Parents are faced with many dilemmas as they struggle with allowing their children to individuate. These dilemmas are part of the everyday conflicts and behaviors that are intrinsic to parenting. In psychotherapy, parents can become aware of how some of their everyday choices impact on their child’s ability to individuate. Parents can increase the likelihood that they will be providing, as best they can, the kinds of responses to their children that facilitate individuation.
The wide range of feelings that parents experience provide clues for their behavior towards their children. But feelings are often conflicted and don’t always suggest a clear course of action. At one time or another in the course of bringing up one’s children, parents may feel awed, frightened, silly, delighted, disappointed, depressed, happy, angry, confused, elated, proud, annoyed, and every human emotion conceivable. In the course of growing up, children also experience a wide range of feelings. From infancy through adulthood, feelings, expressed and unexpressed, have a profound influence on the relationship between parent and child.
In the early infant-mother dyad, mother and infant are one. They are symbiotically joined. This means they infect each other with their feelings. It is often hard to know whose joy is whose. Who is anxious in this moment? (In symbiosis, they both are.) Ideally, in the delicious oneness of this symbiotic relationship, there is bliss for mother* and baby. Mother provides for baby’s needs and feels like a wonderful mom. The baby feels safe and secure and responded to. Everyone is happy. Mom is doing fine with baby and baby is satisfied. This of course, is often more fantasy than reality. From the beginning mother and baby are not always so perfectly attuned. When baby is crying, mother doesn’t always know what the baby wants. (How could she?) Sometimes, crying can be a release of tension with no specific goal like being fed or changed. Mother starts out wanting to provide what baby needs and is frequently confused, upset, anxious, when she can’t figure it out. Mother’s aim is to give the baby what the baby wants, to take away what feels to mother like the baby’s bad or hurt or angry feelings. Mother doesn’t want her child to feel pain or discomfort. It may also be that when baby has bad feelings, mother feels like a bad mother. Baby’s good feelings can result in good mother feelings.
This parental desire to assure that baby has only positive feelings is one of the early ways parents strive to take good care of their children. Although parents may not realize that they are trying to control their child’s feelings, they unintentionally may be signaling what is okay for the child to express and what feelings need to stop. The great dilemma for the parents here, is trying to figure out when it is okay to allow baby (then toddler, child, adolescent) to be unhappy, upset, angry, etc. This is VERY DIFFICULT. For a parent, it feels terrible to watch your child be in pain. Is it okay for toddler to scream and tantrum that he wants the toy? Should one let the 6 year old cry with the babysitter when mom and dad go out to dinner? How much should a parent help their 11 year old with homework when they seem so frustrated about the assigned project? When your 16 year old gets so furious with you for her curfew, do you give in? How much do you alter your behavior to assure that your child doesn’t have bad feelings, especially when the bad feelings may be directed towards you? How much do you try to change your child’s feelings when they seem so distressed?
There are no clear answers to these questions. But the solutions to these dilemmas can have an impact on the individuation process. It is understandable that parents don’t want their children to be unhappy or struggle. But at different stages of development, children need the experience of difficult feelings and situations so that they can learn that they can soothe themselves, regulate their feelings and find solutions to their problems.
In psychotherapy, the dilemma of whether it is best to allow the child to struggle, be unhappy, anxious, angry, etc., is addressed by considering what the negative consequences are FOR THE CHILD if he is allowed to continue his bad feelings vs. the outcome of allowing the child to cope with the situation on his own or with some degree of help from the parent. A consideration here is always the question of whether ending the child’s unhappiness is for the child or because it is too painful for the parent to tolerate the experience of her child in distress. Also to be wondered about is whether the experience being attributed to the child is really the child’s feelings or is the parent assuming that the child is feeling what they would feel (or may have memories of feeling) at that age or in that circumstance?
If the toddler gets the toy and the parents of the 6 year old forgo their night out, the child could feel heard, cared about, and/or loved. Or, the toddler or the crying 6 year old could get the message that he is more powerful than his parents. This is not what he really wants. He knows he is not more powerful, and it can be frightening to him to think that he is in charge. He could become afraid and anxious about his own aggression and learn to keep his desires to himself. The 11 year old whose parents do too much of his school project because they can’t tolerate his frustration may get a message that he is a person who deserves to be supported and helped. He could also feel that his parents believe he needs them in order to succeed in the world and doesn’t have what it takes to make it on his own. If you give in to your 16 year old and let her have a later curfew, will you be saying I trust you to take good care of yourself or will you be responding to her anger toward you and signaling that she can’t express angry feelings toward you?
Parenting is filled with dilemmas every day. The examples suggested here don’t imply that there is a correct way to deal with these situations. So much depends on the context and on the parents’ awareness of what it is about their own feelings in the situation that is influencing their behavior toward their children. For example, if parents can tolerate their child’s expression of angry feelings that are hurtful to them (as opposed to unacceptable behavior), they will be fostering the ability to individuate. In contrast, the parent that responds by saying “Don’t be mad at me, that hurts my feelings” is signaling that the child should keep his feelings to himself and protect the parent. It suggests that the child’s feelings do harm. It suggests: keep your inner self (your real feelings) to yourself and be the person your parent wants you to be, not the individual you are.
At each level of a child’s development, there are different considerations and dilemmas. In the first year of life, the infant’s nervous system is not prepared to sustain the same kind of distress as a 5 year old who wants to buy a toy and is having a tantrum. If the 5 year old is involved in a power struggle with a parent and needs to be assured that the parent is in control and needs to have limits set, then it is probably best he not get the toy and that the parent try to get through the tantrum. But there are always reasons that it might make sense to get the toy: For example, has the child just had an experience like difficulty with separation at school or has a parent been away for a few days? Then it may be best to soothe the child and get the toy. How do you know what to do? Each situation must be considered, and parents do the best they can to respond to what the situation demands. This is very different than making choices influenced by the parent’s difficulty in tolerating their child’s or their own feelings.
Recognizing the importance of thinking about the effect of the parent’s response to the child’s feelings is important because parents need to provide the conditions that allow children to develop the belief that their feelings are all right and that they can be trusted to be in charge of their own decision making. If they don’t know or can’t trust their feelings, their ability to individuate is impeded.
What can happen if over the course of development, two well-intentioned parents treat their child in a way to prevent his suffering? These hypothetical parents want the best for their child: don’t be upset, do well in school, have the right kind of friends, put on a good appearance, etc. In attempting to protect their child, these parents didn’t let him cry very much at bedtime; they bought him the toy because it is too upsetting for him (and them) to be told “no”; they did a lot of his homework and suggested and worked on his projects; they commented about his friends and his taste in clothes; they chose the colleges he applied to.
The possible consequences of these choices can be understood as we look at the now “grown up” 23 year old. He wants to please everyone because he has learned that people (parents) don’t want him to be upset or angry or frustrated. He doesn’t feel that he can do well at work because he hasn’t learned that it is okay to fail and struggle before you succeed. His parents thought they were protecting him, but he is not prepared to go into the world with the idea that his needs and feelings matter and that he can take care of himself. He has never learned to struggle and fail and then succeed. He has never been helped to trust his own voice, accept his own feelings, and know that he can cope with the difficult ones. He hasn’t become an individual who knows that he has what it takes to get what he wants in his relationships and from the world.
*I will use “mother” to refer to the mothering parent.
© Copyright 2010 by By Beverly Amsel, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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