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.

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