"You Don't Really Feel That Way!"
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 own mouths.
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!"
Elisabeth Hallett is the author of two unique and fascinating books on pre-birth communication, prenatal bonding, and changes in awareness before and after birth, as described by new mothers and fathers: In the Newborn Year: Our Changing Awareness After Childbirth (The Book Publishing Company, 1992), and Soul Trek: Meeting Our Children on the Way to Birth (Light Hearts Publishing, 1995). For more information, see her web site, Light Hearts.