We will feature a new article here each month written
by one of our group members. These articles are offered free for your
information and are not meant to provide individual advice or psychotherapy.
Click here for previous Articles,
Psych Bytes, News, and Book Reviews by topic.
FOSTERING THE EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF YOUR CHILDREN
by Glenn A. Peters, Ph.D.
"The distinctive characteristic
of human beings is namely,
to influence our own evolution through our own awareness."
-Rollo May, The Courage to Create
A great deal of research has shown that a child’s emotional development
is greatly influenced by the quality of the relationship or attachment
that is developed between parent and child. Of course, parents are instrumental
in fostering the quality of the bond that is developed with their children.
As many parents know, children have different temperaments, yet the
way that parents relate to and basically handle their child’s
temperament has a lot to do with the way that child will develop emotionally.
In this article, I plan to focus on some factors that are important
in understanding the parental role in the emotional development of children.
I will make some suggestions that are useful in fostering the emotional
development of children. I will first describe how parents own past
emotional development as children significantly impacts on the way they
relate to their own children. Secondly, I will describe a way that we
can identify when a past emotional issue is influencing the way that
we relate to children. Finally, I will describe the importance of parental
self-reflection and emotional regulation in the emotional life of children.
Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., in their book, “Parenting
from the Inside Out”, describe implicit memory as distinct from
extrinsic memory. Implicit memory is a form of memory that is outside
of conscious awareness. Implicit memory records those emotional memories
that are not part of our conscious, explicit memory. It is our implicit
memories that can cause us the most difficulty in fostering the emotional
development of children.
It is these memories that are beyond our conscious control, which can
lead us to relate to children as if they are objects from the past rather
than to the present circumstances of children’s lives. This is
often observed in a pattern of human interaction known as repetition
compulsion, which refers to our drive to one degree or another to duplicate
our earlier relationship patterns. For example, Joan’s mother
was withdrawn and emotionally unavailable to her children, making Joan
feel like a bad child. Now, when Joan’s own child, Tim, sulks,
Joan again feels like a bad child and therefore withdraws from Tim.
So Tim’s emotional experience of Joan is similar to Joan’s
experience of her own mother. In this way, Tim inherits an emotional
legacy that is passed down from preceding generations. It is an emotional
legacy that is registered in implicit memory and therefore neither Joan
nor Tim is aware of it. In another example, John also repeated the relationship
patterns that existed in his family when he was a child. John was told
that angry feelings were completely unacceptable. John felt rejected
whenever he would express his angry feelings. He felt that he had lost
his parents love. John learned to suppress his anger by being a “good
little boy” to please his parents, and maintain their love. In
John’s unconscious all angry feelings were threatening. Therefore,
John had difficulty in constructively dealing with his son’s anger.
John feared that he would lose his son’s love when his son became
angry, a repetition of John’s past. However, John was able to
make some improvement over his own family of origin issues as he did
not say that his son’s anger was unacceptable but rather would
engage in a different behavior whereby he would smother his son with
kindness or distract his son in a number of ways rather than directly
communicate about his son’s anger. Unfortunately, through this
behavior, John continued to covertly communicate to his son and perpetuate
the family legacy that anger was unacceptable. He implied that his son
needed to hold his angry feelings inside, where they became bottled
up and then became expressed in more indirect or passive aggressive
ways. For example, John’s son would only do a half-hearted job
on his chores often leaving smudge marks on the floor that he was suppose
However, as a number of researchers have shown the good news is that
the brain has plasticity or flexibility and therefore past emotional
issues registered in implicit memory can be consciously worked through
or resolved. In order to work on these emotional experiences a parent
needs to become aware of the past feeling states that are being triggered
by our children’s emotions and behaviors. Thomas Paris and Eileen
Paris in their book, “I’ll Never Do To My Kids What My Parents
Did To Me”, mention several feeling states that can cue you to
the possibility that you are experiencing a past feeling state which
has intruded on the present relationship with your child:
Feeling helpless or abandoned.
Feeling overwhelmed or inundated.
Experiencing heart pounding, dizziness, blurred or
distorted vision, nausea, or
Experiencing extreme rage, including verbal or physical
Feeling panicky or irritated.
Of course this does not mean that you won’t legitimately become
irritated or angry with your children, due to their behavior. But it
is rather when these feeling states invade your consciousness and cause
you to respond in a defensive and rigid manner. It is when you continually
yell at your child in a similar way to the way your mother yelled at
you. It can also be seen when a child’s enjoyable experience of
going shopping for new clothes becomes an every time irritation or annoyance
to their parent, because this current experience of shopping is linked
with a parent’s negative shopping experiences with their own mother.
These automatic non-conscious emotional responses prevent you from fully
relating to your children in the present. They cloud your own child’s
emotional experiences and prevent your children from becoming more fully
aware of how they feel and who they are as unique human beings. These
automatic emotional reactions can lead children to deny their own emotional
states in order to be compliant or pleasing to you. They may lead your
children to rebel, again in an unconscious manner, because they sense
that their own feelings, which are an essential part of who they are,
are being rejected by you.
However there is a key to breaking this emotional legacy and that is
through the work of self-reflection. It is through this work of self-reflection
that parents can learn to choose a parenting approach or response that
fits the unique child and the specific circumstances. A parent, who
we will name Susan, who I worked with on parenting issues, gives a good
example of working through past emotional issues that could have emotionally
harmed her child. Susan’s daughter Casey would often get up in
the middle of the night with bad dreams and go to Susan’s room.
Susan reacted to Casey with a great deal of anger, demanding that Casey
go right back to her room and go to sleep. Eventually, it became evident
to Susan that anger was not working as Casey continued to wake up in
the middle of the night with bad dreams. Susan than decided to try something
different, and through the use of deep breathing, Susan was able to
calm down and detach herself enough from her own emotional over-reactivity
to use self-reflection. Allowing her mind to wander on past associations
and images of her childhood, Susan became aware of her own issues with
her mother, where she often felt emotionally rejected and controlled,
her mother being unable to handle Susan’s anxious, helpless and
vulnerable feelings. Susan became aware of how she was perpetuating
this same theme of interaction with Casey. Through this work of emotional
regulation and self-reflection, Susan was able to stop her automatic
emotional reaction of anger and started to relate to Casey with tenderness,
affection and support. After Susan changed her approach, in responding
to the emotional needs of her child, Casey was able to sleep throughout
the night and no longer had bad dreams.
As can be seen in this example of Susan, an important feature in self-reflection
is the skill of learning how to regulate your emotions. Emotional regulation
goes hand in hand with this parenting approach of self-reflection. The
idea is to find ways to regulate your own emotions, emotions that are
rooted in issues from the past, so that these emotions are not perpetuated
on your children. In September 2003 Jeffrey Lance suggested a number
of ways that can help you in regulating your emotions. Also in September
2003, Joyce Parker, Ph.D. wrote a piece on progressive relaxation that
can help you to relax or calm down your emotional self. It is certainly
worth reviewing these articles in order to learn skills in emotional
regulation. Some parenting authors have also suggested the use of a
parenting journal that can help you to both regulate your emotions and
gain awareness of past emotional injuries that are being passed on to
your children. In the IPN section called psychbytes I will list some
questions that can stimulate self-reflection about your own childhood
and can help you start your own parenting journal.
Finally, a central theme in this parenting approach that uses self-reflection
is the idea that children have emotional experiences that are really
separate and distinct from their parents. Parents often carry baggage
from their own childhood that interferes with the recognition and validation
of their children’s experience. When we infuse our own past emotional
experiences onto our children’s unique independent existence we
have saddled them with our own emotional legacy. As Kahlil Gibran from
the book “The Prophet” beautifully states:
Your children are not your children.
They are sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,
not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but do not seek to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
And he bends you with his might that his arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness:
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so
He loves also the bow that is stable.
It is not a matter of being perfect parents. Mistakes are inevitable.
It is a continual process self-understanding that enables us to become
aware of our own childhood difficulties and how our past difficulties
are presently impacting on our children. It is our continual striving
for conscious development that enables us to make changes in our way
of parenting. Let us strive to give our children the emotional recognition
and stability that they so rightly deserve. For in this, we show, in
no small measure, that we have truly given them our love.
Dr. Peters is a member of IPN and has a private practice in Encino and
Glendale. Dr. Peters can be reached at (818) 475-2666
or by E-mail at Gappsyche@aol.com.
home | article
of the month | featured therapist | news
psych bytes | book review
| about our group
therapist profiles | locate
Independent Psychotherapy Network ©2007