Thursday, December 6, 2018

Clear and Spacious Parenting in Complicated Times

All parents struggle to balance their normal current stressors -- friends and family, body and mind, household and job -- with their parenting responsibilities. But on top of that for some parents, current stressors can be complicated by conscious-or-not feelings about their own stressful pasts. Just like anyone else, a parent's unresolved traumas can be triggered, in a sense brought way too influentially back to life, by present day reminders. So if I was bullied the whole of sixth grade or caught up in drugs in high school and experienced real threat/violation and terror as a result, and especially if I haven't ever processed and integrated those happenings with a skilled compassionate other, I'm going to have a damn hard time when my kid approaches those ages and phases and situations on their path.

Parents in this case are doubly stressed and, if not aware and able to self-regulate when triggered, may not have the bandwidth to work effectively with their own past/present-blurred experiences of themselves and their worlds, let alone help their kids creatively navigate and grow through their most challenging here-and-nows. These understandably overwhelmed parents may feel too personally panicked or at a loss to calmly confidently support their kids while they are freaking out about schoolwork or popularity. Oftentimes, said parents will therefore consciously-or-not move to reduce their own extreme stress by avoiding entirely or managing too closely their kids' normal-hard stressful times.

Either is a mistake. For kids to develop confidence in themselves through difficulty and, for that matter, for parents to develop confidence in their kids, kids need to directly know and speak and act from their very personal and often conflicted feelings and values and needs -- with their parents' attentive but spacious support.

Where stress is complicated, parents may need their kids to be more ok than they can or should be given their circumstances, and those parental needs and expectations are the thing to work with in therapy, not the kids' failure to deliver on them (at least not off the bat). Otherwise those unexplored needs and expectations can lead to a parental habit of streamlining their kids' development, i.e., telling them in so many ways what to feel and want and do, and not, to be stress-free and happy... This rather than encouraging kids toward the healthy stress of seeking and finding and expressing how they themselves feel, unhappy included, and the honest exploration and brave sharing of what they themselves think, right or wrong.

As kids develop, they will naturally suffer periods of stress, unhappiness, fear, and doubt. Developing confidence through these times depends on their ability to consult their ever-sharpening awareness and act from their ever-maturing conscience -- increasingly apart from their parents' needs and views. Parents need to be able to encourage this individuation even though doing so leaves us somewhat on the outside of things, where we should attentively spaciously be, feeling kind of helpless, nervous as hell actually, trying to hold our kids and have their backs while they do the important messy work of figuring themselves out. This detachment on our part is hard but what supports, rather than stunts, our kids' successful development through their hard times. And it's a tall order for any parent, but especially one complicatedly stressed.

Again, where normal stress is complicated by a parent's prior traumas, parenting can become anxious/avoidant and lead to strategies geared toward efficient soothing of the parent, reducing their stress, rather than engaging and empowering the kid through any and every stress of their own.


So, first and foremost: Parents, prioritize your mental health. Get whatever support you need and deserve to untangle your complicated stress, i.e., to resolve any lingering traumas, so that your kids' normal or especial stresses become workable in your mind, and also in your heart of hearts. Your kids need you to know and really deep-down believe in who they actually are, not in who you need or wish them to be in order to put your mind at ease. With no shame or hesitation and with your integrity fully intact, please recognize if you're treading water at best and maybe even drowning in whatever stress you're facing, current or formative, and if you think that's negatively affecting your parenting. Please take it from me: It's ok if it is. With the right support, it's entirely workable. Even enjoyable.

Parents, send yourself to a good therapist before you put too much energy into addressing what you fear to be your kids' mental illness. If nothing else, you'll then be versed enough in the therapy process yourself to instill confidence in your kids' participation in his or her own therapy down the road if it becomes necessary.

Speaking of formative stress and trauma, parents, please try not to save your kids from your past. Consider that what they are facing and needing and liking and afraid of is probably not exactly what you experienced at their age. This is tricky. In a fundamental sense, all generations are working through similar social, emotional, physical, and mental challenges -- being accepted or rejected by peers, being successful or not academically, being embarrassed or entitled by family, being rebellious against or passive to authority, being attractive or ignored or idolized or bullied, being competitive and popular or notsomuch -- but the particulars of those challenges are different from generation to generation.

For example, whereas you grew up poor and couldn't afford gym equipment at home, and were therefore feeling proud and generous to give your son a home gym last month, his "meh" suggests that his interests and yours may be miles apart. He might enjoy a microscope or a trip to the ballet instead, either of which may leave you shaking your head. Or, you may have grown up with everything you needed and then some, and you may therefore overlook the poverty of academic creativity or severe social stress your kid is facing in a horrible school situation, expecting her to just suck it up and be automatically confident and grateful....

Watch for those huge assumptions and disparities of experience that indicate that your and perhaps your whole generation's reality is very different than your kids' and theirs. Let that be so. Let your take on reality go somewhat, especially if it gets in the way of learning about and empathizing with theirs. Try to recognize whether and when you're bringing your past met or unmet needs or your successes or failures forward and mistaking them for your kids' present ones. Ask them about theirs, and trust what they tell you.

Finally, while you're doing whatever you can do as a parent to know and care for yours please also rouse your courage and confidence in your kids' fundamental good sense. Keep looking for signs of their developing character and values -- which may first appear as huge contradictions and conflicts! Hang in there through your worries about their seemingly many poor choices. Endeavor to notice and grow the seeds of discernment and maturity that I swear are extant within your kids, however buried or fragile. Resist transplanting in them your full-grown, well-meaning, not-theirs experience in an effort to subvert your stress, complicated or not. Let them have their own stress, and be with them in their reckoning of it. They will thank you later.

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Clear and Spacious Parenting in Complicated Times

All parents struggle to balance their normal current stressors -- friends and family, body and mind, household and job -- with their parenti...