Darina O’Rourke writes about the ways in which her parenting has been influenced by her training as a psychotherapist. She began her course when her daughter was four and her son was one and a half. She now practises part-time.
Five year old Brian has just accidentally broken a pane of glass in the front door. While I’m sweeping up the fragments, a fight begins between him and his older sister. He is threatening to break up her jigsaw. She is screaming and trying to push him out of her bedroom. I run upstairs fearing they will catch their fingers in the door. I send Brian downstairs to the playroom and go back to sweeping up the glass. I worry about the gaping hole in our front door. How will we secure it for the night? Now Brian wants me to play with him. I need to finish preparing the dinner. Then Claire’s homework has to be supervised, and there’s her music lesson in an hour. I’m tired and feeling under pressure. I put a video on for Brian. I just want to get to their bedtime without doing or saying anything that I will regret later.
Life with children is sometimes like this. It is unpredictable, demanding and often chaotic. There are times when it stretches me to my limits. My energy and resourcefulness can feel depleted. When I feel like this I do not think of parenting skills. I respond out of myself as a struggling, limited human being. A good psychotherapy training is probably the best parenting course there is. But the most beneficial influence on my parenting has been my on-going inner work facilitated by workshops and personal therapy.
It is hard to be objective about my own way of being with my children. Here, I’m emphasising the difficulties I had, to highlight how I was helped by my therapy and training.
My children have made me face myself more honestly and consistently than anyone else. Becoming a mother brought out aspects of myself that I didn’t know were there. I knew about the significance of womb life and birth and had worked therapeutically with some of my own pre- and peri-natal experiences before I became pregnant. So meeting each baby’s early needs for love, bonding and nurturing came easy to me. The hard part for me was when the children began to assert themselves as separate individuals. Buried feelings sometimes erupted in me with shocking force. These were very threatening. I wanted to be a great mother. I was so aware of the damage I could do. I knew that how I was with my children would affect them for life. I felt a huge burden of responsibility to do it right.
Yet good intentions were not enough. Other forces took over. Unresolved feelings from my childhood were triggered by tiredness, stress and my children’s intense feelings. At times I did not have enough self-presence or self-possession to stop myself. I dumped my anger on my husband and children, not knowing what else to do with it. Trying to balance the needs of both children seemed impossible at times. I often felt invaded and unable to establish any boundaries.
I am focusing on this because I feel it is where the most significant change occurred. Both my training and therapy helped me to work with these feelings. I was able to experience fully and express my inner rage, getting to the root of it and working through it. I came to acknowledge and accept these feelings as part of me. I found other ways to handle them besides acting out. I learned to contain my anger instead of dumping it on others. As a result I am now more self-aware and self-accepting. I recognise the triggers to my anger. Focusing on my breath helps it to pass through me. Staying with the feeling and breathing through it is enough. I don’t have to act it out. I remember the first time that I was able to let anger flow through me without being consumed by it. It was so liberating. Until then the only way I knew of not dumping was suppression. As in all things, this new way takes practice. Now I can express my anger without attacking my children. This has helped them to deal with their own intense feelings and to express them safely.
Greater self-awareness allows me to know when my inner resources are low and do something about it and this has enabled me to recognise my own warning signs of stress. I know I have a huge need for personal space, so I try to build it into my life and this is easier now since my children are at school and I can take time for myself. But it is also easy to forget how much I need it. Spending time alone to acknowledge that I am a person on my own individual journey helps me to recognise my children’s individuality. My boundaries are clearer. I don’t feel imposed upon as much. If I do, I recognise the signs and catch the feeling early before it develops. As I have become more compassionate and accepting of the child in me, I have more heart for my children’s struggles. Their needs, feeling and experiences are important to me. I try to be open to their growing competence, not holding them back with my fear of danger. I have a tendency to be over-protective and I have continually to be aware of this and work on it.
Children are adept at showing up the truth. They teach me to get to the root of what is going on. They will keep pushing until I get the message. Building better relationships is a constant challenge. My children have forced me to examine, question and experience myself at depths 1 never knew before. Working through my own childhood issues and feelings during and since my psychology training has helped me to separate their issues from mine. It has freed me to be more present to my children in their experiences of life.
The counselling skills I learned in my training are very helpful in my relationships with my children. One of the first skills I consciously practised with them was the use of statements instead of questions. My daughter particularly hates too many questions. She often opens up more easily if I can tune into her feeling tone and make a statement about that. If the child is upset this is much better than trying to ascertain facts or verify incidents. Saying something like, “you had a hard day at school today” is more helpful than, “what happened to you?” Then listening with openness, warmth and acceptance creates the safety in which a child can explore his/her experience. I am reminded again of the importance of making a regular time to give the child full, loving attention. This is a constant challenge for me. So often I am half listening while I do something else. Why don’t I make individual appointments with my children during which one could have my full, undivided attention? They would love that and they need it.
I feel my empathic understanding of my children is improving. I am learning more to see reality from their perspective. My present on-going work with clients gives me greater insight into the wounds and hurts of childhood. Children are so sensitive to any sign of withdrawal of love that even a look can be really significant. How easy it can be unconsciously to diminish or negate their feelings. My daughter still reminds me of the time when she fell and hurt her knee and I gave out to her instead of comforting her. Her hurt was doubled then. Or I remember catching myself recently almost saying to my son, “there’s nothing to be afraid of” after he had come down saying he was afraid of the dark. So I am learning to respect children’s experience, their autonomy, and their need to have their experience heard and understood.
Drawing and writing are very enjoyable ways of helping children to explore their experience. Often, when my daughter finds it difficult to deal with her anger or fear, she writes or draws and finds it very helpful. She also draws her dreams at times, and we talk about her feelings using the drawing. I’m often amazed at the results of this and wonder why I don’t suggest it more often.
I have also learned the need to set boundaries. It is good for my children to know that I have needs too. I make it clear to them that when I’m rushing out in the mornings I cannot listen to them. I expect them to co-operate and get dressed and they usually do if I explain the reason to them. I am growing with my children, constantly changing and making adjustments to all our changing needs. As they grow they need more privacy. They need to know that we respect their space, their boundaries. A hug does not solve everything. One child may need contact when feeling intensely; another may need space while knowing that we’re there. We, as parents, need to tune into this and respect their individual needs.
Children, in general, want to please their parents. We have to be very careful not to abuse our power in the relationship. This can often be done unconsciously and unintentionally when parents use children to fulfil their own needs. We need to take responsibility for our own lives to avoid living through our children. It is my responsibility to get my life in order, to value myself, to live as fully as possible and to give time and attention to my own needs. When I do this, parenting is an enjoyable, exciting relationship instead of an effort.
The more at ease I am with myself the more genuine I can be in my relationships with my children. I don’t have to pretend I have all the answers. I can be real and so can they. They appreciate when I admit when I am wrong and apologise. They value when I am open, honest and direct with them. It gives them permission to be the same with me.
Before I trained in psychotherapy I never fully realised just how important the marriage relationship is to the children. It is their security and their model for relationship. They are influenced by how we communicate, how we enjoy ourselves, how we are together, how we nurture and support each other and how we work through conflict. All the other relationships in the family are centred around ours. So it is up to us as adults continually to work on our relationship.
My understanding of the individuation process has helped me to do some letting go of my children: I am letting them be themselves more. They are entitled to their feelings, likes, dislikes and opinions. I’m respecting them more now as separate people. My son started school this year and, for the first three months, did not settle and was unhappy. Part of his difficulty seemed to be in having to grow up, and to separate from home and family. When he came home he would be angry. He would want to sit on my knee or follow me around, as if by regressing back to babyhood he could act out what he was not free to do in school. I accepted his need to do this, and in time he was able to let go for himself, and adjust to school.
I’m also aware that we are not the only influence on our children. Everything that goes wrong is not our fault. I now believe that they are capable of working through problems and discovering solutions if they are given support. They want to feel useful and creative. If early needs for love, acceptance and sustenance are met, the child can grow to feel good, capable, lovable and competent in himself or herself.
Parenting, like my work as a psychotherapist, is an ongoing growth process. Alert attention to the demands of the present moment is required. I need to be ready and fully present to whatever the moment brings. An attitude of relaxed openness and receptivity helps enormously. Awareness is the key. Self-awareness first of all, and acceptance of what emerges. When I am closed off from myself I am closed off from the children. They pick this up immediately and do anything to get my attention. How I am as a person affects them deeply. Sometimes I wish I could turn back the clock and start my parenting from my present position. But I can’t. I can only learn to accept my mistakes – to let go and forgive myself for not being perfect. I hope adolescence really is a second chance. For now I accept that I have a long way to go, still searching, still struggling. I feel grateful for my training and my work which has helped me come this far.