For Parents: Healing Yourself

Laura Markham's picture

by Dr. Laura Markham

"Our wounds transform and become our source of power."
--Gail Larsen

The famous psychologist D.W. Winnnicott said that children don't need perfection from their parents; all we need to do is avoid harming them, and to offer them the "ordinary devotion" which has always been required of parents.

But unfortunately, most parents don't find this quite so easy.

devotionBecause, first of all, there is nothing ordinary about devotion. Devotion, as parents know, is walking the floor at 2am holding a screaming baby with an ear infection. Devotion is putting down that delicious novel to play a board game with your kids. Devotion is forcing yourself into the kitchen to make your kids dinner after a long day, when all you really want is to curl up on the couch and return a phone call to a friend. Devotion is taking off your jacket on a cold night to tuck it around a sleeping child in the back seat of the car.

This ordinary devotion is the same intense love that has caused parents throughout human history to hurl themselves between their child and danger, from flying glass to snarling wolves to enemy soldiers.

But even if, most of the time, we express our devotion in our willingness to put our children first, it is still not easy to be a "good enough" parent.

Because even we devoted parents often inadvertently scar our children. This includes parents who adore their children, who would be completely heroic and self sacrificing if the situation called for it. The reason is that while we would never consciously hurt our child, so much of parenting, like every relationship, happens outside of our conscious awareness.

The truth is that virtually all of us were wounded as children, and if we don't heal those wounds, they prevent us from parenting our children optimally. If there's an area where you were scarred as a child, you can count on that area causing you grief as a parent -- and wounding your child.

We can all think of examples: the father who unwittingly repeats his father's judgmental parenting with his own sons, or who becomes formal and rejecting with his daughter when she reaches puberty because of his own repressed sexuality. The mother who can't set limits on her children's behavior because she can't bear their anger at her, and ends up raising selfish brats. The parents who work long hours at their jobs, leaving their babies in the care of nannies, because they doubt their own ability to be interested in (translate: to love) their infants.

That's the bad news: Unless we consciously examine our own scars, we are doomed to inflict similar ones on our children.

But the good news is that being parents gives us an opportunity to heal ourselves. Most parents say that loving their children has transformed them: made them more patient, more compassionate, more selfless. Our children have an unerring ability to show us our wounded places, they draw out our unreasonable fears and angers. Better than the best zen master or therapist, our children give us the perfect opportunity to grow and heal. Almost magically, as our wounds transform, we find that these hurt places inform us, motivate us, make us better parents.

So how can we heal our own scars, and become the parents our children deserve?

  1. Parent consciously. If we pay attention, we find the wounds that need healing; we know where we are over-reacting, where we need to examine our own "stuff."

  2. Break the cycle by using your inner Pause button. You don't have to repeat history with your kids. Take a deep breath, and hit the pause button. Remind yourself of what is about to happen unless you choose another course.

  3. Understand how emotions work. Anger is a biological state. When we are in the grip of the chemical reactions that make us "angry," we do and say things we would never choose to do otherwise. Take a breath and wait till you calm down.

  4. Get support in working through old issues. Parenting support groups can be invaluable in supporting you to re-frame your parenting positively. Therapy and counseling are designed to help you heal old issues and move forward more happily in your life.

  5. De-stress. We all have a harder time being the best parents we can be when we're stressed out. Develop a repertoire of habits that help you de-stress: regular exercise, yoga, hot baths, meditation. Can't find the time? Involve the whole family. Put on music and dance together, go for a walk in the woods, put everyone to bed with books early on Friday night for a quiet, relaxing evening and catching up on your sleep.

No parent is perfect, because humans are by definition imperfect. No matter how much we work on ourselves, we will not always impact our children positively. But if we pay attention, use our inner "pause buttons," and keep our stress at manageable levels, we can minimize the harm we do our children.

And, luckily, Winnicott seems to have been correct. Our children don't need perfection from us. Research has shown that if we meet their physical, emotional and intellectual needs, we can usually count on the growth imperative of mother nature herself to nurture our children into basically healthy adults. And the places they're quirky? That just makes life more interesting.

Recommended Resources:
Raising our Children; Raising Ourselves, by Naomi Aldort

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones. Dr. Markham is the founding editor of Aha Parenting, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth."

On Pregnancy.org, Dr. Markham fields questions from our community members on her Expert Page and hosts a regular Online Chat the third Wednesday of the month. Click here to check out her Parenting Tips.

Dr. Markham is the author of the Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, with editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great. Dr. Markham lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, 13-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son.

Copyright © Laura Markham. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.