Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Parenting: Where do “bad” feelings come from?

My last post was about the negative feelings that are as ubiquitous in the process of parenting as are loving feelings and the intense desire to hold and nurture.

In my exploration of parenting blogs I came across an interesting post on Motherlode
the NY Times parenting blog:

Rebecca Abrams, a novelist, writes about having “fallen out of love” with her firstborn after the arrival of her son. This was a courageous and frank confession of not-so-nice feelings towards daughter #1.

The comments on this post were numerous, and generous. Most commenters applauded the frankness of Ms. Abrams and openly owned their own negative impulses toward their children. Alas, outside of the blogosphere, this admission is not so common.

Reviewing these comments, I thought about what I would do as a therapist with mother’s (more likely than fathers) whispered their horror and shame. I and most other therapist would get very interested in the well-springs of these feelings: where does this all come from? Where were you in the birth order? Do you know how your mother fared after giving birth to your sibling(s)? Or to yourself? What was going on in the family around that time? What do you know about the early relationship with your siblings, younger and older?

Creating a family of one’s own, inevitably invites “re-enactments.” Not all memories are conscious. We stumble somewhat blindly through unconscious re-enactments from our own early dramas.

A friend of mine spoke frankly to me about flashbacks, horrifying flashbacks, of physical abuse from her own childhood. These pictures came unbidden when her first child was born. She had no impulse to harm the baby, but she became very afraid in caring for her first-born. Her confidence in caring was undermined.

Having a chance to explore all of that, creates a context for the present moment, helps us to be both compassionate with ourselves, which is key to handling all of this, and leavens the guilt, allowing us to be creative in solving the present dilemma.

One never knows what is going to trigger the flashback or the enactment. One can sail through the early days and years of our children’s childhood and then hit a wall when they go to school, or they hit adolescence, or they threaten to go to college and leave us, or they fail to leave home at what we deem the appropriate time, or they act up in a surprising and distressing way. If its not happening now, it probably will after awhile.

When in trouble: think “context.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Good parents/Bad feelings: The view from a child therapist

Guest post from Elana Benatar:  Elana is a family and child therapist at Virginia Frank Center in Chicago, IL.

Good parents DO have bad feelings, and those feelings need to be expressed and processed so that the child does not bear the brunt of it. When those feelings are kept in, and pushed to the realm of the unconscious – that’s when the child begins to take it on for themselves

My clients often come in wanting parenting advice. They want to know what is the right way, and what is the wrong way. They want books, articles, and concise Google search terms. Unfortunately, there is no cookbook for parenting.

Parenting is a dynamic process and there is no one right way of doing it. And parenting is not about being perfect, it is about being “good enough.” Part of being good enough is acknowledging that parents are people, with their own feelings, projections, and past experiences – and sometimes this makes for bad feelings about your kids.

I’ve learned from my clients that parenting is a mixed bag of emotions -- sometimes beautiful, loving, hopeful, blissful; other times utterly maddening. So when clients ask me for book recommendations – there is usually only one that I turn to: Parenting from the Inside Out, by Daniel Siegel. It is a practical guide helping parents tune into their own emotional state.

Siegel cites research studies that indicate that parents who have developed their own life narrative, even if it is a painful one, tend to have children with more secure attachment than parents who have no narrative. So often my clients are reluctant to look at themselves. They come in because their child has a problem – not them. It’s too painful. Turning towards their own painful childhoods, makes them feel vulnerable.

What can take years to tap into in therapy can be opened up in one second by a child. Young children are aces at tuning into their parents' issues and sore spots. They have spent most of their early lives in non-verbal communication with the caregiver – their survival literally depending on it. If a parent has a lot of unexpressed anger, you can bet their children will get that anger out, one way or another. The child can feel it there looming, and what is not said or expressed is often much scarier to a child than what is. Children learn from us how to handle emotions, When we can admit that we have angry, sad, frustrated feelings and model what to do with those feelings – they will learn how to handle their own range of affect.

The parent who unconsciously hates their child raises a child who becomes worthy of being hated. But when that same parent can stop and wonder – Why do I hate this child? Who hated me when I was a child? That is when there is an opening for change. And the wonderful thing about children is that development is in process, and change can happen quickly and dramatically. I will never tire of watching a parent and child, of varying ages and backgrounds, get past the unconscious projections and psychic pain and finally connect, fall in love, and attach.