Parents Need Care Too
There is a lot of good content on the internet these days for parents of young children by people I respect (mostly child psychologists). These blog/instagram/facebook/tiktok posts offer interventions, language and behavior changes that parents can use in an effort to have a more positive relationship with their children. They speak to challenging everyday moments that parents can relate to. Moments where boundaries get pushed, big emotions take center stage and conflict feels inevitable. I appreciate these suggested changes to the language and value-structuring of parenting. I find them useful and have shared them with friends, family and colleagues. However, I think what these posts can’t encapsulate is the deeper personal meaning embedded in parenthood and how that meaning shapes the overall climate of our parenting and whether or not that climate is a hospitable one for ourselves and our children.
The truth is parenting is much more than a set of parenting guidelines. Parenting is a psychologically complicated task. It enlivens within us a complex web of history, expectations, hopes and fears. We bring to bear on our children both the strengths and weaknesses of those who cared for us. We see in our children’s frustrations and disappointments our own painful limitations. We want our children to be like us so that we might feel close to them, while at the same time fearing that they will be hurt, and hurt others, in the ways that we have experienced and enacted pain. Our children’s vulnerability stirs in us defenses against our own vulnerability as well as theirs. It asks us to be sturdy adults when at times we feel small and unmoored. This is only a short synthesis of what parenthood can unearth within us. The list is long and deeply personal, wound in the past and riddled with hidden sore spots about what it means to need or want care.
Most of us don’t have (or make) time to tend to our own experience of being a parent and what it brings up for us. We are quick to blame ourselves for moments that feel like parenting misses, but stop short of understanding what goes on for us in these exchanges. It’s not work that is easily done on one’s own. Parenthood is a deeply relational experience. In order to consistently access our own empathetic and responsive parent-selves we need to have a lived experience of being tended to in a similar way. That’s why I believe that therapy for parents can be so vital. Many of us didn’t have the parents we want to be and yet, we expect ourselves to produce an experience for our children that we haven’t lived. Even if we did have loving attentive parents, we might find ourselves without someone who listens deeply to us now, leaving us feeling depleted of the care we wish to offer.
This is what a therapeutic relationship can provide. It is a form of profound self-care where for one hour a week every story, every feeling, every messy moment that you bring to (or create with) your therapist is tended to, treated as meaningful, and offered care. At its best, therapy is the kind of environment we’re striving to create for our kids: non judgmental, honest, clarifying, tender, boundaried and safe. It can be a place (to steal some language from famous psychologist Donald Winnicott) where all our many “bits come together and we feel something.” An ongoing experience of being cared for is a well from which a parent can draw from. It is my experience that what children need most isn’t a perfectly constructed response in a difficult moment but a parent who seems to be able to offer reliable, authentic care, and, I believe that springs forth from parents who feel cared for themselves.
At Thought Partners, we work with many parents to support them through this uniquely challenging yet beautiful opportunity. If you or someone you know may need support, please reach out to us.