“The best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.”
Daniel J. Siegel
If you had a difficult childhood, you can overcome your experiences.
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
You can “make sense” of those experiences and become a deeper and more intentional parent in spite of, and even because of, difficulty in childhood. These hardships will not pass to our children through our DNA. If we refuse to continue bad traditions, they die.
“From the house of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one’s first home. And that is almost always so if there is any love and harmony in the family at all. Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.”
We all had a difficult childhood. This is not to discount the pain of childhood trauma – some of us have much more to overcome than others.* But we are not alone if we harbor pain from our earliest memories. We can find precious memories even in a “bad home”. We can turn pain into triumph. We should avoid catastrophizing the imperfections of our parents or allowing a difficult childhood to define us. Human history is full of suffering, full of parents who made a mess of things.
We have memories for a purpose. Painful memories are a tool, they can help us consciously determine how to move forward into the present.
“The purpose of memory is to extract out from the past the lessons to structure the future. If you have a traumatic memory, that is really obsessing you, if you analyze that memory to the point where you figured out how you may have put yourself at risk and you determine how you might avoid that in the future than the emotion associated with that goes away. So memory has a very pragmatic function.”
When bad things happen to a child, as they inevitably will, the parent must swiftly and intentionally act so their memory is not steeped in pain, but instead in a feeling of overcoming. Children must be left with a firm understanding of what happened and how it will be avoided or overcome should it arise again. When this does not happen in childhood- because of inattentive, ignorant, imperfect, or malevolent parents – we have painful childhood memories.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Traumatic events and abuse make for difficult memories, but even more subtle perceptions gained in childhood can become stumbling blocks to progress in adulthood. Parents’ actions and teachings may have turned some of our unconscious perceptions away from reality, away from an understanding of moral truth, and have inhibited us from knowing and feeling the true God. The way our parents related to us may skew our perception of our own worth.
Perhaps you had a mother that only showed love when you accomplished something. Now you have become a perfectionist, never feeling valuable in your inadequacy. There is a lie you believe. Your worth is not derived from your accomplishments.
Perhaps your father heaped excess praise and attention on you for your physical attractiveness. Now you believe that if you are not beautiful you are not lovable. This is a lie you believe. Your worth and value is not derived from physical beauty, which inevitably fades, your worth is as eternal as you are.
“We cannot change anything unless we accept it.”
Let’s analyze the lies we believe, the stumbling blocks of perception upon which we repeatedly fall. As we examine our childhood we can move forward with hope, knowing our own children will have parents that have sought to make sense of their own childhood and will be better parents as a result.
“Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not have to determine your fate. If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations.”
Daniel J. Siegel
*Some may read this and believe the horrific conditions of their childhood are too much to overcome. The road may not be an easy one. Only God knows what you have been through. Every suffering of every child is known to Him. Every child is loved by Him. He promises to make recompense. The lyrics to this song are a powerful reminder to me, when it seems we no one understands- God knows.
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”
My family recently returned from a trip out West, visiting my parents in a small rural town. It was a wonderful adventure for my children to be able to ride Grandpa’s horses, climb mountains, and enjoy the soft green grass – a luxury compared with the bristly variety of Southern Texas. One afternoon, my kids and I drove into town to get ice cream. When we were finished, my eldest son, Calvin, 10, asked if he could walk back to Grandpa’s house. It was only about a half mile and with Dr. Peterson’s voice ringing in my head warning me against over-protection, I said he could. (clip on overprotection)
My little daughter, 5, with a similar independent streak also wanted to go but I decided against it. Off went my son, seeking sovereignty from his mother, while I gathered things up and loaded the kids in the car. A few minutes later, as I drove towards home, I noticed that my son was running full speed. I thought he must have decided to race us home. Suddenly, I saw that three ferocious dogs were chasing him and jumping up onto his legs and back. He is a fast kid but could not out-run them. Frantic, I sped up to him. As I approached him he ran across to my side of the road and the dogs backed off. He saw the van and jumped in. He was gasping for air and obviously very traumatized. He was holding his rear and he told me the biggest dog had bit him. My immediate reaction was extreme anger. I got out of the car and started storming towards the house the dogs were now gathered at. I was ready to kick the dogs and pound on the owner’s door. However, as they started barking at me, I realized that they would only attack me as well. I got in the car and went home. My son showed me the bite which was not serious. He was physically okay but he was obviously very emotionally shaken – despite being a very tough boy. I myself was shocked and disturbed having just seen my precious son attacked by dangerous dogs. I thought, What if I had agreed to send my five year old, she may well be dead! I was experiencing first hand the consequences of sending your children out into the dangerous world.
I called the police and the sheriff arrived quickly. He promised to speak to the owner, although without an animal ordinance in the town he said his hands were somewhat tied. I told him to do all he could because it was extremely unsafe for children. I was assured the dogs would be quarantined long enough to ensure there was no risk of rabies.
When I told my son I had to call the police, he said he didn’t want to speak with him, he was still very upset. However, when the sheriff arrived my son regained his composure almost instantly. The sheriff was very respectful and my son gave a thorough description of the event and dogs. I was amazed he could pull it together like that.
After I had done all I could to ensure my son was physically safe and to mitigate the risk these dogs were to others, my worries turned to his mental health. As the daughter of a therapist specializing in childhood trauma, I knew that if distressing experiences are not dealt with properly, they could show up later. I did not want my son to begin feeling anxious or powerless because of this experience. I did not want him to develop a fear of dogs or stop taking risks. I wanted to talk it out with him and make sure he processed it all. However, my mother also reminded me that the more traumatized the parent seems, the bigger chance the child will be also. She said, “Sometimes the child can be more traumatized by the parents’ reactions than by the actual trauma.” I didn’t want to turn this unfortunate incident into something that would plague my son because of my own over-reaction to it. As the day went on, I discovered that although my motherly instincts were correct, I also needed a masculine perspective in order to successfully help my son overcome this traumatic event.
A Feminine Reaction
Because of the anger I was still feeling, and my angst at knowing how much worse it could have been, I discussed the incident with my family quite a bit that day. I tried to minimize it in front of my son but he overheard me exclaiming, “I just can’t stop thinking what would have happened if Laynie had been there!” My son said, “Mom can we please stop talking about this?” I could tell he was serious so agreed that I would lay it to rest. But internally I was still anxious. I thought, He didn’t do enough to work through it, he is repressing.
I called my husband who unfortunately was still in Texas working. He was upset by the situation but remained calm. He spoke briefly to our son to make sure he was okay. Calvin said his rear was sore but that he would be fine. We distracted ourselves the rest of the day and life went on as usual.
In the evening, my son was brushing his teeth with his siblings and I walked into the bathroom. Suddenly he burst into tears and hugged me. I took him into the bedroom because he could not contain his emotions. This was not like my son at all. He is a very tough boy. He is the strong and silent type. I was very surprised to see him reacting in this way. I held him for awhile and then he began saying, “If I had just stayed in the car! Why didn’t I just ride with you? Why did I have to walk?!” All the stress and regret was pouring out of him. I felt like I needed to help him see his success, he had taken control of the situation on his own, “Do you realize you were handling it before I got there? You were running so fast that only one managed to bite you. You knew you had to cross the street. As I arrived they had given up on you.” He needed reassurance that the next time he would succeed, he would overcome those dogs without assistance. He was still quite upset so I asked if he wanted to speak to his dad. I told him that his father had been bit by many dogs when he was a boy in South Africa so maybe he could help him feel better. He nodded his head yes. I dialed my husband and told him Calvin wanted to talk to him.
A Masculine Reaction
I went into the hall with the phone and told my husband that Calvin was very upset and suggested he could tell him about his own experiences with aggressive dogs and help him feel better. I handed the phone to Calvin, expecting his father to take a similar role in attempting to comfort Calvin. However, as soon as I handed the phone to Calvin he immediately stopped crying and composed himself, just as he had with the sheriff. His father must have said hello and asked about his day. My son listed through all the various happenings of the day – going to the lake, playing with his cousins, feeding the horses, but no mention of the dogs. My husband talked to him about sports and other everyday topics. In my head I was thinking “Come on, why isn’t he trying to help him through this.” After awhile they said goodbye and got off the phone. I asked Calvin if he was okay and he went down to bed, calm and collected.
That was the last time Calvin ever got upset about the dogs. The next day his Grandfather wanted to take him and me on a horse ride in the mountains. I resisted, saying he was injured and it was probably better for him to rest – but Calvin insisted that he wanted to go. My father said it would be good for him. As he galloped his horse up the trail, I saw that he was right. Calvin had a look of strength and control as he governed his horse. Calvin had overcome those dogs like a man.
A Stereotype of Roles
Preventing trauma in children requires two important steps from two contrary perspectives. First, children need to feel safe again. Then, children need to regain the courage to face a dangerous world, having learned to persevere. Typically the mother will fulfill the first need, and the father the second, but not always. Different personalities and situations may result or necessitate a shifting of roles.
Dr. Peterson explains the need for two perspectives when raising children. He explains that witnessing a helpless child,
“…should invoke a desire mostly on the part of males to encourage and mostly on the part of females to nurture. But males and females are quite cross-wired among human beings so there is encouragement from the women and there is also nurture from the men. And of course those curves overlap so there are more nurturing males and more encouraging females but the opposite is roughly the archetype (typification).”
For the purpose of this article we will stereotype feminine as comforter and masculine as strengthener. However, who plays the role is not as crucial as ensuring both roles are played out and in the correct way for the prevention of psychological distress. Each parent must be humble enough to realize their own limitations and the strengths of a contrasting perspective.
Feminism and Masculine: Contrary and Complementing
As I observed the interactions my son had with the men around him that difficult day, the sheriff, my father, and his own dad – I realized the necessity of the masculine influence as Calvin overcame this small, yet potentially significant, tribulation.
“Masculinity is bestowed. A boy learns who he is and what he’s got from a man, or the company of men. He cannot learn it any other place. He cannot learn it from other boys, and he cannot learn it from the world of women.”
John Eldredge, Wild at Heart
I would have had a different conversation on the phone, I would have forced the issue and given advice. My husband is not lacking compassion or empathy – but he was exhibiting these traits in a masculine way. As women, sometimes we see the tough and silent way men interact with each other as repressive and unfeeling, when in fact it may be strength and understanding.
“A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others…thus, while the woman thinks of doing good offices (kindness) and the man of respecting other people’s rights, each sex, without any obvious unreason, can and does regard the other as radically selfish.”
C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters)
When attempting to examine the actions of the opposite sex, we are naturally drawn to pass judgment on differences. Many of these judgments are uninformed and shallow. However, as we seek to understand the strengths of each perspective, and the advantages of differing approaches to common difficulties, there can be unity and cooperation rather than division. Parents must join forces and utilize their unique gifts towards the common goal of parenting emotionally healthy children.
Because feminine and masculine perspectives are needed, children raised with both parents tend to thrive. Due to the often conflicting nature of the roles “Nurturer” and “Strengthen-er”, it is difficult for one parent to play both roles. However single parents who are cognizant of their own proclivity to either over-nurture, or overexpose – and take the steps necessary to ensure their child has the proper balance, can be successful in raising emotionally healthy and confident children. The Strengthening role may also be filled by grandfathers and other males in the boy’s life.
However, if we honestly look at the outcomes of children raised in single-parent households, particularly the fatherless, the statistics are bleak. Aggression, anxiety, depression, risky behaviors – all skyrocket in single-mother homes.* The mother may do her best and use the tools she has, but without the supporting, and when necessary, counter-acting actions of a father – many children are not able to successfully overcome the trauma common to youth.
The Role of Nurturer
Mothers tend to be nurturers. We are able to empathize and comfort our children. We express our feelings of approval and admiration for their areas of strength and express our faith in their ability to overcome their trials. Strength is found in a mother’s touch.**
“A mother’s arms are more comforting that anyone else’s.”
An important aspect of nurturing is allowing the child to freely and openly discuss the trauma. Women are great communicators. We talk through the offending scenario to find solutions for next time, and amplify the positive choices they made. We problem-solve and dig deep to find any underlying misconceptions or distress.
These are gifts and they have great power. I was grateful to be able to share this gift with my son. I am grateful that when the stress began to bubble over that night, he could seek my comfort.
However, as women we need to place limits on our gifts. A mother’s comforting role comes first, but does not last forever. After initial trauma, comfort and safety must be there. Nonjudgmental empathy are crucial for a child to feel safe and valued. However, extending these sympathies for too long can lead to weakness and victimhood. Rumination on negative experiences does not help us overcome them, but rather enables us to use them as an excuse. When we continuously revisit old sufferings or injustices we justify extending emotional states beyond their usefulness.
We may need the nudge of our husbands, someone to tell us it’s time to let go. With my son, I could have continued discussing the shock and potential outcomes with everyone I met. I could have attempted to get sympathy or outrage from others. I think, if I’m honest, I did do a bit of that. In the absence of my husband, my own son had to step in and say, “Mom can we stop talking about this.” Moving on and moving forward is encouragement, it enables the child to use the experience to become a stronger self.
The Role of EnCourager
Men tend to be Doers. Men are able to push aside problems and worries to achieve. Fathers are able to distract and laugh with their children despite hardship. Rather than brood over struggles, fathers seek out opportunities for children to toughen-up and face their fears. They wrestle with their kids so they understand their strength and how to hold back aggression in interactions with others. (Surprising importance of rough-and-tumble play.)
Fathers tend to show, rather than verbally communicate to their children how to interact with the world. Fathers are the model for children, especially boys, of behavior and socialization.
“My father didn’t tell me how to live. He lived and let me watch him do it.”
Clarence Budington Kelland
Fathers take their ready-children out of the arms of their mothers and push them into the adventure of life. Fathers enCourage their children.
But father’s must also avoid the masculine propensity to chasten their children for their emotions or perceived weakness. After an upsetting experience, the mother must be allowed to do her comforting work without judgment. Sweeping things under the rug will never work. Pushing children too early and too hard can cause either aggression or detachment.
Parents who shame their children for their pain and apprehension will become “unsafe” actors in their children’s lives. Parents who coddle and pity their children will become restrictors of their freedom and potential. The roles of Nurture and Encourager must be played out in the proper balance. It is easy to detect when the that balance has been struck, our children thrive.
The Strength in Scars
The pain and tribulations of life are a necessary part of turning boys into men, our children into strong adults. The nurture of mothers and strengthening from fathers can protect them from the dark side of pain, and instead help them turn their distress into triumph. (Post on utility of suffering).
“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
“The world is a brutal place and much wisdom comes out of catastrophe.”
Dr. Jordan Peterson
As I look back on the incident with the dogs I remember the fear, the anger, and the anxiety. I remember doubting my parenting method. Am I being too laid-back? Am I giving my kids too much independence? But as a few weeks have passed and I have seen my son bravely seek out the adventures of life like never before, I realize that his dog-attack this summer was just one more adventure, one more notch on the belt of manhood. Rather than regret that I did not prevent this painful experience, I am grateful for strength and perspective he has gained. A few days ago I asked Calvin if I could write about this story and asked, “Do you ever think of that day and those dogs?” He laughed and said, “Mom, at least I have a cool scar! Too bad it’s on my rear so I can’t show it off.”
Postscript: I hope to do a follow-up post on overcoming Childhood Trauma for those of us who may retain painful memories.
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