Every new parent experiences that first terrifying moment: your baby is screaming; not crying, screaming. You try to feed him. You check his diaper. You try to make him warmer, cooler, calmer, more comfortable, but to no avail. The complete mystery of this precious 8-pound, non-speaking creature rises to your consciousness, and, all at once, you’re struck by the realization that you have absolutely no idea what this tiny person wants or what to do to make him feel better.
How you react to this situation is important. How you react to your children’s emotions will always be important. Should you feel stressed or agitated, your child is likely to have trouble relaxing. Should you feel calm and sure of yourself, your baby is likely to feel secure and trusting. Our children depend on us for survival and, therefore, are highly attuned to our emotions. The more calm and compassionate we are in reacting to our children, the more resilient they become in handling their own emotions. Yet, as parents, we will always have moments when we fumble, tense up, say the wrong thing, and offer the wrong remedy.
Perfectly attuned parents do not exist. In his research, Dr. Ed Tronick, a child development expert and associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard University, found that even the “best” parents are only attuned to their children 30 percent of the time. This lack of ability for continuous attunement leaves parents likely to respond inappropriately or insufficiently to a child’s needs the other 70 percent of the time. So while we can’t expect to be perfectly in sync with our children at every moment, what we can do is recognize that no matter how oblivious we are to them, our children are almost always extremely attuned to us. Every reaction we express (consciously and unconsciously) is absorbed by them, helping them shape their view of the world and of themselves.
Therefore, really improving our parenting means gaining a better understanding of ourselves. All parents both love and hate themselves, and they extend both of these reactions to their children. Because our kids come from us, we often confuse our own self-perceptions and experiences with theirs. The love we feel for ourselves is extended to our children as “Parental Nurturance.” This form of relating positively influences their self-perception, and helps them to develop what my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, and I have defined as the “Self-System.”
The Self System describes the unique make-up of the individual that exists inherently, which is then informed by a harmonious identification with and incorporation of a parent’s positive attitudes and traits. When parents feel good about themselves, they are much better able to extend this positive sense of self to their children. They can engage in activities, relate to, and offer their children support from a place of confidence and ease. Plus, with fewer distractions, such as second-guessing and excessive worry, parents are better able to give their child their full attention and respond unselfishly to their children’s needs.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, when parents feel negatively toward themselves, it is equally easy for them to extend these feelings to their children. The negative thoughts parents harbor toward themselves can lead to parental rejection, neglect, or hostility. Not only are parents more likely to be critical of their offspring in ways that are similar to the ways they are disapproving of themselves, but their negative self-esteem also serves as an example for their children. When we hear our kids comment on their weight or call themselves stupid, we may wonder where they got such ideas about themselves. We may never call our kids the things they call themselves, but we can certainly recall the many times we’ve criticized ourselves for being fat or stupid in front of them.
As kids grow up, they often take on their parents’ negative self-perceptions and the critical point of view directed toward them. For example, if a parent regards their child as a burden, that attitude will be woven into the child’s self-esteem. This negative programming , from parents and other influential persons in the child’s development, combined with other influences such as accidents, illness, and death anxiety lead to the formation of the “Anti-Self System” and the “ Critical Inner Voice ” that accompanies it.
The Anti-Self System represents a variety of destructive and critical attitudes children adopt toward themselves and the world at large. The Critical Inner Voice operates as an internalized parent, reminding people of their flaws, warning them against certain actions, and instructing them about how to perceive the world. Hurtful parental attitudes, projections, and unreasonable expectations expressed toward children are the basis of these self-attacks. For example, kids who are told, “Why are you so lazy? Can’t you get anything right? You’re driving me crazy! Why aren’t you doing better in school? Can’t you just make friends?” incorporate these negative attitudes into their self-perception. They develop critical inner voices that attack them: You’re stupid; You’re a bother; You’re not good enough; You’re a failure; No one could like you .
There are parents who offer false praise to their children in an effort to compensate for an absence of parental nurturance. This build-up is actually harmful to a child’s sense of self, because it does not represent the truth and is not proportional to the child’s real actions or abilities. Verbally building up a child with statements like, “Look how big and strong you are. You are the smartest kid in the whole world,” may actually make a child feel insecure. It can lead to children having aggrandizing thoughts about themselves or to feeling pressure to live up to the build-up; both of which hurt them in the future.
For example, a friend of mine’s daughter was often praised for her early love of healthy food. Always having preferred a bowl of blueberries to a bowl of ice cream, she was often built up for her eating habits (and naturally stick-like figure). As a teenager, however, she became highly self-conscious about what she ate; not wanting to let anyone down by eating something unhealthy. She even began to be preoccupied with her weight and critical of herself for feeling hungry. In this instance, her family’s seemingly innocent remarks about how cute and thin she was were ingrained in her as pressure to be a perfect eater.
It is important to be aware of the example we set for our children. What we say to them, about them, and about ourselves will have a profound influence on how they view themselves. The more attuned we are to ourselves, the better able we are to react sensitively to our children. The healthier we are emotionally, the less likely we are to project our own negative experiences and self-critical thoughts onto our kids.
We are also better able to recognize when we are misattuned to our children and when we are on auto-pilot, automatically reacting to them as we were reacted to as children. Or when, without thought, we are criticizing them in ways that we criticize ourselves. We can also be alert to what makes us “lose it” with our child. In all of these situations, we can identify the attacks we are having on our children and ourselves, while simultaneously sourcing where these reactions are coming from. Do we get upset at similar qualities in our children that our own parents attacked in us? Are we compensating for a part of our past that we felt was mishandled by an influential figure in our early lives?
Perfection is impossible. But reflection helps us do better as parents. When we do slip up, we can use our self-understanding to repair ruptures in our relationships with our children. We can apologize for our mistakes, empathize with their pain, and explain to them how we really feel. The more honest, open, and mindful we make the environment we share with our children, the more we enable our children to be resilient and to move confidently and independently into the world.
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