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Learning to Parent Yourself as an Adult

If parental guidance was MIA in childhood, you can teach yourself to thrive.

 Dustin Dagamac/Unsplash
Source: Dustin Dagamac/Unsplash

Year ago, while studying for my master’s degree in social work (MSW), I worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. I vividly remember a child abuse case that came into the emergency shelter in the middle of the night. I was working the overnight shift in the Male Children’s wing.

Children’s Protective Services (CPS) responded to a call from an anonymous neighbor reporting domestic violence. All three minor children in the home are detained immediately. CPS calls and tells us to prepare for their arrival.

Struggling to stay awake, I hold the door open for the social worker, and I see a young boy balancing a female toddler on his right hip while holding the hand of a crying 3- or 4-year-old boy.

As the social worker and I discuss the case, my coworker leads the exhausted children to an empty room in the back of the shelter. Bedding and a crib are brought in.

“Jason” age 11, calmly and wearily comforts his younger siblings. He dutifully changes the baby’s diaper, then reaches into his pocket and hands a piece of bread to his younger brother.

Poor kid. He’s the caretaker. He’s been there, done that.

The unfair fact remains that in the absence of secure, loving, and nurturing parental figures, one must learn to parent themselves in order to survive.

Even when that person is a child.

As a therapist, it’s hard to wrap your head around the “not fair—this kid’s parentified at 11 years old!” mentality. But to not find courage in the chaos is to paint him and others like him as a victim. Of course, there’s a good argument for victimhood, but feeling sorry for someone doesn’t help them move forward.

Good parenting means you were taught emotional intelligence (EQ), resilience, boundaries, and the mechanics of healthy relationships.

Bad parenting makes the 5 o'clock news.

I have no idea what happened to Jason and his siblings, but I pray that the resilience and maturity he possessed carried them to a stable and loving home, wherever that may have existed.

The intent of this article is to help you fill in the gaps of your emotional life due to parental lapses.

Caveat: Neglect and abuse perpetrated by less-than-stellar parenting is not to be dismissed or overstated; but rather, illustrated as a means to explain why you may see the world the way you do, and why you may think, feel and behave the way you do. To add fuel to the therapeutic fire, I’ve included quotes by that parenting paradigm Sigmund Freud, AKA the Father of Psychoanalysis.

“The child is brought up to know its social duties by means of a system of love-rewards and punishments, and in this way it is taught that its security in life depends on its parents (and, subsequently, other people) loving it and being able to believe in its love for them.” —Sigmund Freud

Most people come to therapy to heal from childhood wounds. Parents and caretakers are discussed, analyzed, demonized, disdained, and too seldom, praised. You could say we psychotherapists are stand-in parents for our clients. The gig comes with a huge amount of responsibility, and is complicated by little things like transference (when you get mad because we impose boundaries on our relationship, which reminds you of the time your mom couldn’t spell “where I end and you begin” to save her life), or projection, dependency, abandonment anxiety, and on and on.

No other profession or relationship exists that helps people recover from the habitual pull to recreate their past (repetition compulsion) or allows for a new leash on life (pun intended, because boundaries).

Without proper parenting models, the world can be a scary place. As adults, it is up to us to re-parent ourselves, or to learn from someone else.

Head case in point: I owe my emotional stability (on most days) to the few psychotherapists I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years. If I ever won an Oscar, I wouldn’t thank God, I would thank them.

One of the greatest gifts of psychotherapy is having a safe place to discuss anxieties, failures and regrets. Many clinicians employ cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help clients understand how their thoughts lead to their feelings, which in turn, informs behaviors. Speaking of which ...

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” —Sigmund Freud

I’m always wary when clients don’t want to discuss childhood. This omission tells me a lot about their pain and psychological insight. Here’s the thing: If you’re stuck in a cycle of abusive relationships, or you struggle with intimacy, there’s a good chance you learned about love, affection and intimacy from defective models.

Caveat: In the majority of cases, we must assume we were not privy to our parents’ experiences back then. Sure, we had an idea as to what was going on because we were there, but we don’t know the whole story. If you witnessed a dysfunctional relationship between Mom and Dad, chances are they were emotionally abused or neglected by their parents.

Feelings are meant to be felt. If it seems like your feelings control you, and not the other way around, check out this article.

“Trying to be completely sincere with yourself is a good exercise.” ―Sigmund Freud

By allowing discomfort or fear to prevail, you are truncating the truth and your path toward healthy, loving relationships. The therapy room is a microcosm for the outside world. If you can talk openly and honestly about your truth with your counselor, you’ll be on your way to doing the same with others. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth the sacrifice. Start slowly and allow yourself the space to come to terms with those parts you’d prefer to keep hidden.

“If children could, if adults knew.” ―Sigmund Freud

As children we are vulnerable, dependent and in the dark about most everything. If we could figure out a way to gain our parents’ unconditional love or trust in them to soothe our distressing emotions, we would. But if adults were not taught how to love, to cope with dependency, or to practice vulnerability, how could they possibly know how to pass along these lessons? Again, this is not to excuse inexcusable behavior, but to ask you to suspend disbelief that your parents intentionally screwed you up. If it helps, think of learning to drive with your eyes closed—you can only only get so far until you crash. The blind leading the blind.

“There are no mistakes.” ―Sigmund Freud

Here’s where things get complicated. People who didn’t win the parent lottery have two choices: Go through life playing catch-up and let life teach you the ropes, or take the bull by its horns and power on despite your unhappy childhood.

If we assume that school teaches us more than just math and language arts, we recognize the role that social skills, frustration tolerance, delayed gratification, praise, consequences, and conflict resolution plays on our psychological development. Sure a dysfunctional home life slows the process, but considering school is our second home (and ideally models a structured environment), there’s a lot of learning to be had.

In reality, “mistakes” are often unconscious acting out behaviors. If you didn’t experience unconditional love growing up, you may not feel comfortable expressing your emotions to loved ones. The fear of rejection is strong, and unfortunately, so is tolerance for abusive behavior. It’s not that you enjoy the abuse, but you probably don’t know how to stop it, either.

This frustration about not getting needs met, or feeling like your love object invalidates you, often translates to passive-aggressive behavior.

“Sorry, I forgot to pick you up at the airport,” or, “Oh, no, I didn’t make that doctor’s appointment ... again,” can be signs of misplaced anger.

Or, a defense against confrontation. Fearing the loss of a primary relationship can be overwhelming. A coping mechanism for avoiding rejection can be conflict-avoidance.

But anger only stays buried for so long. Eventually, the pent-up emotions manifest as unhealthy communication/lashing out/verbal abuse. Sadly, this pattern perpetuates the cycle of rejecting and abusive behavior from others.

“It is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.” —Sigmund Freud

When clients say they fear abandonment more than anything, I remind them there are two options: Do not get close to anyone, which guarantees their fears of rejection are never realized, or step into the ring and risk getting their heart broken like the rest of us. The great equalizer in the human race is nobody is immune to heartbreak.

“Experience teaches us that the world is not a nursery.”

To hide from feelings, pain, and rejection is to be perpetually stuck. Playing safe is always an option, but the only way out is through. Frustration tolerance will only increase when you practice the art of living life.

Helpful Self-Parenting Tips

—Fall in love with boundaries. In its most basic form, this means defining what is OK and what is not OK.

—Take care of yourself. Like your mama probably didn’t used to say, “You are what you eat.” Stress takes a physical toll, so be mindful of what you put in your body, your heart and your mind. Refrain from hitting the pipe or the bottle to relax. Green food is good, ramen is bad.

—Practice mindfulness to help you stay in the here and now. Therapy clients often struggle with residual anger over MIA parenting. At the end of the stressed-out day, it’s about acceptance. This is not to imply resignation or agreement on your end, but to bring awareness about your thinking states so you don’t get caught rehashing the past or fearing the future.

—Work your calm plan and your relaxation routine each and every day. Your central nervous system will thank you.

—Allow yourself to experience vulnerability, dependency and other emotional states that are challenging for you. A common tendency is to reject help from others. While self-reliance may have helped you get through childhood, being overly independent is not a healthy coping skill in adulthood. Humans are wired to connect and isolation and rebuffing others won’t help you recover emotionally. It will, however, earn you the moniker Withholding Will or Rejecting Regina, eating your lunch all alone in the staff lounge.

—Keep the adult tantrums to a minimum by observing your behaviors and how they influence negative interactions. We all project our crap onto others. It takes reflection and self-awareness to analyze how thoughts, feelings, and unresolved issues play out.

—Never underestimate the healing powers of a good night's rest, a daytime nap, yoga, lots of water, healthy eats and quality chocolate.

—Learn to self-soothe. Practice deep breathing, relaxation, positive visualization, and thought awareness to ease your anxious mind.

—Try and see the world as an inherently safe place where most people possess goodwill. This will help you trust in the order and structure of life, and to trust yourself. A most critical adult skill indeed, because having faith in your ability to overcome problems means seeing yourself as a capable, active participant in life, worthy of success, happiness and love.

Even if your parents never taught you how to do this ...


2018 Copyright Linda Esposito, LCSW.

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