Parenting Fail: Acknowledging the Child Within

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The path of my current relationship to parenting has been equal parts both rocky and salvific. As much as I loved my children in the early years of fatherhood, there were, admittedly, times when my responses to some of their behaviors were incommensurate with the situation at hand. Depending on my stress level, something as innocuous as spilled milk could cause me to fly off the handle in ways that even surprised me. In some ways, it felt as if I couldn't control my responses to some stimuli. This was terribly frustrating, quite embarrassing, and led to significant feelings of shame. Parenting is hard enough, but feeling like your behavior is periodically nearly as erratic as your own children is a troubling development for anyone. At the suggestion of a therapist, I attended a therapeutic workshop that was said to be the emotional equivalent of nine months of therapy in five days. While I seriously doubted this claim, I forked over more money than I had ever spent on a family vacation and set off a few weeks later to explore why this was such a struggle.

Without getting lost in the details, what I learned and experienced in this one week period dramatically altered how I understand myself, how I relate to emotion, and how I parent. It was also the catalyst for opening my eyes to repetitive dynamics—both within and without—that were detrimental to well being in every sphere of my life at the time. The friends I would meet during this week all looked perfectly "normal." I didn't expect to bear witness to the litany of griefs, records of relational strife, or substantial self sabotage among those in this group because the people there were undeniably impressive on the outside. To be honest, I felt quite inadequate the first day given the varying levels of success they represented on the surface. By lunch time the first day, however, it was clear that we were equally human and nothing if not perfectly imperfect together. To different degrees, each of us struggled with core wounds that developed early in our lives. Big T and little t traumas—some of which my friends had only the scantest memories—had snowballed into lives that had led them into behaviors and relationships that undermined their essential goodness and were making them miserable. For nearly all of us, those early experiences fell within a relatively small age range between four and twelve years old. The nature of the experiences themselves were understandably diverse, but the resulting impact was uniformly similar. All of us connected around the idea that at some point in our childhood we dissociated. Dissociation is a fancy psychological word that describes what happens when children feel especially overwhelmed by a traumatic situation that causes them to literally take leave of themselves in order to protect themselves. At this retreat, it was also used interchangeably as the time at which one felt compelled to "grow up" and lost touch with their child-ness.

The idea behind much of the education and therapeutic work we experienced that week is that each of us comes to our adult lives as children in adult bodies. To the degree that we are unaware of or asleep to our emotional immaturity, the greater the likelihood we will find ourselves in maladaptive patterns and relationships that essentially serve to repeat those early traumas. This was all well and good, but many of us looked around after hearing some of our peers share their stories and thought, "Geez, why are we even here? I haven't experienced anything that terrible." That was when the facilitator shared a definition of abuse that was terribly uncomfortable to hear both as a child and as a parent.

Abuse is anything less than nurturing or experienced as shaming.

From that point forward, I felt belonging in a room full of strangers and knew that seeds of hope were being scattered on arid soil irrigated by the uncontrollable tears of unacknowledged—and perhaps disenfranchised—grief. The child within that adult body was very much alive, as s/he is within each of us. The problem was that I had managed to live in a long distance relationship with my inner child despite the spatial proximity therein. Connecting with one's inner child is essential in order to restore a sense of joy and vitality to one's life. I also believe that without a deep and compassionate relationship to our younger selves, our parenting is likely to operate under a spell of unconsciousness that fails to see children as inherently spiritual beings whose sense of potential, joyfulness, pure presence, and natural empathy has so much to teach us about what it means to be human.

As the therapist who suggested this experience often shared with me, in order to find wholeness and healing, we have to get our story straight. It was one thing to acknowledge the idea of an inner child. It was another thing altogether to begin to weave together chronologically distant and developmentally disparate narrative threads to create a tapestry of right remembrance. It seems fitting then, on this All Saints’ Day, to remember not only those who have gone before us but also—and perhaps especially—those who yearn within us to show us the way to live and parent more wholeheartedly.

My kids and I watched the movie Coco last night, and each time the song "Remember Me" came on I thought about the nearly forgotten the inner child that resides in each one of us. As I hope to describe in the next post, your inner child needs you as much as you need him/her. When we begin to relate to our younger self again, we throw open the doors to our capacity for joy, spontaneity, healthy spirituality, and appropriate self-esteem. To get from here to there, however, requires that we soberly pass through the shadow of grief and loss that has obscured that relationship for so long.

Krister White