Step 1: Remove Your Roadblocks
Last week in my interview with David Walker, he made it clear how important it is for children to develop confidence forming relationships. The authors of the book, The Whole Brain Child, would agree. They say:
The kinds of relationships [children] experience will lay the groundwork for how they relate to others for the rest of their lives. Children develop models about how they themselves fit into the world around them, and how relationships work. They learn whether they can trust others to see and respond to their needs, and whether they feel connected and protected enough to step out and take risks. In short, they learn whether relationships will leave them feeling alone and unseen; anxious and confused; or felt, understood and securely cared for…If [his] parents can learn to show [him] consistent, predictable love and attunement, [he] will develop and live up to the relational potential [his] brain has been wired for.
NOTE: This post is 2-3x as long as I usually try to make my blog posts. If you are sensitive to reading digitally, you may want to scroll to the bottom and click the little printer icon. You can print out a hard copy and read it at your leisure without any digital eye strain.
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how important your relationship with your son is. The way you relate to him will impact how he relates to people for the rest of his life. No pressure, right? If you’re anything like me, this might be the part when your chest tightens up and you start to worry about every mistake you’ve ever made parenting. Well, you can relax. Even imperfect parents can develop strong, close relationships with their children. But before we can start talking about how to build these relationships, we have to make sure there are no roadblocks in the way.
There are two big things that can stand in the way of developing the relationship you want to have with your son: your past and your fears. If you had a perfect childhood and you never worry about anything, you’re set. Join me for future posts. For everyone else, don’t panic. The authors in The Whole Brain Child have some good news. They say:
Research shows that even adults who experienced less than optimal childhoods can parent every bit as effectively, and raise children who feel just as loved and securely attached, as those whose home life was more consistent and loving…Early experience is not fate. By making sense of your past [and your fears], you can free yourself from what might otherwise be a cross generational legacy of pain and insecure attachment, and instead create an inheritance of nurturance and love for your children.
Making Sense of Your Past
Whether you are aware of them or not, you probably reached adulthood with a few emotional scars that impact how you respond to the world around you. You may have structured your life so these scars aren’t readily apparent, but even hidden scars will almost always manifest themselves when you start parenting. I remember my mom saying once, “I didn’t even know your dad had a temper until you were born.” There were things I didn’t know about myself until my children were born as well.
For example, I think because I was an oldest child, my parents (like most first time parents) had some unrealistic expectations for me. I grew up feeling like I never quite measured up. I craved validation and needed a lot of reassurance, but nobody knew that. I seemed happy and confident. Consciously I wasn’t even aware this side of me existed – until I had toddlers who started throwing tantrums. Their tantrums awoke something inside me I didn’t understand. Every time they started screaming, I found myself wanting to scream and run away as well. My brain would shut down and go into survival mode. I almost always had to send them to their rooms to calm down before I could talk to them.
Afterwards I would always feel guilty for isolating my children when they were upset. Even though logically I could justify my behavior with plenty of documented resources from industry experts, emotionally I could see they needed more from me; so I started trying to identify why I was shutting down. Eventually I realized I was interpreting their tears to mean I was failing. My childhood led me to believe their outbursts meant I wasn’t a good enough mother. Other people shut down (or get angry) when their children throw tantrums for other reasons, but those were mine.
As soon as I realized I was reacting to my children’s tears with emotions unrelated to the situation, I was in a position to improve.
Making Sense of Your Fears
It’s also possible, as a result of being a human living on planet earth, that you have developed some fears and anxieties that impact how you relate to your son. Perhaps you were shy and worry your son won’t know how to make friends so you avoid taking him to the park or other places where he might experience rejection. Perhaps you saw families torn apart by addiction and worry your teenager is going to end up on the street so you respond in extreme ways every time he is five minute late arriving home. Perhaps you had a lot of athletic potential but got sidetracked by a pretty face so you get irritated every time your son, who has even more athletic potential, shows any interest in girls.
There are an infinite number of fears to choose from and they all impact how we parent in different ways. Here’s an example from my life. I’ve already mentioned on this blog that I am petite and have always felt physically vulnerable. My husband, however, is not petite. My students used to laugh when they saw us together because he is so much bigger than I am. When I first found out we were having a boy, one of the thoughts that crossed my mind was, “It’s not going to be long before he’s bigger than I am. What if he doesn’t like me?” We’ve all read horrific news stories about violent children who hurt or kill their parents. These kinds of thoughts were flooding through my head before my first son was even born. I wasn’t used to paying attention to my thoughts at the time, so I wasn’t really aware of them, but they had a big impact on my style of parenting, at least in the early years.
Even though I adored my son more than I ever dreamed possible, when he was young, I felt like I had to be a strict and rigid so he never had the opportunity to “get out of line.” (Poor kid!) It took some time, but eventually I realized my fears were preventing me from giving my son all the love and compassion he needed.
Again, as soon as I realized I was reacting to my son with unfounded fears, I was in a position to improve.
How to Identify Your Emotional Scars and Fears
So how do you figure out if your past or your fears are interfering with your relationship with your son? This can be tricky, especially if your behaviors are the result of feelings you’ve shut down and no longer recognize. I’d like to suggest three different strategies that have helped me:
- Keep a journal. Every time you notice yourself get angry, shut down or behave in other ways that leave you feeling uncomfortable as a parent, that’s a hint. Write it down. Other hints are those moments you notice something you have said or done has shut your son down or made him angry. Write those moments down too and start looking for patterns.
- Learn mindfulness. Dr. Hayes says in his book, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, “Fish swim in water naturally. They don’t ‘know’ they are under water, they just swim. Thinking is like this for human beings. Thoughts are our water. We are so immersed in them that we are hardly aware they are there. Swimming in our thoughts is our natural state. You can’t take a fish out of water and expect it to live as a fish. But what would happen if the fish became aware of the water?” When you have time, take the moments you made note of in your journal and start writing down all the thoughts that were going through your head at the time of the events. You don’t have to show this to anyone. You don’t have to spell or punctuate well, just start writing. Slowly start peeling back the onion to see if you can figure out if something in your past or something you’re afraid of is leading you to behave that way.
- Draw a stick figure. Dr. Burns says in his book, The Feeling Good Handbook, that if you can’t figure out what your thoughts are, try drawing a stick figure who feels the way you do. Make up some thoughts that are causing your stick figure’s feelings and write them down in a bubble over their head. I know this sounds silly, but it works! The stick figure is always my “go-to” for figuring out what I’m really thinking or feeling.
The best part is you don’t have to erase your past or overcome your fears, you just have to know how they influence your behavior. Once you know how your past and your fears affect you, their power is diminished 100%. Awareness enables you to identify destructive thoughts and replace them with more productive thoughts. When you do this, you become free to behave the way you want to behave. It’s a beautiful thing!
We’ll talk about behaviors that cultivate close relationships more next time.
Good luck and if you feel like letting me know how this works for you, I’d love to hear from you. Stories from my readers make me feel like all the hours I invest into writing all of this is worth it!
- The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
- Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)
- The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
- The Feeling Good Handbook