|Have you ever caught yourself saying things you swore
you'd never say to your children - the very same words that hurt when
you were a child? It's not hard to do! Our parents' communications are
so deeply encoded in us, they're like an unconscious program for
"how parents sound". No matter what we think of them, these
programs are hard to delete. When we're tired or stressed, or just not
paying attention, we'll hear those familiar words tumbling from our
But being able to spot one of these hand-me-down habits is a step
toward change. As children, we had little chance of recognizing our
family's patterns. As teenagers, we may have sensed them as invisible
systems in our lives that we bumped into over and over. It's part of
the frustration of adolescence - we've begun to suspect there are
other options, other ways for people to be, but we're not yet able to
grasp the patterns operating in our own family.
In my family, a dominant message was "You don't really feel
that way". There were a few variations. My father would appeal to
logic: "You have no reason to feel that way." Or he would
invoke my changeability: "You may feel that way now, but in a
week/month/year you'll feel completely different." My no-nonsense
mother took a more direct line: "You don't feel that
way". Whatever the wording, the message was the same. I couldn't
trust what I thought I felt, and parents were not supposed to take a
child's feelings seriously.
This sounds harsh, and I'm sure my parents often responded
otherwise. Still, the pattern was there, and when I became a mother
myself, I discovered how deeply embedded it was - and how early in our
child's life we can fall into the habit of discounting what they say.
My mother was visiting one day when our first child was three
months old. I noticed that she would counter his cooing overtures with
a teasing "You don't mean that!" Oh boy, I thought, this is
how it starts. The very same day, I caught myself exclaiming,
"You're not afraid of that!" -- when he was expressing quite
clearly that the sudden sound of the shade rolling up had frightened
him. Responses like these may be kindly meant or playful, but they can
become a pattern of undermining a child's reality.
Seeing the pattern doesn't mean it is easy to change it. Now my
children are 11 and 17, and I still hear myself playing ping-pong with
their feelings -- quickly fending them off. Why?
When my children say "I'm a failure", or "I'm
ugly", or even just "I'm bored", it's threatening to
me. I get more than a little anxious as I instantly envision the worst
possible ramifications of what I have just heard. Automatically, the
old program activates. "You don't really feel that way!",
I'll say. "You have no reason to feel that way!" I'm
protecting myself from having to know that my children can be sad and
suffering like any other human beings - and that my love for them is
not a magic cloak of happiness.
Of course, I've tried to change. I've tried the counseling
technique of listening to feelings, without opposing or evaluating
them. (When I first learned of this possibility in college, it stunned
me - what a fresh idea!) You know how it works: if your friend says
she feels like a failure, you don't try to argue her out of it.
Instead, you help her clarify how she feels, by accepting what she
says and inviting her to tell you more. It can be amazingly helpful
with adults, especially when one isn't emotionally involved. But I've
found it difficult to use with my children.
Obviously, I am emotionally involved with them. I may try to
be as wise as Mr. Rogers, but when my handsome son tells me how ugly
he is, it's hard to nod sagely and accept his feelings! Then too, our
relationship with our children is a special one. To some extent they
must check their perceptions through us. When a child says she's
afraid of the dark in her bedroom, she isn't only expressing a
feeling; she may be looking for assurance that there is nothing to
fear. It may be a reality check, just as a teenager's "I'm so
ugly!" may really mean "Am I good-looking?" The
"accepting" response can be frustrating to a child who is
fishing for information and reassurance.
Inviting children to talk more about their feelings can be
frustrating too. At all ages, they're encountering moods and states
they haven't known before. How can they put words to these mysterious
new experiences? I've sometimes tried to supply the words for what I
imagine they feel - only to wonder if I've distorted their reality
with my definitions.
There's no perfect formula when it comes to our children's feelings
and our responses to them. I want to take my children seriously, yet
leave room for them to play and experiment with feelings, like young
actors rehearsing for life's theater. I want to honor emotions, yet
allow for them to shift and float away and sometimes be quite
indefinable. I will try to be available and quietly observant, not
rushing in with labels for every mood -- and never, ever say,
"Oh, you don't really feel that way!"