Children do not do as you say – they do as you do...
And then they don’t become what you tell them to become – they become the people they are from a complex mix of genes and environment...
I so often hear parents saying ‘I sat them down and told them....’ or ‘I keep telling them that’. I have said that sort of thing myself...
But the parent child relationship is a deep, complicated, convoluted and wondrous thing...The parent affects the child and the child affects the adult. Nothing is just one way. Although of course one always hopes the parent will be adult enough to be a grownup parent able to manage most of the time with whatever the child brings with them....
Adult enough? What is that? Considering what different kinds of ‘normal’ adults there are in the world. I would just say a person who has sufficient self – knowledge and control so that they do not too often behave like a 2 year old having a tantrum...when their kid is having one too...(a bit simplistic I know).
But it is self- knowledge that is probably the key. We all have an unconscious and in those depths we have all sorts of good and bad hidden things. Unfortunately, it’s when we cannot process something ‘bad’ or something perceived as bad that it causes problems. Unprocessed experiences become those we act out on. That we do not understand or can't think about we fear.
I have often heard a parent saying: ‘I was beaten and it didn’t hurt me’. Then I watch him or her expound on how we should beat up a teenager if they are caught shop lifting – or some other quite un-thought out belief like ‘well I’m not a racist but...’ (all colours here...) or tease their spouse or someone else unkindly.
I know it did hurt him or her. It was frightening, it angered and it made them feel that the strong can hurt the weak, and that one must look for as much power as possible to protect oneself, or look for others who will look after you (the stronger the better and if they hurt you – well you probably deserve it...), that you are bad inside...so much more.
I know that that person is ‘siding with the oppressor’ (bit like some captives fall in love with those who imprison them). I know they are defending against the terrible anger, sadness, fear that was brought upon them by someone they loved suddenly physically tormenting them.
It is what we can’t process (for whatever reason) that we harm our children with. This is said without blame to them but the Holocaust survivor’s children sometimes displayed secondary trauma even if they were born after their parents were out of the concentration camps. The trauma the survivors endured was probably impossible to process fully. I doubt a whole life time would be enough time for that. No wonder their unconscious brought about further harm and trauma to their children. Cruelty especially of that magnitude has such long shadows...and we have seen several cruelties of that magnitude in the world again since then...
But just a little story of my own. My husband and I were working at home one day. We were also doing a building alteration which meant our gates were open so that the builders could move bricks around.
I walked into my husband’s study to ask him something and saw through the window a policeman holding a gun in one hand and a finger to his lips. He continued round the house. I found a safe place and stayed there. Two robbers had broken into a house some way away and then had been disturbed and pursued and had run into our garden. They were found hiding in the bushes (one with a gun). We were both a bit shaken but decided not to tell our children who had been at school about this.
That night, my then 8 year old daughter, was in the process of going to bed. Suddenly she whimpered and clutched me and said ‘there someone there in the dark’. Naturally I put on all the lights and showed her that all was safe. But I knew that I was still frightened and had not climbed that particular trauma hill yet (after all someone once shot me through my bedroom window in the bad SA ‘80’s).
Somehow my own behaviour/ feelings/ way of being that day had set off fear in my daughter who like my son was generally a good sleeper and not afraid at night.
So whenever you next feel ‘I can’t understand why my kid is like that’...look within before you look without. Or anyway – don’t just look without.
And if a lot seems to be ‘wrong’ with your child you may well need to be looking for some help for your own unprocessed traumas and fears...even if you think you don’t have any. The most amazing thing is that children in play therapy really improve quickest if their parents are also in therapy...This is not a ‘bad parent’ judgement. Parents who go to therapy almost always become better parents. I did.
Luckily most of us manage to be mostly adult and mostly ‘good enough’ parents in relation to our children. Not perfect, but just normally neurotic...making not perfect, but normally neurotic children...human beings.