” I just want her to feel good about herself. “
I hear this from EVERY mother in psychotherapy on my couch who has a difficult mother and is now raising a daughter.
They worry they will make the same mistakes their mother made and leave their daughter feeling anxious and insecure.
If you are one of those mothers I have good news for you.
While it is true that an unexamined dysfunctional childhood is likely to be repeated, the opposite holds true as well. When you remember and reflect on how you felt as a child, if used effectively, this awareness can make you a better mother.
Whether through therapy, soul-searching talks with someone close or solitary self-examination, you’ve taken the time to reflect on and process the pain of your dysfunctional childhood.
A serious dive into your own psyche can give you golden nuggets of self-awareness that will endow you with the sensitivity that will make you not only a better mother but a truly gifted mother.
How does this help?
First, let’s set the stage and dispel some myths.
Every child is different, and every childhood is different, but all children grapple with upsetting emotions.
How the parents in the household respond to those emotions separate the functional from the dysfunctional families.
Yet, even the most functional homes will resemble a madhouse at times.
If you can relate, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong.
In fact, children who feel free to express and work through their feelings will exhibit a full range of behavioral and emotional responses rather than suppress them. Feelings are meant to flow through us and inform us. Conversely, the blocked, stuck, shamed & repressed feelings are the ones that make us sick.
Let’s have a look-
So your 3-year-old is sobbing because her peas are touching her applesauce, even though her hair is covered with same. Having just learned she can’t marry daddy, the 5-year-old is having a meltdown, and her twin in the next room is gleefully swinging the cat around by its neck.
You swear you’d better start saving for therapy rather than college.
Yes, kids are emotional works in progress. Even the most functional mother is stumped many times on a daily basis.
Yet, because you didn’t have a charmed childhood, you know better than many mothers how upsetting emotions can manifest in indirect ways.
And if you were in the good daughter role with your difficult mother, you know being good for mom wasn’t best for you.
Depending on your child’s neurology and her usual way of handling stress, you pay attention and know intuitively her behavior isn’t always what it seems on the surface.
In fact, as a result of reflecting on your own childhood pain, you have been gifted with a special kind of sight.
You can see beneath the surface.
You see that…
- The quiet, obedient child is not always a happy child. When a child feels despair or shame, she tends to constrict, become quiet, and draw into herself. You know that a child may be overly compliant out of fear, not confidence.
- Bad behavior is not always what it seems. The acting out child may be misbehaving because she cannot contain an upsetting feeling, and is working to discharge it or push it away. The out of control behavior is sometimes a cry for help. A cry for an adult to help her get control of her impulses or process overwhelming feelings.
- It is not necessarily a good thing when your child tries to take care of you. Although it touches your heart when your child shows concern for you-you know no child should feel responsible for her parent’s happiness.
Because of your own painful childhood, you know when you see these outward signs to look more deeply, remain curious, and approach your child with compassion.
Perhaps your greatest gift can be summed up in a word- empathy.
At the opposite end of narcissistic and other rigid defenses, that are at the hallmark of dysfunction lies empathetic attunement.
You know maintaining an empathetic connection with your child ( no matter her behavior in the moment) paves the way back to good relationship with you. And relationships that are alive, flexible, and loving keep families functional.
Connection, not perfection, is the key to good mental health and a happy childhood.
Even as you discipline your children, you are empathetic to their need for structure, as well as his/her need for an adult to stay in control when doling out the consequences.
You can measure how your momentary withdrawal of approval lands with your child. You are careful to invite her back into your good graces as soon as possible rather than shaming and banishing her.
And when all goes well- you kick back, a smile of delight spreading across your face, and feel that little catch in your throat as it registers deep within you how grateful you are your child feels loved, protected and cared for.
You know, really know, that the safe loved feeling your child feels… is anything but guaranteed. You work hard to make sure she will never know the pain you’ve felt.
Not only can you use your childhood pain to inform your parenting today, but when you give to your child the love and compassion you never got from your own parents you can start to heal that place within yourself.