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Seeking the ‘Perfect’ Family

couple consults at the psychologist
 

Susan is a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother to three children aged 8, 6, and 5. She has been married to Frank for 13 years. Until recently, she felt that she had a perfect life. Last month, Frank told Susan he is unhappy in the marriage and asked her to begin counseling.

For Susan, this was a complete surprise. She strives to be a perfect mother and wife, since her own childhood was very unhappy. She watched her father physically abuse her mother throughout her childhood years until he became disabled by a stroke when she was 15. She spent the remainder of her teen years helping out at home because her mother was overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for her bedridden father, who died when Susan was 22.

Susan finds it difficult to control her temper when her children break household rules. It is very important to Susan that the family home is immaculately clean at all times and she feels that her children should do a better job of cleaning up after themselves. Susan is ashamed of the fact that she sometimes yells at her children in anger, calling them “bad” and “stupid.”

Later she regrets saying these things to her kids and she feels extremely frustrated and inadequate as a parent. Susan takes pride in her children but lacks confidence in her parenting skills.

Frank tends to be more lenient with the children and feels sorry for them when Susan criticizes and calls them names. Frank thinks Susan is too hard on the kids and that her expectations of them are unrealistic based on their ages. He tried addressing this with Susan but she became defensive, yelling at Frank that he is unsupportive.

Frank, a dentist, works hard during the day and leaves most of the parenting to Susan. He feels like an outsider when it comes to the kids. When they married, Frank believed Susan would make a perfect wife and mother. Frank’s own mother died when he was 6 years old. Frank’s father was so grief-stricken following her death that he was unable to help Frank cope with the tragic loss.

Frank was forced to deal with his feelings on his own and as an adult he tends to withdraw in emotionally tense situations. When Frank sees his children’s reactions to their mother’s yelling he is overcome with emotion, remembering the pain he felt as a child.

Susan wants Frank to step in and back her up when she corrects the children’s behavior, but Frank remains silent. Susan then becomes angry at Frank and herself. Susan and Frank want to find better ways to manage their children’s behavior and improve their communication as a couple, but they don’t know where to begin.

When viewing this family through the lens of trauma, it is apparent that both parents are affected by traumatic experiences from their childhoods. Research indicates that witnessing domestic violence, even when children are not physically harmed, can be traumatic for children.

After seeing her mother victimized throughout her childhood, Susan missed out on many typical teenage experiences as she helped with caregiving due to her father’s chronic illness for a period of seven years after his stroke, and his untimely death was another loss for her. Although she hoped to be a “perfect” wife and mother, she did not have an example of a healthy relationship from her family of origin to help her learn parenting skills. In fact, she never learned to express her feelings in a healthy manner.

It is no wonder she responds to frustration by yelling and screaming, as she learned this communication style at an early age. Susan is unable to respond to her children’s emotional needs because she feels that her own emotional needs are unmet.

Frank, too, has experienced trauma. The loss of a primary caregiver at a young age is a major trauma for a child. While his father was there physically, his grief prevented him from being attuned to his son’s emotional needs. Frank was on his own to deal with his feelings and he has never learned to express them appropriately.

Both Frank and Susan are triggered by their children’s emotional needs and retreat to the same coping methods they used as children. Susan yells and Frank withdraws. Who is meeting the children’s needs in all of this? Susan and Frank do not know how to. Therefore, the children act out in attempts to gain their parents’ attention. However, all is not lost. Frank has asked Susan to go to counseling and she agrees.

Therapy with Susan will focus on helping her to learn to identify the feelings which drive her behavior. When Susan is able to identify how she is feeling and what triggers her emotions, she can learn new coping skills to address her reactions.

Psycho-education about her children’s developmental levels will help Susan develop age-appropriate expectations of the kids and begin to recognize their emotional needs. Then she can begin working to understand how her children feel when she yells at them and find more effective ways to address their undesired behaviors.

Frank’s therapist will help him to process the unresolved feelings about his mother’s death and practice communicating more openly with his wife and children. Family therapy sessions will help improve the communication in the family overall and build cohesion. In a relatively short period of time, this family will be feeling much better!

Clients often begin therapy with little hope that they will ever be able to find a sense of contentment. However, in my years working with individuals and families who have experienced trauma, I have seen time and time again that recovery is possible. I encourage anyone who is thinking of beginning therapy but skeptical about results to give it a try. You might be surprised at how much better you feel!

Further reading about trauma:

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Connect with Laura on Google+


© Copyright 2014 by Laura J. Reagan, LCSW-C, therapist in Severna Park, MD. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Suzanne January 2nd, 2014 at 11:16 AM #1

    I find it very unsettling how we unintentionally inflict the same harm upon our own children that we had wrought upon us, even when we have all sworn that we would never do this! I swore that I would be a better parent, and then what do I do? I hear the same things coming out of my mouth that my mom and dad said to me. I know that they did the best that they could and I am therefore repeating the same things… but I guess there comes a time where we have to do better, be better, understand that we can’t continue to inflict that same harm and rise above our own pasts. Pretty difficult to actually do, much easier to say we are going to do it than it is to do it once the moment arrives.

  • Dana January 3rd, 2014 at 4:02 AM #2

    When will we ever stop searching for that unattainable perfection and just start looking for what is right and feels right for us and for our family? I think that too often we are far too concerned with what things look like to others than what they are in actuality to us.

  • daisy January 3rd, 2014 at 10:42 AM #3

    When I was growing up it seemed a lot more acceptable to just be who you were, you and your parents and the family that you had. You worked hard, you played hard and that was that. But today it seems like it is all about keeping up with everyone else, having what they have and doing what they do, and to what end? Running ourselves ragged and still not being very happy with the end result? It’s not like we are getting anything more out of this rat race other than feeling like we are getting farther and farther behind. I just don’t understand the continuing need to get ahead when really it isn’t doing anything to help us attain that perfection at all, but is kind of killing that element of family that we may have actually had left.

  • Laura Reagan January 3rd, 2014 at 10:57 AM #4

    Suzanne, thank you for your honest and insightful comment! You’re right that it is up to the parents to do better than was done to them. We can only do our best with the information we have to work with. The effort pays off in well-adjusted children! Seeing them have happier childhoods than yours was is worth every effort. And you’re right that it is easier said than done. At the same time, the awareness of one’s own behavior is the first step to making a change! It is never too late to become the parent (and person) you want to be.

  • Laura Reagan January 3rd, 2014 at 11:01 AM #5

    Dana, your comment really resonates. There is no perfect family or individual for sure! Being able to accept ourselves as we are, with all of our flaws, and trying to be the best people we can be is all anyone can do. When we pretend to be perfect and focus on creating an image of a “perfect” family, how will our children be allowed to be imperfect? It’s an impossible standard. By the way, those other people we are trying to impress are just as worried about what everyone else thinks of them. Let’s just all accept ourselves and each other. Life is much easier that way.

  • Laura Reagan January 3rd, 2014 at 12:01 PM #6

    Daisy, I agree that the “rat race” is no substitute for family togetherness. True happiness comes from within, not from material things or achievement of financial success.

  • Ryan January 4th, 2014 at 8:47 AM #7

    I would like to take a minute to consider the flip side of this argument, the alternative if you will. Why not expect and hope for perfection? Shouldn’t we all strive to make things better for our own families than what we may have had growing up? I don’t think that working hard and wanting to provide is a bad thing.

  • carson January 6th, 2014 at 3:50 AM #8

    I hate to blame everything on TV and print media, but every now and then it would be nice to see family situations, even if they have to be told in a comedic format, that can’t be nicely resolved within a 30 minute format.
    This is what we see and I think that many people start to assume that everyone is living that way except for them, and then you start wondering what is wrong with you and your family because you don’t have that.

  • Laura Reagan January 10th, 2014 at 4:29 AM #9

    Ryan, striving to be the best parent one can be is a great goal! However, it’s when we expect perfection without examining our own inner feelings that issues can arise. I would argue that being a “perfect” parent is only possible if perfection is defined as being human, offering unconditional love and acceptance to children, doing the best you can to parent effectively and being open to learning from one’s mistakes. In this article, Susan thinks being “perfect” means her house is always clean but she is unaware of her children’s emotional needs. Teaching children to help with household chores is very important but calling them “bad” and “stupid” harms their emotional well-being. Susan is seeking an outward appearance of perfection, but her relationship with her husband is strained and she’s not being the parent she wants to be to her children. She feels that her own emotional needs are not being met.

  • Laura Reagan January 10th, 2014 at 4:49 AM #10

    Carson, comparing our families to others is always tricky because whether judging a family on TV or in real life, the complex issues of families are not always evident just by looking at the surface. Children and parents are left asking themselves, “Why is our family so different?” Sometimes that is a good thing because it allows children who are being abused to realize that what’s happening to them is not just normal family life and they can reach out for help. The other side of it is when parents feel unsure about the best strategies for parenting which contributes to feeling isolated and ashamed of themselves because they aren’t “perfect”. But as the old saying goes, kids don’t come with instruction manuals! We often refer back to our own childhoods for guidance on parenting, or worse, we unconsciously repeat the behaviors of our parents (yelling, hitting, shaming, calling names). Therapy is always an option though…as are parenting books, websites, school counselors, seminars, workshops, etc. There is a lot of help available for parents who are struggling. Reaching out and admitting uncertainty about parenting takes courage and is worth the risk of embarrassment.

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