|Parenting as a Journey: A Guide to Surviving the Trip
By Loren Buckner, MSW, LCSW
More than ever before, doctors are prescribing antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to kids and parents who are overwhelmed by how they feel. Practically every day, newspapers are filled with stories about families and children in crisis. Overeating, under-eating, addictions of varying kinds have become common ways of coping with unwanted feelings.
Parents can change this trend. Emotions, even the painful ones, need to be understood instead of avoided. Hateful feelings don't have to become destructive. However disagreeable, feelings can be talked over, worked with and tamed. Learning to be curious about emotions, instead of afraid or critical, can make accepting them much easier.
Dedicated parents are better informed than ever before about what their kids need. Understanding their child's psychological, emotional and physical development is one of their highest priorities. How to handle potty-training, temper-tantrums, learning disabilities and the stress of adolescence are all pressing issues parents never feel they know enough about.
Parents have a tendency, though, to pay much less attention to understanding their own emotional lives, missing an important link in the process of conscientious parenting. Of course, reading about how to best raise kids is important. But how can parents help their sons and daughters feel comfortable with their feelings if they are uncomfortable and frightened by their own?
Parenthood stirs up a wide assortment of emotions. Mothers and fathers eagerly look forward to the delightful and satisfying ones. But there are others - feelings that rock parents to their core. The painful nature of parenting is not a topic most parents like to talk about, but, because the parent-child relationship is so intense and so personal, these feelings are inevitable and nothing to be ashamed of.
It is not uncommon for parents who have done their "preparing for parenthood homework" to feel frustrated and disappointed in themselves. Knowing what to do and having the ability to do it are two very different skills. Parents know they should be consistent, for example, but how do they accomplish this when what feels acceptable can change from day to day depending on how tired they are or on what side of the bed they awakened? Parents know that they should not lose their tempers, but it is something that happens to all parents. How do parents cope with the guilt, worry, disappointment, anger and loss - as much a part of family life as the joys and rewards - without these feelings fueling self-doubt and ruining their most important relationships?
The first step is to recognize that feelings - even the painful ones - are a normal part of parenting. Painful feelings are disturbing and confusing, but even good parents sometimes feel bad about themselves and do not always feel loving toward their children and partners either.
Maybe a child has a different temperament from his parent, gets into trouble or doesn't like school, sports or playing a musical instrument. Maybe she won't be as religious or choose the life-partner or career the parent had hoped for. These are just a few of the many possible disappointments parents must learn how to accept without letting their feelings overwhelm them or their children.
Parents must also find a way to put their worry into perspective. There's no escaping this feeling either. Parents can't wait until their children can walk, but then they'll worry about them wandering away. Parents worry about their children making the right friends and doing well in school. They'll really worry if their child gets into trouble or becomes ill. And in addition to their never-ending concerns about their kids, parents periodically question themselves. Sooner or later all parents, regardless of their particular situation, ask, "Am I a good enough parent?" Worries like these, to one degree or another, begin with pregnancy and continue throughout parents' lives.
Guilt is another emotion with which parents are quite familiar because they do lose their tempers, say the wrong thing, give in when they know they shouldn't or feel grouchy because they're tired or upset. Parents often know they're not living up to the good parenting advice they've read about over and over and therefore feel guilty, angry and disappointed in themselves. This, too, is parenthood.
Conscientious parents know how important it is to provide kids a home filled with safety and security. But as they're building this solid foundation for their kids, they are also establishing a strong bond to their kids. Bravely encouraging children to begin individuating means parents will battle feelings of being left behind. The experiences of separation, letting go, watching as children develop independence, are rewarding for sure. But it also triggers feelings of sadness and loss - emotions parents must accept without making their kids feel guilty or afraid. The pain this creates may be another aspect of parenting for which mothers and fathers feel completely unprepared.
Anger is a feeling parents expect to have, but they are often shocked by its intensity. Hateful feelings directed at the people parents love the most are painful and difficult experiences, but managing them is crucial. Although seemingly contradictory, it isn't so bad for parents to occasionally lose their tempers, as long as they don't lose control. Saying or doing something damaging to self-esteem or their children's ability to trust them is the kind of anger to avoid. Protecting children, no matter how upset the parent is, is essential because hurtful words and frightening scenes have long echoes.
It is a parent's obligation to recognize when there's a problem. Self-doubt, and even worse, self-hatred are depressing, distracting and not very conducive to effective parenting. And when parents, in spite of their efforts to do otherwise, have frequent emotional outbursts, find themselves retaliating against their children, or when family trust and stability have become undermined, then it's a good idea to seek help.
Emotions, however powerful, don't define a person's character - it's how parents react that's important. Parents love their kids but sometimes can't stand them; they wouldn't trade places with anyone but, from time to time, imagine walking out and changing their names. They struggle with painful, distasteful feelings alone, believing that something is wrong with them. These darker emotions are far from what young couples imagine when they decide to take the leap into parenthood. But this is parenthood.
Parents have an important life-defining opportunity - teaching children how to incorporate feelings into their lives instead of judging, ignoring or hiding them. They can help kids understand that anger, worry, sadness disappointment and fear are not signs of weakness but are signs of life. Before parents can do this for their kids, they need to learn this for themselves. It's only after parents are comfortable in their own skins that they can teach their children to be comfortable in theirs.
Loren Buckner lives in Tampa, Florida, and has been a psychotherapist in private practice for more than 20 years. She is the author of a forthcoming book on parents and their emotions. She can be reached at 813-915-0076 or at email@example.com.
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