The Tools

Transform your problems into courage, confidence, and creativity.

The Parent Trap

Is that my child or my Shadow?

Every morning Marcie would repeatedly tell her six-year-old son Evan to get dressed for school. And every morning she would walk into his room to find Evan lying half-naked on the floor, one unlaced shoe on, daydreaming. She wanted to tear her hair out. It took every fiber of her being not to completely lose it. What was his problem? All he had to do was put clothes on his body—a basic human task, and one already mastered by his peers. But inevitably, somewhere between underwear and socks, Evan got lost in his imagination and couldn’t follow through. Marcie was at her wits’ end. Not only was she exhausted by this futile ritual, she was worried about Evan’s future. How would he ever be able to handle greater responsibilities if he couldn’t manage to put on his shirt?

I asked Marcie if she saw anything of herself in her son’s behavior. At first she didn’t understand the question, but when I persisted she cracked: Marcie herself had been a dreamer, spending much of her youth lost in her fantasies. “Even after I grew up and left home, I saw my friends set practical goals and meet them while I spent hours making unrealistic plans that I eventually abandoned. I ended up in a dead end job and just stayed there for years.”

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Marcie had the best of intentions. She wanted to spare Evan the mistakes she’d made. But inadvertently, she was doing Evan more harm than good. Every morning, when she walked into her son’s room, she didn’t see Evan on the floor daydreaming—she saw her Shadow: the part of herself she blamed for ruining her life. When a parent sees qualities of her Shadow reflected in her child, she inevitably overreacts to his behavior. Even if the reaction is internal, children intuit that they’re being judged. Evan knew, on some level, that his mother saw his daydreaming as something bad.

This doesn’t solve any problems; it creates new ones. In Evan’s case, he might’ve begun to suppress this part of himself—and lose touch with his creativity. Alternatively, he might dig his heels in and resist his mother, making it even harder to get him ready for school in the morning. When I pointed this out to Marcie, she said, “I don’t want either one of those outcomes. Isn’t there another way?”

There is. What Marcie needed was a tool that would give her the authority to get Evan to stay on track in the morning without judging any part of him. The tool is called Inner Authority, and you can review the previous blog post to remind yourself how it works.

I taught Marcie the tool and practiced it with her several times in the session. Then I told her to use the tool whenever she was with Evan. I told her not to expect any changes in Evan’s behavior. “For now, we’re trying to accomplish something more basic: we just want you to be able to separate your own Shadow from Evan.” She reported back that the tool helped. She felt stronger in her role as a mother; her sense of anger and frustration had abated. “I’m also noticing something strange—my imagination is coming back. My bedtime stories are becoming funny and creative, and as a result Evan seems more connected to me.” I encouraged her to continue using the tool every time she was with Evan.

After about a couple of months, Marcie walked into my office with a huge smile on her face. She proudly reported that Evan was getting dressed for school on his own, without her prompting. She also reported that she felt better about herself. “I’ve found an outlet for my imaginative Shadow. I’m turning my bedtime stories into a children’s book!

-- Barry Michels

 

Based in Los Angeles, Phil Stutz (left) is a psychiatrist and Barry Michels is a psychotherapist.

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