A reader inquires: My son is 10 and there are times that are quite the opposite of pulling away. There are times I feel is trying to crawl back into the womb. Love him as much is humanly possible but I find I need to ask him for my space. Do you have thoughts on this?
This issue is truly at the crux of all relationships, where the Shadow of healthy attachment and interdependence is marked by abject fears of abandonment on the one hand, and terror of engulfment on the other.
The fear of abandonment makes for anxious attachment, and our children may regress at various stages—particularly at times of marked growth, such as happens in the brain right around ten years old. At this stage, brain cells are growing a sheathing around them that makes them less open to new connections and yet much faster at the connections they have made. This is the beginning of abstract thinking (and algebra), and it is also the beginning of existential awakening to dread and angst. A child who was a bit quirky but oblivious suddenly realizes that they are different, and can suddenly feel self-conscious, alone and terrified. Yet in some way or other, the feeling of being odd and different hits every child. This is part of our human condition: infinitely connected to everything in our soul-selves and yet woefully alone and frail in our little ego-selves and their little skin-suits (as Anzieu, a French analyst writes, the first ego is the “skin-ego,” and babies who are massaged daily at birth are easier to calm and get less colds than non-massaged babies, an effect that carries for years).
While we are all aware of puberty bringing changes to the visible body, the pre-pubescent changes in the brain that happen around ten years old are a critical developmental step as well. Given that “transition is hard,” is a virtual mantra of parenting, this stage can bring increased neediness and sullenness in our children. This subtle transition leaves some kids prone sudden-onset existential angst, a strange feeling of alienation and alonenss that might have even Jean Paul Sartre himself looking for womb with a view. A feeling to which we may return in midlife, another time of transition, when we are sometimes beset once again by some dark nights of the soul. If our dark nights, (or hot menopausal nights) and our children’s existential dread should coincide, those are times when we can use a little extra love from the universe (and hence the need for Sangha, community or a global village to get through such Three Dog Nights warmly). So when our kids are suddenly intrusively anxious, we need to intuit that they may be frightened and try to give them space to alternately climb into our laps and cling and reject and slam bedroom doors—once again echoing the patterns of leg-clinging and running away that they did when they were two or three.
One strategy to help, given that our children cannot literally return to being inside us, is to mentally envision a sort of fantasy womb of “psychic holding”—a soft, calm place, roomy enough and yet snug enough; a space in which we can mentally sooth and hold our child. If we overtly talk about anything like this to our kid, it will creep them out, as their need for the womb is unconscious, and they like to think that they are way beyond all that. Additionally, they unconsciously fear being swallowed up, like Jonah in the whale (this is the fear of engulfment). So with kids who vehemently want either in or out at any given moment, if we think but don’t say, it can be remarkably calming.
I know that the notion of mentally holding children may sound unconventional, but please give it a try and report back—in my clinical practice, I have seen the effectiveness of parents deliberately trying to mentally convey calm to kids. And even if the positive effect comes only from calming ourselves down and it rippling out to our kids, we’re more interested in results here than in proving what caused them.
Individuation, or becoming our distinct and separate self, in turn allows us to attain true intimacy with others because we no longer fear losing ourselves within the other. Children have generally not achieved this level of development (which I look to begin in earnest at about twenty-seven), and so our kids are mentally a little bit like colanders, mentally forming into solid bowls within the larger bowls of our own minds (see Narcissism and need for attention in yesterday’s post). As parents we need space, and we may find it by allowing our children’s wishes (i.e. to regress, to aggress) while not feeling that we must literally allow what is not possible, or safe, or healthy. Blocking thoughts makes them worse, letting them be and learning compassionate non-action calms us all. Part of the intention of this blog is to provide overflow bowl space, not within my little ego-self, but within the collective bowl of all the parents who read, comment, ask and lend good wishes to each other.
Accurate understanding and sincere attention helps our children develop, and so it is with parenting—the better we understand our children’s needs for containment, the more we may be able to muster up the equanimity to mentally and emotionally hold them without being engulfed or overwhelmed by their needs. Giving our children the very things that we may not have gotten as children (i.e. mental holding by our parents) nevertheless strengthens and solidifies our own selves. As with the skin-ego at birth, a gentle hug, a back rub at bed-time, a hand on a hand can also be a way to reassure a child that we are here, and they too are here—and real. (Note, when kids feel unreal enough, that’s when the cutting sometimes begins, a topic we may visit in future).
The crux of Good Feelings That Last is in becoming psychologically like a bowl so that we can hold thoughts and feelings—good, bad, our own and our those of our loved ones. When we are a bowl, even a drop of love is filling; for if we are a colander, an ocean of love will run right through and leave us empty and unhappy. And we run a lot of love through our kids sometimes before it takes, and then just when we thought they were solid, they go and spring a leak.
Let’s dedicate today to the wish that our collective parenting bowl, one we seek to build and strengthen with our mutual love and respect for all our children, will be softly strong and containing in the service of every scared or overwhelmed child and parent alike. That way we take what we need, put in what we have to give, and co-create the paradigm of an individuated relationship with each other and with our world.