How a Parent's Limitations Impact Children
I was once asked “How long does it take to understand the kind of childhood one has endured?” While this understanding comes at a different pace and with more or less clarity at times, one can hear the messages of a childhood by learning to hear our inner voices. The dialogue of self doubt; the justifications; the apologies; the “I hope you don’t think I am whining…” –all these offer glimpses into the spoken and unspoken messages of one’s childhood. The sometimes critical inner-voice can be recognized not just by listening to the negative thoughts, but also by listening to the qualifying comments. “I know this may sound selfish, but…” or “I don’t want this to seem…”
As parents we hope to be able to provide comfort and safety for our children. For many of us, the moment that helpless child is placed in our arms, we begin to define our meaning, our worth, and our value by how well we can soothe them. We lose our own sense of separateness and begin to fuse our identity with the child. Their discomfort, their tears, their struggles become evidence of our failure. The anger and pain stabs at our heart as we try to solve the problem, not knowing that feelings are not a problem to be solved.
I have noticed so many of my adult clients, as well as many of my adolescent clients, remark, “In our family we were not allowed to feel this or that. Anger was not allowed. Sadness was to be ‘gotten over.’” I don’t believe in any of these families there were rules, taped on the refrigerator door, that stated “Don’t feel.” Yet, many experienced just that. And how does that happen?
The simplest way we suggest to the child that they ought not to feel something is trying to fix the “problem” of feeling. When the parent tries to solve the problem, they inadvertently communicate that something is wrong with the child. “Let me explain it to you, you don’t get it…”, “You’re too sensitive…”, “Look at it this way...”, “Look on the bright side…” or simply, “Don’t be sad or angry…” are messages that negate a child’s feelings. Most often the parent has no idea what they are really communicating. They imagine themselves being helpful, soothing and loving. If confronted by the child, most often in escalating tones, they suggest the child “needs to calm down,” “doesn’t get it” or “is just being irrational or hysterical.” Yet, the real issue is the lack of capacity on the parent’s part to sit with the Other in their pain, their anguish and their anger. When we cannot tolerate their feelings, the child is often unable to move through the feelings. They become fixated or stuck in the feeling. If we allow them to feel, mustering the capacity to tolerate it, they are more likely to move through the feeling rather than burying it or holding on to it.
In my blog “Looking for a Therapist Who Looks For You”, I explain how when we therapists cannot tolerate a clients anger toward us, we often make the client wrong through labels and diagnoses. When a client is angry with me, I try to say, “I am sorry. I messed up. I missed seeing you.” Ideally, that is how an adult responds. The unfortunate tendency to pathologize clients reduces the therapist’s dread at having failed the client. In addition, it might be the recreation of a wound from the client’s childhood hiding the therapist’s sense of inadequacy behind the curtain of derision with graduate school vocabulary.
So what gets in the way of providing others a safe place to feel and vent, especially when it is directed towards us? I believe we struggle to provide this stable and empathic presence because our child’s emotions threaten our worth as the “good parent.” We need to be “good” and a struggling child is evidence to us that we are failing. A capacity to sit with others is grounded in a strong sense of self. This can come from the experience of sitting with an Other who can see us—a person for whom, we are not too much.
Consider the opening passage from “The Misery of the Good Child” by Jami Gill.
All persons have limits. Consequently, all parents have limits. It is routine for us to discipline or punish our children when they exceed our limits. Unconsciously our goal in doing this is to get them to behave in ways we can more easily tolerate and manage. Besides it makes our load lighter. It is routine in these interactions for us to feel we are helping the child by our actions. They can't just go around upsetting people. The world, after all, has limits, and the child needs to learn about these.
This is a way of saying parents have different bandwidths of what they can and cannot handle. Some parents are extremely rigid and can only manage little breadth. Some, on the other hand, can manage a wide range with seeming ease.
From the child's perspective, however, the picture is not so clear.
First of all, the child picks up a mixed message. The over the table message is "this is for your own good." The under the table message is "this is my limit; I can't go any farther." That is the parent is being incapable. What now? The child is likely to be puzzled if not frightened.
It is okay that we are human. It is okay and normal to have limitations. If parents were omni-capable, children would not learn to adapt, to develop frustration tolerance or delay of gratification. The solution is that we own our limitations and not make our child “the bad one” or “the problem.” We say things like, “This is what I need. This is what I need to feel okay or comfortable in this situation…” When we learn to own our limitations rather than putting the bad feeling onto (or really into) the child, we embark on a heroic journey and offer a great gift to the child. They are no longer the problem but just unfortunate to have imperfect, loving, parents. My wife has demonstrated this beautifully with our youngest. Rather than giving our 8-year old a time-out, my wife takes a time out. “I need a time out or I am going to say something I don’t want to say. I need to take a time out to calm down. I am losing my patience…” This makes it about her and not about the child and the amazing thing is it has the same effect behaviorally! The child sits with herself, without mom, and the escalating behavior is most often extinguished without the nasty side-effect of the child feeling that she is “bad”.
My version of this is the “Idiot” or “Crazy Dad” technique. Instead of lecturing my children on the virtues of cleanliness, I say, “I am sorry. I know I have a little OCD, but I need the house to be cleaner. So, I need you to clean up after yourself.” When you admit you are an idiot, the child will not put up an argument. Don’t mistake this “I am an idiot” stance with beating myself up. On the contrary, I am saying “This is me. I may not be ‘right’, but this is my boundary.” And I am secure enough to own it as my boundary rather than needing to be “right.” And by owning my boundary and not making me right, I don’t make them wrong.
Parents always ask me what is an appropriate boundary. Boundaries come from inside. For example, “These are my limits…”, “I am not comfortable with you coming home after this time,” or “I am not comfortable with marijuana in my house, whether it’s legal or not….” The outside boundary is the “you need to” message and the implication in that message is that I am teaching you something right or wrong with this boundary. This usually invites an argument of “Why?” and becomes about right or wrong instead of how you think and feel. When we learn to discover ourselves, our boundaries become more clear. This can be difficult because for most of us our parent’s message to us was the “you need to” message. This can make it difficult for us to recognize how to set a boundary from the inside. This dynamic was illustrated to me clearly when a father asked me after a parent class if I had any literature on the harmful effects of marijuana so he could be justified in asking his 21-year-old son to abstain or move out. I responded, “Just tell him you are not comfortable with it in your home.”
The dad, incredulous, responded, “You mean I can just do that?! That’s enough?” The father had been raised in a context where one was right and one was wrong, therefore he had no sense that he was enough. In addition, the father was trying to get his son to stop rather than drawing a boundary. The codependent version is setting a boundary to get others to change and is part of the “controlling” dynamic of an addictive cycle. Healthy boundaries arise out of one’s truth and the goal is self-care.
My mother told me some time ago, “You will never love your parents as much as you love your children.” She knew this and offered it as a gift to me because she knew that parents sacrifice so much more for their children. Parents who want a reciprocity of love from their children miss that point and most likely still have some grieving to do regarding their own childhood. Alice Miller explains how we try to solve the problems of our childhood, like not experiencing an adequate amount of love and connection by asking for it from the child. “We then realize that all our lives we have feared and struggled to ward off something that really cannot happen any longer; it has already happened, at the very beginning of our lives while we were completely dependent.”
Twenty years ago I would have said my mother was a good mother—average and a product of her time. As I have done more work in therapy these twenty years, I have come to look at many of the hurtful and harmful things she did to me and my brothers. Yet, I love my mother more now than I ever have. This is partly because I have come to terms with my own limitations and their effects on my children. My reflective journey through my own childhood has given me more compassion since I have learned that my mother’s symptoms, like mine, are only evidence of deeper wounds. I have not betrayed her or sunk into a pity party as I have done this work, rather I have tried to understand as Miller suggests, “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.” This is what Siegel and Hartzell are referring to when they report, “Research in the field of child development has demonstrated that a child’s security of attachment to parents is very strongly connected to the parents’ understanding of their own early-life experiences. This is the heroic journey of parenting. It is the look inward into the dark unknown parts of ourselves. We do this courageous work in therapy, in support groups, after reading and in contemplation. And the end result is a transformation where we barely recognize ourselves. We enlarge our capacities and compassion and become a powerful healing force in others’ lives.
No matter the story, the heroic journey is always inward.