The other morning was one of those mornings. My husband was out at an early dentist appointment, the cleaning lady cancelled that morning, and everyone was moving slower than usual. My eight-year-old was getting dressed while I bathed my two-year-old and dressed my five-year-old at the same time, all with one eye on the clock. She called out "there's a hole in my tights” and I sighed. Those were the tights I told her to throw out when we noticed the hole the week before. But apparently, she didn’t throw them out. I wrapped my two year old in a towel, and rushed to the laundry basket (remember the cleaning lady cancelled), to find another pair of tights that were more intact. My eight-year-old appeared next to me and said, "Sorry to make trouble for you." I looked up startled, "What? You're not making trouble for me. I'm just looking for another pair of tights." She said, "But I heard you make that breath like I was making trouble." Oh. Now what do I say? I responded, "I'm just a little overwhelmed because I need to find the tights now and we are rushing to make the bus. It’s not your fault that I’m overwhelmed." I gave her a reassuring nod, handed her the new tights, and rushed to dress the baby.
So, is my daughter scarred for life? Will she sit in therapy one day discussing why she has this anxious feeling every time she wears tights, until some brilliant analyst, 30 years my junior, makes the connection to my laundry basket sigh and I forever go down in clinical notes as the mother who ruined her daughter's relationship with tights along with her self-esteem? Or will she forget about it, life will go on, tights with holes will continue to appear, and none of us will be worse for the wear? (pun intended).
If my sighs are rare and far between, and my daughter learns that it’s ok that mommies get overwhelmed sometimes but it isn’t her fault, then she should be ok. In fact, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the phrase “good enough mother” to describe the phenomena that children learn resilience and the ability to adapt to the rigors of an imperfect world, from having imperfect parents. Now we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
However, if sighs are a regular part of the relationship and the child starts to feel like she is too much trouble for the parent, it can become problematic. The child may then start to try too hard to be perfect and get it all right to not burden her parents. The parents who sigh often may be legitimately overwhelmed by the very difficult task of raising children, but the sighs may be interpreted in a way that can cause the child harm as they internalize a sense of being too much trouble, when in fact they’re just being kids. Our children shouldn’t suffer for being children when we are struggling to be parents.
To return to our original question: therapy gets a bad rap as a place people go to complain about their parents and blame all their problems on them. What's the reality of that? How are parents viewed in therapy?
I work from the assumption that most parents care about their children, love their children, and want what's best for their children. (As an aside, there are some parents who deliberately hurt and take advantage of their children and abuse them in the worst ways possible. These parents are not the subject of this article).
At the same time, I recognize that many parents struggle with a multitude of things that make it difficult to fully meet all their children's emotional, psychological, and physical needs in the best way possible. These struggles can include marital conflict, financial stressors, special needs of another child, the parents’ own developmental experiences of abuse or neglect, and the parents’ own mental health or physical health issues, to name a few. These parents who struggle really try their best. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, they hurt their children. By being too busy and overwhelmed or by being limited by some of their challenges they can fail to create a home where the child feels safe, seen, and supported. They can inadvertently transmit painful messages to their children that can make their children question their inherent value, their safety, their ability to be loved and appreciated, and their ability to be seen and to have a voice. They can end up making their children feel like an unwanted burden and then question the purpose of their existence, “If I was too much trouble for my parents then why should I exist?”
Often, when these children come in to therapy, their presenting issues sound like, "I don’t like myself and nobody likes me." "I don't feel my emotions and can't connect in relationships." "I believe my value depends on my accomplishments." If we would ask the parents of these children/adults if they ever intended to transmit these messages, the response would be a resounding “NO” in most cases. But children who grow up not feeling seen, safe or secure, even in absence of abuse, can still feel their existence doesn’t matter and struggle with many aspects of life.
The work in therapy is not to blame parents. It is to help clients hold the dialectical reality that their parents may have done the best they can, and at the same time may have hurt them in ways that they now struggle with. This is done for the sake of helping clients learn to reparent themselves. Clients need to work with their unmet developmental needs and to counter the unhelpful core beliefs they have picked up that block them from living the most meaningful lives they can.
Alice Miller explains it well in the first sentence of her book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of truth about the unique history of our childhood.” In other words, in order to help people heal, we need to help them write, read, and rewrite their stories of how they have developed in to the people they are. Most often, the most central characters in those developmental stories are parents. Often, they are good parents. Well-intentioned parents. Parents who are limited in some way, often through circumstances beyond their control. It is important for clients to recognize their parents’ roles in the people they are and in the things they struggle with. Not to blame, but to help them understand that some of the ways they view themselves may be a result of messages their parents inadvertently gave them, but not a reflection of who they truly are. For example, “Just because my mother was too preoccupied with caring for my elderly grandfather to pay attention to me, doesn’t mean I’m not worth being paid attention to.”
In another example, a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor may struggle to feel her emotions and may not know why. As she learns that her grandmother was a survivor, who couldn’t handle the pain of what she lived through and needed to shut down all emotion as she raised her daughter, who in turn raised this client, the client develops an appreciation of where she comes from, of the legacy of who she is, of the pain of not learning to connect with how she felt growing up, but also at the hope that she can learn and change and develop this part of her. She doesn’t need to blame her wonderful grandmother or mother who truly were heroic in their rebuilding of a Jewish family after the war. But she does need to understand the role that played in her becoming the person who she is. She may hold some sadness and loss about the way this impacted her childhood, and at times some resentment towards her mother, but being able to process this in therapy can often help her relate to her mother in a more real and meaningful way.
Some may say, that the way children turn out has more to do with their biology than with their developmental experiences, and that not everything needs to be traced back to parental involvement. The biosocial theory addresses this question in stating that development is a transaction between the unique biological characteristics of a child, and the environment in which that child is raised. For example, Sara may have been born with a difficult temperament. She was a colicky baby, is a highly sensitive child, has frequent outbursts, and struggles to regulate emotionally. This is a challenging situation. The way her parents respond to her- with emotional acceptance of who she is and a willingness to help her adapt to life despite her difficult nature, or with shame, disappointment, and rejection, will make the difference as to how Sara’s story ends.
My take away message to the brave people who embark on the journey of therapy is that therapists don’t want to take away the beauty of your positive childhood memories or of your relationship with your parents. We do want to help you look at those memories and relationships in an honest and real way, understand how they impacted you, and work through any painful beliefs about yourself or about the world that you struggle with in relation to those experiences. We want to help you understand your story so you can own it and write the ending you wish for.
My take away message to parents is that therapists are not here to blame you. Therapists are here to help your children/adult children better understand the role you played in their lives and better understand their personal histories, so that they can make the changes they need to make to live the most valuable lives they can. My attitude in working with parents is, “There but for the grace of G-d go I.” Who is to say that given the same set of circumstances I would behave any differently? Or to quote the poet Sam Walter Foss, “They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong, wise, foolish- so am I.”
We are all in this complex journey of humanity together. We can take this journey without judgment or blame, but with the deepest respect for each other and the stories and legacies that we hold.