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FOSTERING THE EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF YOUR CHILDREN
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 have a lot to say about 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 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 development of children.
Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., in their book entitled, 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 memories, those emotional experiences 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 For example, Joan's mother was withdrawn and emotionally unavailable to her children, making Joan feel like a bad child.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. 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 learned to suppress his anger by being a good little boy to please his parents. In John's unconscious all angry feelings were threatening. Therefore, John had difficulty in constructively dealing with his son, Phillip's anger, as John feared that he would lose Philip's love. However, John made some improvement over his own family of origin and he did not say that Phillip's anger was unacceptable, but rather would smother Phillip with kindness or distract Phillip in a myriad of ways rather than directly deal with Phillip's anger. Unfortunately, through this behavior, John continued to covertly communicate to Phillip and perpetuate the family legacy that anger was unacceptable. He implied that Phillip needed to hold his angry feelings inside, where they bottled up and became expressed in more indirect or passive aggressive ways. For example, Phillip would only do a half-hearted job on his chores often leaving smudge marks on the floor that he was supposed to clean.
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 their children's emotions and behaviors. Thomas Paris and Eileen Paris in their book, I'll Never Do
Of course, this does not mean that you won't legitimately become irritated or angry with your children, due to their behavior. But 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, rigid, 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 a 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 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 through an approach of tenderness, affection and support. After Susan changed her approach, in responding to the emotional needs of her child, Casey was able to sleep through 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. Some parenting authors suggest the use of a parenting journal that can help you to both regulate your emotions and gain awareness of your past emotional injuries that are being passed on to your children.
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 experiences. When we infuse our own past emotional experiences onto our children's experience then we have lost our ability to recognize our children's unique independent existence and 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.
It is not a matter of being perfect parents. Mistakes are inevitable. It is a continual process of self-understanding that enables us to become aware of our own childhood difficulties and how our past difficulties are impacting our children. It is our own continual striving for conscious development that enables us to make changes in our way of parenting. Let us all 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.
2014 Copyright by Glenn A. Peters, Ph.D.
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