurface with loved ones where you feel most safety and familiarity. Although not intended, the behavior can come across as invalidating, being too directive and disempowering, and hurtful. Growth, progress, and personal awareness can result in and fortify a more connected relationship with your child, and other loved ones, and a corrective, transformative, and nurturing experience for you.
As a parent you are vulnerable to being triggered by your children during all stages of their development — from infancy to adulthood. Being present and mindful is the cornerstone to keeping you in check so you are truly being your best self and are functioning in a manner which you take personal pride in. You don’t have to be defined by your history. However, you need to recognize and accept how you’re directly impacted by it. The more insight and awareness you cultivate, the closer you are to being the parent you truly want to be. You and your children deserve that.