I’ve often had parents call me, wanting to drop a child off for psychotherapy, and over the years I’ve come to believe that if a parent truly wants to help their kid feel better, one of the most powerful things that they can do is to somehow figure out a way to feel better themselves.
When parents are depressed and anxious (or substance abusing, or lacking in a cohesive self), even if they are otherwise generally loving and attentive, it creates a burden and an obstacle to their child’s well-being.
For one thing, children learn about who they are through the mirror of their parents. Therefore, a depressed parent reflects back to a child that he or she is depressing. Likewise, an anxious parent reflects the notion to the child that he or she is nerve-wracking, burdensome or somehow problematic; a consistently angry parent says to a child, “you are maddening.”
Children love us parents, and even if we mistreat them, they bond with us (think of the “Stockholm Syndrome” where hostages came to feel attached to their captors). Our children also need good parents so badly that they will invent them in their minds, and figure that they only reason their parents don’t actually behave like terrific care-givers is because their child is so incorrigibly terrible as to warrant such seemingly bad parenting. In effect, they tell themselves that we would be better parents if only we had better children. This sort of thinking perpetuates low self-esteem; it also helps account for why severely wounded kids will aggressively, and relentlessly, provoke anger and rejection in substitute or subsequent caregivers (step-parents, aunts, teachers, group home therapists).
Finally, our children love us so much that they will tend to take on our misery in an unconscious, and futilely misguided, attempt to help us parents feel better. One of my first supervisors said, “We therapists become therapists because we failed to cure our parents.” Whether or not that is accurate, I do think that we all fail to cure our parents. If we individuate we realize that we had the perfect parents—perfect for our unique and specific life journeys (I love you mom and dad).
Therefore, if we are serious about helping our kids, and all of our collective children, our first stop on this upcoming year of parenting mindfully is to explore our own selves (in the service of our deeper Selves); in other words, to figure out why our ego-selves might think we are not good enough, don’t have enough, etc. and trust instead that our soul-Selves are guiding us to more authentic relatedness and, hopefully, toward Good Feelings That Last. The trip to GFTL, however, often winds through some dark passages.
Our sangha is here to celebrate the gift of our lives, our children and our world, but it is also here to help us stumble through our dark nights of the soul (and God-knows we “parents,” we humans who are fortunate enough to love, attach, risk and care, do have them).
So let’s dedicate today to Mama (and Papa) finding Good Feelings That Last in the service of all our children.