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Is it all my fault?

Is it all my fault?It’s the therapy stereotype, right? It’s always your mother’s fault! No wonder then that many of the parents I see come in feeling defensive or feeling guilty.

“Did I do something wrong?” they ask me. “Did I create these issues? Is it all my fault?”

My answer to this is probably going to feel frustrating: I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.

Here’s the deal: different kids need different kinds of parents and sometimes those different kids live in the same family, which means the fool proof technique you had for dealing with one child’s tantrums is not necessarily going to work with dealing with the next child’s tantrums. In fact, it might make things worse. Remember there is no one size fits all parenting.

Let’s take childhood anxiety. Anxiety has at its core a whole lot of nature and a healthy dose of nurture. Parents with anxious temperaments often give birth to children with anxious temperaments. That’s not anyone’s fault; that’s genetics. Also parents who deal with the world in an anxious way inadvertently model that anxious way of dealing with the world for their children. That’s nobody’s fault either anymore than the way parents who read a lot tend to have kids who read a lot. Modeling is powerful.

That said, once the family realizes that their child is struggling with anxiety there is an opportunity to explore the way that parenting choices may be influencing that struggle.

Let me give you an example. Consider bedtime routines. Any parenting expert type out there will tell you that bedtime routines are terrific, right? Do a quick google and you have people promising you that having a routine will make your evenings “battle-free” and “sleep-inducing.” And I agree — having a predictable routine before bed is great sleep hygiene. But if you have a child with an anxiety disorder then that friendly little routine can become a prison where mom or dad has to stand in the doorway and say “Good night” exactly this way with exactly that inflection or the whole routine has to start over again.

Then it may be that changing the parent’s behavior is part of what needs to happen next — the solution may lie in part in the parent’s actions — but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s all the mom and dad’s fault for creating a bedtime routine in the first place.

When my son was small I used to fantasize about having a Sims-type game where I could program all of my son’s characteristics into the computer and try out different parenting choices to see which would be the best one. Like, this Sim-baby I could send to preschool and that one I could keep home. This one I could be really stern with and that one I could lean more towards permissive. At the end of the game I’d know exactly the right way to raise my actual baby here in front of me.

Unfortunately we don’t have that. Instead we have a lot of advice and a lot of research, (which is helpful but not definitive) and a lot of books and neighbors and teachers and therapists and then we have our own hopes and dreams and histories and expectations. Then throw in kids with wildly different temperaments, abilities, interests, talents and challenges and well, we end up with a whole mess of confusion.

In short, we’re going to do some things right and we’re going to do some things wrong. Sometimes the wrongs are no big deal and sometimes we’re going to have to course correct. Sometimes a bedtime routine is awesome and sometimes it’s ripe with dysfunction for no other reason than there’s a perfect storm of this parent, this technique and this child and it’s not working.

(This is also why none of us should ever be smug with each other. Show me a parent who has a child who is a shining beacon of perfection and I’ll show you a parent who got lucky. In parenting, like in all things, some of us have it easier than others just because.)

So if you come to me and say, “Is this all my fault?” I’m going to say that I think you’re asking the wrong question. I’m going to encourage you to say, instead, “What can we do now to help things be better?”

Family Secrets

cosmicmoon-insideThe other day I was headed to a meeting, listening to NPR in the radio. Fresh Air was on and Terry Gross was interviewing Sarah Polley about her new documentary, Stories We Tell, which is about Sarah examining the story she was told. Sarah’s mother died when she was eleven and she died without telling Sarah that her husband was not Sarah’s biological father. Sarah discovered this as an adult and she was the one who ultimately had to tell her dad that they’re not biologically related.

I stopped and listened because the parallels to closed adoption and parents who don’t tell their children when they are conceived donor gametes are so similar (except that in those cases one can assume that both parents know the secret).

In the featured quotes pulled out from the interview, Sarah says she doesn’t regret her mother choosing to keep this secret.

“To be honest, I don’t see what the point would have been [of] telling me when I was a child about this. I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family and I was very much a part of that family, and I’m not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion.”

When I heard that I thought about the many parents who will take that and hold it tight to justify their own secret keeping. But note that her mother died when she was eleven. And note, too, that the story is complicated by the fact that Sarah was conceived during an adulterous affair.

I wonder if/when Sarah’s mother would have finally told her. By keeping the secret, Sarah’s mother gave away her opportunity to be the person to tell her daughter, to ask her for understanding, to explain herself. She also made the decision for Sarah to not know her own truth and the decision for her husband and Sarah’s biological father to not know either; she gave away their opportunities, too. And she saddled Sarah with the responsibility to keep the secret since Sarah knew for some time before she told her father (her hand was forced when a journalist confronted her with it).

That is a lot — A LOT — to put on your kid.

I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know why Sarah’s mother made the decision she did although I am sure her intentions were good.

Parents keep secrets because they want to protect their children but the secret-keeping can do more harm than the secret itself ever could. Because when the child (or adult) finds out the truth they have to contend with this truth and also their feelings about having that truth kept from them.

If you’re trying to figure out how to talk to your child about his or her adoption or conception story, please think of giving me a call. Maybe I can help you sort through the muddle.

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