Last summer I was outside chatting with my neighbor, a very bubbly, high-energy nurse, happily married, with five kids. She and her husband were the ‘neighborhood socialites’. You know the house, the one where there’s a party 6 nights a week.
That particular night, as we all sat around talking and laughing about something I don’t remember, my neighbor paused, took a sip of wine and said; “… sometimes I look at my kids and wonder if I’m f***ing them up”.
That moment was so real. I could definitely relate because I’ve second-guessed my parenting skills numerous times over the years.
Remember when they were first born?
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.
It seems parenting would get easier as they get older. So not true. Different age means different needs. Sure, our children get older and become more self-sufficient. But there’s always an interesting, new challenge.
No parent is perfect. But 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 child is likely to feel secure and trusting. Our children depend on us for survival and, therefore, are highly attuned to our emotions.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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 low self-esteem.
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.
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 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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Source: Original, unedited article: http://www.google.com/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201106/your-child-s-self-esteem-starts-you?amp, Dr. Lisa Firestone on parenting (2011).