Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Permitting Our Inner Child to Survive

Our children, no matter what the age, internalize our angst as well as our joy.

While sifting through videos of puppies and kittens, some funny (and some very lame) memes, and friends' posts on social media, you occasionally read something really profound. Recently a post appeared on my own feed by someone who had created a Facebook group for moms. It was titled “The day my child lost her joy.”

Source: pexels

She begins her narrative talking about her many adult frustrations when leaving with her family on a vacation. No time to button up everything around her house, little snafus when packing up, and late getting on the road. She described it as “the state of a distracted woman who could no longer see the blessings, only the inconveniences, of her life.” And before her husband pulled out of the driveway, he looked at her as if his best friend had died and told her she was never happy any more.

Despite her natural reaction to defend, excuse or deny it, however, she paused. She looked at her two children, sitting in the back seat. His observation hit her like a ton of bricks, and by the end of the narrative, she recalls having finally begun to embrace her lighter side once again, making a huge difference in not only her own behavior, but also observing how profoundly it affected her children.

I can totally relate to this, recalling when I left my 20-year marriage and moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area with my 17-year old daughter. It wasn’t until I had settled in to my brothers’ fortuitously empty house that I realized how much joy had left me over the years, chipping away at my persona. I still had not realized, however, how this had affected my only child — a daughter I thought was not that sensitive to my behavior because she was always so busy rebelling against life in general.

That girl in me who used to laugh easily, who played music that fed her soul, who was innately curious and adventurous, who could eat an entire box of Red Vines in about 10 minutes with no guilt whatsoever, and who played guitar and sang to her baby girl was gone. If she hadn’t disappeared completely by the time I left my marriage, she was deeply suppressed. She had been traded in for a woman constantly anxious about being a good mom, who walked on eggshells to avoid conflict with her husband, and who lived only for those moments with her brothers and her dad (Mom had passed away long before), all of whom reminded her that life could be lighter, and that coming together over food, nostalgia, and bad jokes reminded her of her formative years as part of a close-knit, goofy family she adored.

As my daughter and I began to fathom the bold move we had both just undertaken, we settled into a small routine. Uncertain about going on to college and just finishing up courses for her home school high school diploma, she had gotten work nearby. I had started a job that had me traveling a few days a week — something I never would have done had I not become suddenly single. And for the first time she asked if she could cook for me. Japanese. She went to a local Asian food market to buy the ingredients to her recipes and fixed a sumptuous meal for the two of us — one neither one of us will ever forget. We laughed, we reminisced, and we talked about the future.

It was unlike anything we had done before, but it made me wonder why we couldn’t have had moments like this earlier. I was a different person then, carrying the weight of the world on me as I tried to justify my existence. Suddenly away from all that, I felt freedom, empowerment, and a sense of immense change for the first time in many years. Just as suddenly, my daughter was along for the ride and watched as I began to glow — something she not seen in me since she was a toddler.

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how my daughter had absorbed all my stress. Even though I hightailed it up to her room each time I’d had a loud argument with her dad to apologize to her for having to hear it, I knew she had become a sponge for anything that affected me outwardly. My irrational, unreasonable penchant to color staying power as strength had gotten soaked up by her young psyche. And on the day I chose to leave, she supported me in my life-changing decision.

I’m sure many of us wonder what life may have been like not only for us, but for our children had we taken the steps to find that inner child at an earlier point. As parents, we set examples not only in our ability to make wise decisions, apply limits at all the right times, and prove our love by showing support. We also set examples by showing them how we face adversity. We show them we can accept new realities and embrace change with a sense of adventure and confidence.

In her article How to Be a Role Model for Your Adult Children, Sally Koslow talks about how kids’ worlds expand exponentially as they grow up, while our influence quickly becomes diluted. “It’s easy to consider quitting the role-model business, feeling that the sell-by date for character-building has expired,” she says, adding “With adults kids, being a role model pivots on demonstrating how to live well — in every dimension — as we get older. It’s communicated through our actions.”

My daughter went on to spend several years taking crazy-ass risks and living more meagerly than I want to recall, but at one point she emerged from her life-beta-testing and acted on an idea. By then I had remarried and could offer her a place to start an online business, and the rest, as they say, is history. I know the strength she has is hers and hers alone, but I have to wonder, after all these years, if we had not had that brief time together one-on-one, when she finally saw a different side of me, if things may have turned out differently.