When we have children, it’s impossible to know how the challenges they personally face will trigger and unearth our own. We learn that steadily throughout their development and our experiences in parenting them. Our children are mirrors of us. They may look like us, act and react like us, and/or face similar challenges that we do. It is bound to stir us in a way that is typically emotionally charged.
I recall being my daughter’s age, when I was experiencing major family turmoil. Presently, I find myself puzzled and at times distressed, when pondering about the thoughts and feelings I must have endured during that time. My sons, haven’t ever engendered those feelings, but my daughter, being the same gender, viscerally triggers those thoughts and feelings.
I noticed me overreacting to the “little things” she negatively reacted to. This came out of me subconsciously thinking and feeling that she has it “so incredibly good”, her concerns were “relatively trivial” and she has “little reason to complain.” These were all judgments based on my own experiences. I continue to be mindful of these reactions, which were unhelpful to her, while working toward being a more present, compassionate, and supportive mother, which is directly in line with my parenting values and the kind of parent I choose to be.
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. I heard 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.
The issue becomes the sometimes non-confirming, invalidating, or hurtful impact on kids, the retraumatizing and distressing experience for parents, and the reinforcement 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 emotion surfaces. Our first instinct may be to react immediately and forcefully to protect our child or to protect ourselves. There may be a better way to handle these circumstances so that real change can happen and the process of true healing can occur.
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 its rubbing up against something formative and 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 he acts, no wonder he’s 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. Or you may 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, your child may have very few close friends and your idea may be for them to have many friends and get invited to many if not all parties. You may impose the way you think they should be contemplating and behaving on behalf of their friendships. This can be directly in opposition with how they present, with who they are, and very different than their more socially successful sibling.
- 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 (hint: it may be something they want or want to get rid of). You do not need to know that instinctually; elicit that feedback from them directly and thoughtfully. For example, ask them more global questions about their socializing and what they are proud of, what they may want to make progress on, and how they see you personally impacting their socializing (e.g., see you as negatively contributing to it or you proactively assisting them). 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 parents’ we are vulnerable to being triggered by our children during all stages of their development -- from infancy to adulthood. Being present and mindful is the cornerstone to keeping us in check so we are truly being our best selves and are functioning in a manner which we take pride in. We don’t have to be defined by our histories. However, we need to recognize and accept how we’re directly impacted by them. Treat your children the way you needed and wanted to be treated. They deserve that.