Melissa frequently screamed at her children. This impulsive, angry behavior would occur over the tiniest of infractions - spilling things, making messes, and forgetting chores. She felt guilty for mistreating her children, but was incapable of changing her perplexing parental pattern.
Parenting is an art. The role comes with no manuals. Often, adults have no perspective on how to raise their kids. Melissa had no role models or prior emotional experience to prepare her with the tool chest of strategies to use in addressing the needs of her children. She felt alone in her new responsibility.
Melissa's own childhood was troubled. Her father was emotionally vacant and her mother was aggressive, harsh and critical. She recalled her mother calling her out when she came home with less than an A on her report card. Melissa was a superior student who outperformed other family members, completing her MBA and working as a corporate manager. She was an anxious achiever, who performed to please, hoping to get the admiration and validation of her emotionally unavailable parents. As Melissa worked harder without gaining parental recognition and support, she turned her thoughts and feelings inward, believing that she was defective. Her disappointment fueled her to try even harder to win her parents’ approval.
By the time Melissa came to counseling, she was exhausted. She was tired of pleasing others, being aggressive with her kids and mistrustful of disclosing her feelings with friends and family. When Melissa attempted to confide in her mother, the conversation got flipped as her self-absorbed mom proceeded to explore her drama from everyday living. Melissa learned to keep her distance.
In the search for adulthood, children from troubled families must give up the illusion that someday their parents will morph and become the loving, caring adults they always yearned for. After much soul-searching, emotional upheaval and grieving, Melissa would need to swallow the bitter pill, recognizing that her parents would never meet her needs. Only then, could she let go of her perplexing dilemma of internalizing her parents’ negative energy. Through processing, forgiving and releasing her past, Melissa was prepared to undertake a journey to learn new, more adaptive thinking and behaving in the here-and-now.
Melissa no longer allowed her parents to have power over her present experience. She was now capable of listening to the inter-critic, a representation of her mother's complex of thoughts and feelings. She learned to detach from the contents of the critic by rationally responding with positive self-talk that was genuine.
No one emerges from a troubled childhood without the battle scars to prove it. Melissa confronted her wounds and found healing and new hope for the future. She became aware of childhood interpretations that haunted her, and no longer allowed them to get activated with significant others. Here are a few core beliefs that got triggered:
- I must perform admirably at all times.
- I must always try harder to please others.
- If I share my honest feelings, people can't be trusted to listen without judgment and maintain confidentiality.
Instead, she learned to reinterpret these childhood scripts with more adaptive assumptions:
- It's okay to slack at times. I can be less than perfect.
- I don't always need the approval of other people in order to feel good about myself.
- I can selectively choose friends to confide in. I need to allow others to experience the essence of my true self.
Adults tend to replicate the past, unless they process it. Melissa left the magical illusions of childhood behind in search for authentic adulthood. She developed more patience with her children and learned more effective parenting skills by:
- Creating more emotional involvement
- Setting consistent consequences for positive and negative behavior
- Establishing better boundaries
- Learning to take care of her own needs as a parent
- Becoming more supportive and encouraging to her children.
Melissa broke the perplexing parenting trap. Adverse childhood experiences had affected her ability to cope appropriately with her children and family. No longer believing she was at fault for what had happened to her as a child, she was released to devote more positive energy to parenting her children with success.
Note: This case is a composite drawn from my practice as a psychotherapist. It has been altered to protect the individual’s right to confidentiality and privacy.