I wrote a post earlier today about self-acceptance and love. In it I discussed the conclusions we draw about ourselves as children, when we feel invalidated by a parent. This invalidation might come in the form of discipline for something we have done, or it may just be that our parents were not present with us physically or emotionally when we needed them. We may then conclude that we are not good enough, that there’s something wrong with us, or in some cases, that we shouldn’t exist. A few readers felt worried and even guilty about potentially damaging their children's developing sense of self. They raised questions about how to avoid this, how to be there for their own children, how to protect them from these experiences.
Unfortunately, the answer is – you can’t. Sadness, stress and fear are a part of life. Luckily, so is resilience. Resilience is the capacity to rebound from these emotions and return to a state of equilibrium and peace.
A psychoanalyst named Winnicott theorised that we can never protect our children from the harshness of life (including the way we parent), but what we can do is be a “good enough” parent. A good enough parent is one who provides a loving and nurturing environment for the child, but also one where there is room for the child to feel disillusioned with their parents and the world, without destroying their appetite for life and their ability to accept reality. If the parents are able to tolerate their children’s experiences of anger, frustration and sadness, and support them (i.e cuddle a sad and crying child without necessarily fixing the problem), children are more likely to maintain a realistic and ongoing relationship with their parents. If a parent strives to make everything perfect for their child and protect them from unpleasant emotions, the parent only serves to foster in the child, a “false self” – one where the child is not able to accept reality as it is, and therefore has a very hard time coping in the world.
This good enough parenting builds resilience. Even for a very sensitive child, sadness, disappointment, anger or fear is an opportunity for parents to give them an experience of feeling supported in that state, thus fostering the feeling that everything is ok even when they are upset, and therefore helping them bounce back without lasting damage and trauma. Eventually this belief that everything is ok will be internalised and they will develop resilience, and have a strong ongoing sense that all is well. How often a child becomes upset is not the main issue, it’s how supported they feel in handling those emotions and whether or not they bounce back.
All children truly need is love and support. You give parenting everything you’ve got. You do the best with what you know, and the mere fact that you’re reading this post means you’re really making an effort to be the best parent you can possibly be. The reality is that we all have our own journeys. Yes, your children might end up struggling, they might even end up talking about your parenting in the therapy room. All you need to have done is to have made it ok for them to feel bad sometimes, and to have provided enough experiences of receiving support, that they won’t be afraid to ask for it.