“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
…If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. . . . In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in.’ It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. . . . Let us not be deceived by phrases about ‘Man taking charge of his own destiny.’ All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of others. . . . The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be.”
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
The Devouring Mother comes in many forms. We must be conscious of our own tendency to over-protect and control our children, but we should also look outside the home for other “Devourers” of free-will. These Devourers may be well-meaning and concerned for our safety, but the end result is the same – the stifling of self-determination. There are times which may necessitate such stifling, but as parents we must make choices for our family, not out of fear or control, but based on truth and the quest for goodness. A world filled with free agents is often a dangerous one, but the alternative is bondage.
COVID-19 is enough to give even the most easy-going among us worry. This is a big deal, life has changed on a dime. It is not my intention to diminish the importance of this time or the tragic nature of it. I hope we are all doing what we can to stem the tide of this disease. However, we mothers need to stop and ask ourselves, “Are we reacting well to this crisis?”
Why is that so important – how could our reaction have any impact on a global pandemic? It is difficult to see how our emotional reactions may ripple beyond our homes, but our primary concern as mothers is for our children.
A Mother’s Eyes
“Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.”
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. But a Mother’s eyes are the window through which young children first see the world. Ours are the eyes they look to for reference. In them they see either safety or danger. Many of our children’s fears and anxieties can unfortunately be sourced from their parents’ emotional reactions. Dr. Peterson explains in the clip below the psychological concept of “referencing”. When a small child sees a mouse run across the room – – they look to their mother’s eyes, or any other adult in the room, to see what it means. If the mother starts screaming, they know- Mice are scary! These early childhood experiences can set in their minds like concrete – mouse scary – world dangerous.= Phobia. If the mother instead tempers her reaction and handles the situation as calmly as she can, the child does not see a mouse as a horrific threat and feels safe in their environment.
“A mother tells you what the mouse is, and her face doesn’t say Mouse – it says, Safe or Danger.”
We have a modern epidemic of anxiety. Where is this coming from? Anxiety, at its root, is about fear- fear of the unknown and lack of confidence in our ability to handle the unknown. If a child continually sees in their mother’s eyes the evidence of fear or uncertainty, they see the world as an unsafe place. This a recipe for an anxious child and teenager. This does not mean that every anxious child or adult is the product of their mother’s reactions. Some people just have highly neurotic personalities; some children have life challenges that are not easily overcome – no matter how stoic their mother may be. But tempering our reactions to difficulties can only help our children.
Outsourcing Emotional Stability
Even as adults, we tend to outsource our emotional responses to others. We simply mimic what others are doing. A few months ago at church, the fire alarm suddenly went off. I noticed that none of the adults in the room moved; instead they just looked at everyone else, trying to gauge what kind of action was appropriate. We were searching for the level of fear in other’s faces. Since no one got up quickly or acted frazzled, we all stayed calmly in our seats. Eventually it was confirmed that a child had pulled the alarm (and, of course, that child was mine!).
Here is another embarrassing confession. I inadvertently became one of those horrible panic buyers. About a month ago, in the very early stages of COVID-19, I went to Costco for my bi-weekly trip. I was surprised to see that everyone was getting multiple packs of toilet paper. I had no idea that this was the thing to do, and to be honest, I thought they were probably silly to do it. But I figured I had better buy some too. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. I’m not going to lie, now that all the stores are TP-less, I’m glad I did. When something unexpected happens, psychologically we don’t know how to react – so we react the way others do. This gives a lot of power to over-reactors. If one person has an inappropriate response – perhaps built-up because of childhood trauma or anxious parents – then they can start the chain-reaction of anxious and worried reactions. (I am not saying that is the case in the COVID crisis but simply a psychological observation).
“Part of what you are doing all the time is imitating other people. It’s mass imitation, and that is really a huge part of social structure, we are constantly imitating each other.”
It is sad to consider that in many childhood traumas, such as medical trauma, accidents, natural disasters, etc…, the reaction of the adults around the child can be more traumatic than the actual incident. Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline, experts on childhood trauma, write,
“The importance of an adult’s calmness cannot be overemphasized. Your calmness is essential! When a child has been hurt or frightened, it is normal for the adult to feel somewhat shocked or scared, too. Because of your own fears and protective instincts, it is not uncommon to respond initially with anger, which can further frighten the child. The goal is to minimize – not compound – feelings of fright, shame, embarrassment, and guilt the child is likely to experience already. The best antidote is to respond to your own reactions first. Allow time for your own body responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously towards your child. Experiences with adult clients in therapy confirms that often the most frightening part of an incident experienced as a child was their parents reaction! The younger the child, the more he or she “read” the facial expression of their caregivers as a barometer of how serious the danger or injury is.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
For example, let’s imagine a small child is climbing on some playground equipment and falls. She cries but is not hurt. An over-reactive mother may scoop her up and fuss over her – ensuring she is okay and reprimanding her for doing something dangerous. She keeps her close to her side or leaves the park. This child can learn from this that the world is dangerous and she is not capable of certain things.
Instead, the mother could calmly go to the child and assess if she is badly hurt, give her some physical comfort (immediate physical affection is important in mitigating trauma) and tell her to try again. The mother stays close until the child feels confident in the attempt. When she is successful, the mother praises her and slowly moves farther away. Eventually the child will have mastered the task and will have forgotten the fall. There is wisdom in the old cowboy adage to get back on that horse that bucks you off. At times our culture prioritizes safety as the ultimate virtue – but our civilization wouldn’t have gotten far if men and women had been unwilling to “get back on the horse”.
Mother’s must resist the impulse to “freak out”. This is difficult for those of us with passionate temperaments. I, for one, am quite enthusiastic and excitable. I happen to think it is wonderful to be passionate, it makes life an adventure. “Freaking out” over good things is great. When my husband got a promotion, I was jumping up and down. When my sister told me she was having another baby, I screamed. When I stood in front of Hagia Sophia, I gasped in amazement. This is part of amplifying the good, since we know negative tends to be more potent. But when times are tough, we need to turn down our “freak-out” dial.
A few weeks ago my seven-year old son threw a rock through the back windshield of a car sitting in a parking lot. It completely shattered – he has a strong arm. I was angry because I had just told him not to throw rocks. However, as I looked into his eyes, I saw that he was truly sorry, but unfortunately I saw something else – fear. Fear of his mother, of the harsh scolding he might receive. I really didn’t like seeing that in my sweet son’s eyes. I don’t want him to be afraid of his mother’s reaction. I literally bit my lip and calmly reprimanded him but did not go overboard. (I did not let him get away with disobedience. He is slowly working off his window-debt.)
The owner of the car, an older woman, was actually sitting in the car when my son threw the rock. She was extremely upset and shocked by the incident. She came out and began crying. I apologized profusely and promised we would pay for it all. It was fixed and paid for within 24 hours. She later called me and apologized for her emotional response. She said she didn’t know why she was so overwhelmed by it. (Perhaps she had an over-reactive mother:)
If children have a mother that is an over-reactor, they have two choices – either to join their mother in her reaction and develop anxiety and fear as a result- or to discount their mother’s reactions and choose not to share anything with her that might “set her off”. Often, we discover our children lie to us out of fear. We find something broken in the house and, upon interrogation, discover all our children are innocent. When they become teenagers, there are worse offenses to be hidden. One of the main motivations to lie is avoiding the reactions of the parents. Does that mean we can’t be upset when our children make bad choices? Of course we will be, and they must realize that their actions have consequences, including emotional reactions. However, we don’t want our over-reactions to keep our children from feeling safe speaking to us about things. One example is the modern plague of pornography. Children at younger and younger ages are being exposed to porn. This can be extremely destructive to young minds. However, when a young boy sees porn for the first time, he may feel shame and hide it from his parents. If his mother, through years of over-reaction, has convinced him that she is not “safe” – if she becomes angry or disappointed in him for small offenses – he is much less likely to share the experience with her. Then his shame and deceit will continue, for fear of what the parents will think of him. This is the road of addiction. (I hope to do a longer post on teaching and preparing kids for the dangers of pornography.)*
Discussing COVID-19 with Kids
It is important that we don’t over-react to the current crisis in front of our children. In extreme cases this could cause the development of phobias or generalized anxiety in them. We don’t need to lie to our children. However, we must consider the age and maturity of our children when discussing difficulties. We also can’t trust that the voices they hear on the news or from friends will be stabilizing messages. Dr. Levine gives some good advice about how to talk to our kids about fearful events:
“Because the media uses graphic fear as a selling point, it is important to minimize children’s TV news exposure – particularly during dinner and before bedtime. Of course, it is best to watch the news after they are asleep. Kids three to five years of age may ask questions about things that they have heard or seen on TV. At these ages, children are beginning to be able to put feelings into words and you can let them know that it is okay to have these feelings….(it may be helpful to tell) stories where the hero/heroine has overcome difficult situations and been made stronger by meeting and mastering an ordeal.
For older children, six to twelve years of age, more direct discussions can be held. It may be important to find out where they got their information and what their specific fears are. Then you can have the family brainstorm ideas for things that they can do to help the people who have been affected…Mobilizing helpful activity, rather than being a spectator, can make a big difference.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
It is our reaction to this crisis that will do the most towards stabilizing our children. We can look for the rays of hope on the horizon – rather than the dark predictions or negative takes. If we feel our children are mature enough to discuss some of the difficult facts of the virus, ask them how they can help make this time easier and more productive. Rather than focusing on death tolls or worries about transmission. Teach them how properly washing hands or wearing face masks can help prevent contraction and spread. Talk to them hopefully about the future – if you find yourself unable to see the hope – seek out positive voices, pray to God for peace, and rely on stress-relievers such as outdoor walks. As they see us facing the crisis with faith and problem-solving, they feel safe. The whole experience can make us all more resilient. Our children can get through this – guided by the hope in their mother’s eyes.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
P.S. I would greatly appreciate any shares/tweets/emails of this article to those who may benefit. Thank you so much for your support and Good Luck out there – or “in” there!
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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