The intense parts are where you need to be kind to yourself

A big part of what I got at with the post about how hard it is to parent a seventh grader is that it hurts to parent your child through things that hurt you. If you pay attention to the things that are most intense and difficult for you, you know where you need to be extra kind and forgiving with yourself.

I think for most of us it starts when our kids are toddlers or preschoolers. There are things they do that are annoying, but then there are other things they do that hit a nerve and seem to shoot right up into our brains with an almost physical pain. Have you ever felt hot rage, or panic, or fear when your child did something that wasn’t objectively horrific? That’s because we have unresolved intense emotions about those things from our own childhoods. Usually that intense reaction tells you that you weren’t allowed to do whatever it is that your kid is doing, so you’re having a reaction to that. You might feel fear that you or your child or both are going to be punished for doing it. You might feel rage that your child is daring to do this thing you knew better than to do. You might feel panic that you should stop your child from doing it or that you should have prevented it.

Those feelings in those intensity triggered by something someone else does are called emotional flashbacks. People who have any kind of trauma often have emotional flashbacks (sometimes without any connection to any external trigger at the time), and they can be extremely hard to work around. We like to think of ourselves as strong, calm, logical people, especially when we’re parenting, and emotional flashbacks can derail us, for a few seconds or a few days. They’re invisible and no one talks about them, so it’s really easy to think there’s just something wrong with you for not being able to control your reactions to things.

When your child does something that hits one of your soft spots and triggers an emotional flashback, it can be truly overwhelming. You’re dealing with your kid’s act, the emotion it triggers in you, your reaction to that emotion, your feelings about your reaction to that emotion, and then your child’s reaction to your reaction. If it’s a one-time event, you can regain your equilibrium. But if it happens regularly or over a long period of time, you can be in a near-constant state of emotional overwhelm. This is why you can feel like you’re totally losing it when your kids won’t put on their shoes every morning. Or why parenting a seventh grader can make you feel anxious and weepy all the time.

So what’s the answer? Well, you know all that minute-by-minute work you have to do with your kids? You have to do it with yourself, too. Essentially, you have to reparent yourself through whatever that issue is that is giving you emotional flashbacks. You have to think of yourself now (because you deserve care) and also of the you you were when you were in that situation (because you deserved care then). Note: your parents could be wonderful amazing people, but if they hadn’t been parented through the situation and taught healthy responses, the likelihood that they could parent you through it is slim. They probably had emotional flashbacks when you were doing whatever it was, but white-knuckled through it because they thought something was wrong with them. This means that you are the only one who can stop this cycle because you’re here right now. You deserve to feel good and be healthy, just as your kids do, and your parents do, too.

So. When your child is doing something that makes you feel an oversized emotion so you know you’re having an emotional flashback, the first thing to do is reassure yourself that this is expected and ok and you’re not doing anything wrong. Of course you’re having this feeling. Then, connect with your kid and tell them you love them and give them a hug and help them process whatever’s going on and redirect behavior. (I’ve found the echoing technique in Parent Effectiveness Training to be the gold standard of helping a kid work through a problem.) You do NOT have to solve the problem for your child, although if you can make a little bit of forward motion on helping your child build skills to solve the problem for themself, that’s what you’re aiming for.

Then, and this is key, give yourself permission to acknowledge that you should have been given that same help processing whatever it was back when you were a kid. And then give yourself a “good job!” for parenting your kid through this episode. This is you being kind to the kid you were and to the person you are now.

This is going to feel really really weird the first ten times you do it. It might feel actually wrong the first couple of times, because you’re stepping away from feelings that cause you shame, and shame likes to hold on. But do it simply because helping your kid work through something is the right thing to do and being kind to yourself is the right thing to do. The shame will loosen its grip on you and the emotions will fade in intensity, and helping your child work through this stuff will be about skill-building.

You can do it.

Courage.

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