I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time and that’s pull out some comments for the next post because it got me thinking and I appreciate that Cynthia is giving me the opportunity to do this. On my last post Cynthia, who is also a therapist here in town, wrote:
I have to admit I find this discussion difficult, and that I have a bias after reading Alice Miller’s books (For Your Own Good, etc.). I think there’s a level beyond political correctness where we have to start to acknowledge what we know about the nervous system responses to certain kinds of treatment, and do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence.
Alice Miller, if you haven’t read her, is a German psychoanalyst who looks at the ways trauma and abuse are perpetuated across generations. Her books are dense but very good and I sometimes recommend them to clients who are working to figure out the impact their own childhood is having on their lives. I’ll also add that Cynthia is a therapist who specializes in trauma work and it makes sense that she would look at my last post through this lens. But for my purposes, doing this is problematic and I wanted to explain why.
Generally speaking, people come to therapy because there’s something that isn’t working in their lives. The very act of making an appointment with a therapist is a request for change and a statement of some level of willingness to explore the possibility of doing the hard work of changing. This is where we begin together, a vulnerable parent who is sad or anxious or angry and me, the person who ostensibly has the answers for them. But I believe that one of the problems for parents is all of the experts (official ones like whoever is writing the latest book and unofficial ones like whoever is standing behind you in the checkout lane criticizing your parenting) and so I want to help the parent locate their own inner expert, which means we are actually going to start with the assumption that the parent has the answers but hasn’t figured out how to tap into them. The stuff I know is about kids and parenting in general but what you know is the specificity of you and your child, which takes precedence as we chart our way.
Nearly twenty years ago, as a new parent myself I found my philosophical home in a very particular local mom’s meeting, which was a radical attachment parenting type meeting. I had one baby and I loved him to distraction and everyone kept telling me to put him down only I didn’t want to put him down. I was trying to figure out who I was as a mother and I was trying to do it — like we all try to do it — against a background of other people telling me what kind of mother I ought to be. Going to that meeting gave me permission to do the things I wanted to do anyway and when I got criticism I had answers to it because of what I was learning there. That meeting shaped my identity as a parent in many, many good ways (and, I’ll add, my identity as a therapist).
But I remember other mothers who came to that same meeting and didn’t find answers and freedom; they found rigidity and judgment. The motherhood identity they wanted to craft didn’t align with the culture of that community. That group took a hard-line “baby comes first,” which is not flexible enough for the reality of mothering for most of us. (You’ll note, too, that my language here has shifted to mothers because it is inevitably mothers who are taking the hit on child-first parenting.) For me, my values aligned enough with the group’s values that I could make the necessary shifts to write my narrative without losing access to my village but for other women, the village began to feel more like a prison.
Back to my clients, many of whom come from the same rigid parenting community that I came from. I know this community well because I’ve been living there for going on two decades and I know how hard we are on ourselves and on each other. I know that Cynthia’s well-intentioned plea that we “do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence” is exactly the kind of language we use in our community when we’re talking about parenting but I also know that it’s this kind of language that is hurting us.
I’m going to take crying it out to talk about it because that’s what my original post was about. The word “violence” is the kind of word the gentle parenting community might use when we’re talking about sleep training. But using words like “violence” stops the conversation cold. After all, there is no excuse for violence against a child so the exhausted mother is left without recourse. There is no flexibility, no nuance in the conversation when we equate actual child abuse with sleep training.
Sleep and the lack thereof is strongly correlated with mental health and so helping families how to manage night-time parenting is a huge — HUGE — part of the work I do with postpartum mothers. For most of us, sleep is terribly fraught, tied up with her own feelings of abandonment and fear and revisited again and again throughout the first few years. Sleep training is not the right answer for every family but sometimes it is and we cannot know that if we can’t even have the conversation.
(I’ll add that I don’t think Cynthia is equating sleep training to violence because I think she’s talking about a broader need to be willing to speak out against certain kinds of truly violent parenting and to be willing to think critically about our choices. I agree with this. However the parents I see in my office, they’re all too critical of themselves already and the violence they are perpetuating tends to be against themselves. Which is to say, while Cynthia is pointing to a necessary conversation we need to have culturally, my post is directed to the parent who is likely already having it.)
As I said in my comment to Cynthia, my blog post (all of them actually) is targeted to the ordinary good enough parent, which is the vast majority of us. I am starting with the assumption that if you’re reading my blog or contacting me for services then you are an ordinary good enough parent. I’m going to assume that you are doing a lot of things right. I’m going to believe that you know what’s best for your family only you might not know it yet or you may not be clear how to get there. Of course if I see you doing harm — real harm — to yourself or your child then of course I’m going to tell you (and as a mandated reporter, if I see instances of abuse I will tell you but I will also tell the authorities) but I’m not going to start from the assumption that that’s where you are because most of us are NOT. Most of us, as I said, are ordinary good enough parents and all of us need and deserve respectful support as we make our way.
This is a nifty exercise to do with kids and I’ve had occasion to think about it lately so I thought I’d also write it up here.
Many of the kids I see are struggling with angry behaviors and getting to what lies under the anger is part of our process together. Depending on the child’s age and understanding, we do a modified version of this exercise.
First we talk about how angry is made up of lots of different emotions but figuring out which ones is tricky. So I tell them that we’re going to play detective and look at some different scenarios to figure out what’s going on under the anger.
I use index cards or slips of paper with the following emotions listed on them (these are taken from this Managing Your Anger poster).
We go through the list and I make sure they have a basic understanding of what each one means. I also have blank cards available for children to add an emotion if they feel like there’s something missing. Sometimes they’ll want to add something that seems redundant to me, like Unhappiness. I’ll check in, does Sadness cover that or do they want to add it? Sometimes they won’t realize sadness is there or sometimes they’ll explain to me why Unhappiness is different and I get to learn something new about their experiences. Likewise if they say that Anxiety and Worry seem the same to them I tell them to just use whichever one they feel is the best fit.
To keep kids interested, we usually use figures or puppets to set the scenarios up. This might be acting out the scenario or it might just be placing the figures as a kind of panorama of what’s happening. This can be a lot of fun for them. I’ll say, “Ok, for this one we’ll need a sister or brother and a mom” and they giggle to pick out the people or animals who fit.
I try to choose stories that the children can relate to and I try to choose ones that come from real life. Something like:
–Amy wakes up super excited about going to the park but when she comes down for breakfast her mom tells her that it’s going to rain so they have to cancel the park date. What do you think is under Amy’s anger?
–Sebastian is supposed to play four square with his friend at recess but when he comes out after lunch is friend is already playing with someone else. What do you think is under Sebastian’s anger?
For older kids I might use more complicated scenarios:
–Cleo has been thinking about the slumber party for weeks and can’t wait to go. When she gets there she finds out that the other girls have been texting each other plans for the night but Cleo doesn’t have a phone yet so she wasn’t included. Now all the girls are giggling about something and they won’t tell Cleo what. What do you think is under Cleo’s anger?
–Dane studied super hard for the math test and thinks he did well. The next day the teacher calls him over and tells him that his answers were exactly the same as the student sitting next to him. Dane realizes that his friend must have copied the answers. What do you think is under Dane’s anger?
We do several of these with the child picking out the emotion cards that fit the situation. After they’ve done this we take a minute to contemplate what they’ve chosen. I always praise the child’s insight and we discuss those underlying emotions.
I don’t ask why they made their choices as in “Tell me why you chose Worried” because that can put some kids on the defensive. First I agree with them and then I might ask for more: “Yeah, frustration, I bet Sebastian was really frustrated! I’m curious about Fear, can you tell me more about that?”
I do not ask them what they’re missing or if they can think of one more because this exercise is to help them start feeling more confident about their ability to identify emotions (and sometimes it’s also a good assessment tool for me if I’m not sure where they are). If I do think there’s a glaring omission I might say, “This is really excellent. You’ve caught the Sadness and Frustration that might be under Amy’s anger. I wonder if she might feel Disappointed, too. What do you think?”
And we talk about it.
I usually do five or six of these generic scenes (with one specifically picked because the child will probably relate to it — for example, using a sibling scenario if the child struggles with anger towards a sibling). Using a generic but familiar scenario opens up the idea that we can come up with a scene from their own lives. Most of the time they’re willing to do this but if not, that’s fine.
Sometimes we invite a parent to come in and play the game to see if they can guess what feelings are under their child’s anger during a particular incident that’s come up in therapy and then the child gets to tell their parent what they got right and what they got wrong.
We can also talk about how Worried Anger might need a different response than Embarrassed Anger and we can come up with a game plan that the child can share with loved ones to help them deal with the next meltdown. If they’re not willing or able to talk about an incident from their own life or relate the exercise to their own experience we stay focused on other stories and I heap on the praise. If a child is having a hard time with emotional literacy than my goal is to build their confidence as we build their skills. Heck, if a child can identify one emotion — or can understand why I chose an emotion and help me talk about it — that’s a big accomplishment and sets the stage for more storytelling and emotional identification later on down the line.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could neatly close out chapters in our lives before moving onto the next one? You know, resolve all relationship issues and put lingering conflicts with family to rest and take a nice predictable staircase up to enlightenment?
Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that especially because our ideas about closure usually involve a very specific response from someone else. We want answers. We want to make amends or apologies and be forgiven. Or we want someone to ask us for forgiveness. But hanging our personal growth on someone’s very specific response is never going to work and focusing on our need for that response can keep us stuck in one place focusing on one thing.
Really what we need is not closure but understanding. We need to make sense of the events in our lives, which doesn’t mean figuring out why this person or that person treated us badly. The truth is, understanding why someone treated us badly — hearing them explain it — will be an empty exercise if we haven’t worked towards our own resolution.
In theory, it sounds great. Someone comes to us and says, “I was a jerk and here is why. I’m sorry. I should have been kinder.” But very few people outside of 12-step programs are going to do that. Besides if we aren’t ready to forgive someone then his or her apology won’t mean anything to us.
We need to grieve our losses and process our pain. We need to make sense of what that bad treatment means to us regardless of what it means to the person who treated us badly. We need to learn how to live with hurts that can’t be undone.
We also need to understand that making sense of our lives is an ongoing exercise. You may have resolved childhood hurts in your twenties only to have them come back up when you have children in your thirties. You may resolve them when your children arrive only to have them come back up once again two decades later when your children move out. It’s like when you read The Great Gatsby in tenth grade and you don’t get it then you dust it off years later and it’s whole different book. That’s how life is.
Once you accept that there are rarely — if ever — tidy resolutions then you can quit banging your head against the wall demanding them and start making sense of the events of your life.
One reason we have so many disagreements with each other is that there is Big Truth and little truth and we get mixed up over which is which.
There is the Truth (I walked towards you) and the truth (I lunged at you aggressively, I simpered as I tiptoed to you, I drunkenly veered your way). We both may agree on the Truth (I did indeed move from one end of the room to the other end of the room where you were standing) but we may violently disagree on the truth. You might say I deliberately tracked mud onto your just shampooed carpet. I might say that I was in a hurry because the phone was ringing. We might both be right. We might both be wrong.
Clearly, truth telling can create a lot of conflict.
So much of our struggling in our relationships has to do with telling our truths and denying your truths. We get hung up on specifics and never get to what’s really wrong. We are so busy defending our truth (You did call. You did not call. You never call. Well, you’re never home.) and so we argue argue argue but we never make any resolution.
A long time ago there was a woman at the shelter where I worked who was a liar. She had a very complex, very disturbing story about abuse and it was clearly not true (nor was she delusional). One of the case managers got a little obsessed with trying to get this woman to admit that the story wasn’t true but the rest of us felt (and told the case manager this at the weekly staff meeting) that what was True was that this woman felt victimized and harmed and wanted/needed attention around that. Now mind you, we were an emergency shelter so it was not our job (or our expertise) to counsel but we felt that what was more important than forcing this woman to shed her truth was to figure out how to help her within that truth so that she could get to the next place — secure housing, real therapy, etc. This haggling over details wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
So the truth is not always True and the Truth doesn’t always matter.
Sometimes counseling is mucking around in truth and listening hard and honestly? To me it can feel a lot like writing an essay. If you’ve done any writing then likely you know how you write into what you know that you didn’t know you knew. (My favorite quote about this is: “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s E. M. Forster.) That’s how counseling can be, too. Just as we write to understand ourselves and the editor helps the writer (myself or others) in the process, so in counseling there is that storytelling structure.
So you can show up at a counseling office without any idea of what you’re thinking because part of finding out what you think is seeing what comes out of your mouth.
The counselor is a lot like an editor helping you make sense of your story. You don’t have to understand your story when you come to the counselor because she’s not listening for The Truth, she’s listening for your truth and seeing the big structure so she can ask the questions that will help you understand your experience.