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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The suitcase is too heavy: parenting your own inner child

Recently I wrote a post about misplacing the 'I' in parenting. As I continue to think a little more about the difficulties of calibrating how best to put our self into our child's world- contributing, supporting and intervening only in the best possible way for our own particular child- I realise that many of us are struggling to define normality, so that we have a stable position from which to work. We struggle to even see our own frame of reference clearly, and how it compares with average (let alone 'best') practice.

This struggle to feel that what we're doing is 'okay' according to some obscure definition of 'normality' seems to be the source of much sadness and conflict in the world of parenting. I believe that this is because many of us have had really problematic issues placed into our 'normality' frame, through our own experience of being parented. This is something we do need to deal with before we can be our best self for our own children, by giving our own inner child better care than we've received to date.

And I also believe that all of us, even those who've had wonderful parenting ourselves, will benefit as parents from taking better care of our own inner child.
Maybe we were physically or sexually abused or neglected as children; if so, we probably already feel aware that our experience has been something we don't want visited on our own child, and we probably have come to realise and accept that our parents were less than perfect. But we may feel that we fall short of resources because of that hole in our own experience.

Emotional abuse, including secondary experience of physical or sexual abuse (ie if you witnessed it rather than experiencing it yourself), is less clearly defined but just as damaging to our own parenting frame. We may come only very gradually to realise that our own 'normality' in childhood was flawed, and we may have difficulty accepting that our parents' ways were sometimes misguided.

If you're here reading this, if you're trying to improve your parenting by reading about other people's 'normal' using books, magazines and the internet, you should pat yourself on the back for your self-awareness. I mean it. Give yourself some praise for your efforts- not everybody even tries to widen their view and to see where their own frame fits within the big picture.

But we are only human. We may find ourselves swinging from one end of the scale to the other, one moment falling into similar negative patterns to our parents and the next over-compensating like mad. It's hard to find the right balance. There might be a lot of questioning of ourselves. What's normal? Can I achieve it anyway? Have I been spoiled forever as a parent by my own history?

And when we start asking those sorts of questions, second-guessing ourselves and feeling hopeless, it's time to start parenting our own inner child- taking care of ourselves as lovingly as we'd want to take care of our children.

So let's have a think about what we try to give our children. Can you try to give yourself these same things? We ALL need these things, even as adults, but if we've had a damaged childhood the need is urgent.

You, the parent, need to be able to communicate your stories and needs, and to be heard.

Sometimes this is the best place to start- just talking about our childhood. Some of us will do better with some counselling from a professional counsellor, who won't tell us answers but who will certainly listen (and help our partner learn to listen, if that's a problem for us).

I absolutely recommend counselling. It saved me more than once. Seeing a counsellor is not an admission that you're nuts or not coping. It's more an admission that you're not getting what you need from the people around you, despite their best intentions; you have very specific needs- we will all have very specific and pressing needs at some stage in our lives- and sometimes it's not fair to burden our friends with heavy loads like this, when they don't have the training to remain calm and to give advice that isn't emotionally loaded. Counsellors help you to see things more clearly and to unravel the knots caused by your past experiences.

If you can't afford a counsellor right now and are struggling with untold stories of your own experience of being parented, I urge you to start with a visit to these blogs:
I'm not well-adjusted
Parent-free by choice
-so that you might feel less isolated. There are some beautiful people there who will understand.

Or you might try writing and rewriting your story- it worked for Becky from Positive Parenting!

You, the parent, need love and acceptance.

Try not to associate with people who make you feel bad about yourself. Look on them as heavy suitcases; if they're too heavy, they'll hurt you and make you incapable of carrying even light weights. PUT THE SUITCASE DOWN.

That might mean severing ties with a friend or relative, or changing jobs. You'll probably need help with that- I did.

And please, stop knocking yourself! If YOU can't love and accept yourself, how can you hear it when others give you love and acceptance? Don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to your dearest friend. (I still struggle with this one. I am my own worst critic.)

You, the parent, need to be able to make mistakes without being belittled and castigated for it.

You need the emotional space to admit and fix your own little errors, without being judged. It takes two to make criticism work- one to dish it out and one to accept it. STOP accepting the judgment of people you don't respect- learn to say "That's an interesting point of view" and firmly change the subject. (This is another thing a good counsellor can help you to do. And it's another one that I struggle with personally.)

You, the parent, need time to play and to discover who you are.

Be careful not to overcompensate for bad parenting by over-parenting and losing whatever self you have left. You need support systems, so you can have time to think about your life and to develop as a person. Make time for yourself, as a priority.

I find that the times when my life has gone off track the most disastrously have been the times when I gave myself over completely to someone else's needs- be warned!

You, the parent, need enough sleep, enough healthy food to eat, enough healthy fluid to drink, enough physical activity to keep you feeling energetic.

Look after your health. Without health you have NOTHING. Too many of us don't realise that until we lose our health. Nurture yourself a little more. Change or replace one small thing at a time- one less wine at night, for example, or a walk in the garden or time reading a book instead of eating a whole block of chocolate. Give yourself permission to go to bed when you're tired- it's more important than the chores. (OH, how I struggle with this one.)

Now, this isn't another list of 'to do's to make you feel bad about yourself all over again! (Believe me, I might be dishing out the advice but I fall short on this list all the time.) But if you're starting to feel desperate and as though you're a failure, maybe you can start with one of the things on this list.

Look after yourself better, please. YOU'RE WORTH IT. And it WILL make you a better parent.


  1. This is an amazing site! So inspirational!

  2. Thank you, Anon... I'm glad you're finding it helpful. :)

  3. So important. I struggle all the time not having confidence in my convictions, or doubting my own reasons for why I believe what I believe about parenting. I agree perhaps I need to look backward to look forward... and counselling has probably saved me more than once friend already! Thank you for posting. ~Michele

  4. A pleasure, Michele. Your dilemma is more common than you might think.

  5. Thank you for sharing this post! I struggle with balance everyday as a mother of three children ages 10, 8, and 8. I've been known not to talk nice to myself. I try to let other people's critics roll off my back. I do not chose to be around negative people. They suck my energy. I may try to over parent, because I don't think I was parented enough. I love my mom to pieces, but she has rose colored glasses on the subject of my upbringing. I try to do the best for my kids, myself, my husband, friends, and family.

  6. Have you read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls? It's a memoir that touched my heart and made me appreciate my mom.

  7. Hang in there, Michelle- being aware is the first step. The second step is finding the middle ground between how you were parented and the opposite extreme.

    I don't know that book but I'll look for it- I love reading!


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