You know those times when your child does something—something s/he does on a regular basis—that drives you absolutely batty? You’re frustrated and angry for reasons that you yourself can’t even understand. You want to yell, throw something, run away, shut down. Maybe you actually do one or all of these things. You react in ways that you later question or regret, but in the moment you were overwhelmed by the need to let your child know how out of line s/he was? Want to know what’s really going on and how you can stop it from happening? Read on…
If you have found yourself acting or reacting in ways described in the first paragraph, you were probably acting from a place of fear, triggered by an unresolved issue from your own childhood. Most likely as a child you had an experience that left you feeling extremely overwhelmed, helpless, sad, terrified. Now that you are an adult, having never fully resolved the terror or grief you experienced as a child, seemingly unrelated experiences can unexpectedly re-elicit those feelings within you. As an unconscious process, we usually don’t realize that this is what is going on, thus projecting the feelings (through blame) on outside sources. Being triggered in this way takes away our ability to act rationally and calmly. It keeps us from being present in our relationships, causing us to act according to old patterns and wounds (typically unrelated to anything our child has done in the moment).
Fortunately, there is a way out. We can learn to heal ourselves in order to repair the relationship with our children in those moments. It starts with understanding and empathy towards ourselves. In his book, Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel Siegel says, “If we pay attention to our own internal experiences when we are feeling upset by our children’s behavior we can begin to learn how our actions interfere with the loving relationship we want to have with our children. With resolution of our own issues comes greater choice and flexibility in how we respond to our children.” (Siegel, 28)
Try the following exercise and see what comes up for you. You may be surprised to realize that what is driving your reactions isn’t really related to your child’s behavior.
Take out a journal and start to reflect on an issue that is impairing your ability to connect flexibly with your child. Focus on the past, present and future aspects of this issue. Do the themes or general patterns come to mind from past interactions? Do the themes or patterns feel old? How old do they feel? What are the feelings associated with these experiences? Are there other times when you have experienced these feelings? Are there elements of your past that may contribute to them? How do these themes and emotions influence your sense of self and your connections with your child? How do they shape your anticipation of the future? (Adapted from Daniel Siegel, Parenting from the Inside Out)
Children are our greatest teachers, bringing us in touch with the deepest parts of ourselves. Through our relationships with children, we get to know our own inner child. If we are open to this experience, there is space for great healing and growth, fostering more close and connected relationships.
Remember that with awareness, acceptance, self-empathy, self-care, and doing your own “work”, you can heal your unresolved issues and develop a connection with your child that allows you to be present and authentic, responding from a place of openness and compassion towards your child and towards yourself.