I recently visited an area on the west coast of Sweden, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring thousands of rock carvings from the Bronze Age in an area called Tanum. They roughly go back to 1800 BCE. These are remarkable as some of the earliest representations of human life. As I stood and stared at primitive drawings of the human experience, including what appears to be a marriage ritual, a widow on her knees grieving, and many depictions of ships perhaps indicating the primary means of travel and trade or as a sign of burial, I wondered about the first instincts in human beings to imagine themselves. What is equally interesting are the various interpretations that have been attempted at the meaning behind the stone carvings, interpretations which have changed dramatically over time, and which, to my mind, are closely tied to shifts in our cultural viewpoints and consciousness.
The reason I reference my outing today is that ultimately, each of us has a particular fantasy with which we view the world. Our ability to see something not just as an object with objective features but to then interpret it is what makes us uniquely human and, moreover, is the part of our brain that continues to develop and grow into our late thirties. Basic patterns of representation are being laid down through our early experience of the world and it is in the neocortex that we begin to form these associations and representations. As we get older, we have to then borrow from used material, which is why learning things like language can be more difficult as we get older. We actually have to recycle old neurons to learn something new.
This is also related to how successfully our brain grows. I have referenced this research before but PET scans of children’s brains demonstrate how loving attachment figures literally enable the brain to grow in size and ultimately to foster the capacity to symbolize. A basic example of early symbolization is the child who not only emotionally experiences the satiation of hunger from the parent, as in the body ceases to feel physical pangs of needing to eat, but then associates the parent symbolically with the object that will satisfy them. These are the first stages of attachment, which is partially why a child will go to their parent and feel safer than meeting someone new to whom they do not have this visceral and symbolic connection.
In my recent interview with Maria Kempinska, we discussed the notion of engendering hope in a child. The worst thing a parent can do is shame a child for having innate emotional responses to the world or punish them for expressing feelings of loneliness and isolation. A common example of this is a child who feels isolated at school, stops paying attention, perhaps gets into trouble, and then is continually reprimanded at home for failing to live up to expectations. This is a clear example of a failure to symbolize. The parent has either lost or never had the capacity to imagine the child’s pain.
Children will push all the buttons through no fault of their own, which is why comments such as, “You are a difficult child” are so utterly damaging. It is an evacuation on the parent’s part of their pain and one of the building blocks of intergenerational trauma.
These experiences, though, can be repaired. Maria and I dive into the weeds in this regard in our conversation.
The Pressure of Parenthood
What happens to parents when a child is born?
There’s always somebody that takes the vulnerability of the child and it’s always very difficult. If the mother has had a child, she becomes vulnerable and asks and wants the father to take over slightly to protect her. That’s his role.
But the father then has to draw something out of himself to protect the child. He wonders, “What is that? Can I find that within myself?” Truly, if your father couldn’t do that, where do you find that from? You’ve got to either find it archetypally from within you or you’ve got to find it from somebody else that you’ve seen: it could be a role model, a brother, or a friend.
The Uniqueness of Each Child
At that moment, we’re all trying things on for size. Because even if our parents did do it, it may not work with this particular child.
We all think that when a child comes in we know what they’re going to be like and that every child is the same. They’re not. Each child comes in with a personal genius or a daemon. The daemon is a Greek term for carrying that unique part of yourself. But it also includes the good and the bad and it’s our job to draw out the good and make a child understand what is the good and what is the bad.
Parents, therefore, need to maintain a certain capacity within themselves. They need to acknowledge their own adult disappointment and the death of their own fantasy for this child and, in that moment, not only just maintain space for but then actively nurture and encourage something that may cause a parent incredible distress if unconsciously they didn’t even realize this may be the epigenetic component.
Anxiety becomes this bad word. We don’t want to be negative so we try and whitewash everything. But if we don’t acknowledge and normalize the great despair that we feel as parents when there’s loss, then we’re going to feel strange or we’re going to get pills because we think, “Oh, now I have an anxiety disorder.”
What if, actually, you’re dying inside? That’s important and that needed to happen to make room for the burgeoning spirit of the child that is coming up against all this unprocessed memory that the child is bringing to the surface.
The Self-Reflection Parents Need to Do
When a child does something wrong, that’s good because they are now creating their own individuality.
Can we withstand that? Can we as parents withstand a child who says no to us?
If we, as we were growing up, were not allowed to have our own formation of our own character and had to say yes all the time, what does it feel like now when a child says no? Do we say, “Ah, that’s what it’s like. That’s what I should have been like. I should have been given that opportunity.” Or do we go back and say, “No, you’re not allowed to say no because I wasn’t allowed to say no. You’re not allowed to have an individuality because I wasn’t allowed to have it.” This is the self reflective nature that we have to try to tap into.
Be Good Enough, Not Perfect
Additionally, sometimes we’re on the edge as parents to be perfect.
I say, don’t be perfect. We have to be a good enough parent because the child needs to grow and break up against us.
So have your rules. You’ve got to say, “No, that’s wrong. Don’t put your hand in the fire even if you want to.” The will of the child cannot be dominant in the family.
So, even though, especially today we are expecting parents to be perfect, things have to go wrong. The key is how to repair it.
The Active Process of Learning and Repairing
Parenting is not going into a relationship having a fixed set of values and things you want to teach your child. It is an active recursive process whereby we are always changing and learning about the new aspects of our child’s burgeoning identity and being aware of how that affects us on deep emotional levels. The capacity to be depressed and anxious is a crucial aspect of being able to parents and be aware of new and sometimes overwhelmingly negative emotions while still remaining present.
Psychotherapy is not about the past. It’s not about somebody surviving the past. It’s about surviving the future.
You don’t have to feel ashamed if you get it wrong but you should be concerned if you don’t go back and talk about it. That actually is what the brain loves. The brain needs to know that somebody is going to be there for you when you are hurt in the future so that if something is going wrong, the brain says this is tolerable because I’m not alone.
Don’t freak out if you disappoint your kids but you should rather focus on going back into those emotions. If you cannot revisit these moments, it will set up a fear of the future because someone says, “I can’t survive this because I will be alone.” That’s the anxiety. It’s not, “I was alone” but, “I will be alone.”
If you want to learn more about intergenerational trauma and how to parent honestly and not responsively, check out Episode 011: Like a Rooted Tree: The Importance of Self Reflection in Parenting and How to Withstand the Child’s Difference with Psychotherapist Maria Kempinska.