As a family-systems-trained therapist, I always look at each person who comes to see me as more than just one individual. Rather, he or she is one person within a family. This is because we don’t operate in a vacuum, but instead adapt and respond to one another.
When I meet with parents who have concerns about their children, we often wind up solving the problem without the child ever needing to be seen.
Why is this?
I believe this happens because we bring our experiences from our first family, or our family of origin, into our current family. Everyone does this. It doesn’t have to be seen as a negative as long as we are aware of what we are bringing to the table.
For example, if you grew up with an anxious parent who seemed to get overwhelmed easily, you might adapt into someone who likes to take charge and has trouble asking for help. Becoming more conscious of this pattern can help you when your child starts to become more independent. Letting go might be hard, even painful, for you, but knowing why you feel that way can help you handle the situation.
Conversely, if your parent was controlling and you felt managed all the time, you might have trouble intervening with your child because you just want him to be “happy.” This approach can go off the rails when your child starts having trouble because he needs you to set firmer boundaries for him.
When I think about my own goals, it is not to feel no anxiety, pain or sadness. Instead, it is to feel more awake, to notice my feelings and to know what to do with them when they crop up.
This business of being awake and conscious helps us, and our kids, when we can separate out what we feel from what our child feels. This opens a healthy dialogue where children are seen and heard for who they are. It does not mean there are no limits, just that you notice and validate what your children are feeling.
Kids don’t always need to be seen by me in therapy because sometimes we parents just need to do a little work ourselves. We need to learn to notice our own emotions and take care of ourselves. We also need to provide our kids with tools they can use to handle their own intense feelings.
One of the many benefits I see in being a parent is that what I learn about myself directly benefits my children. This is because developing my own awareness has a direct impact on their lives, too.
Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest Washington who works with parents.