Air Mask, by Johanna McCarthy, LMSW

By February 22, 2011Blog

Children come into this earth to teach parents humility. As wonderful as our child may be they will not turn out to be the perfect being we imagined. The infant that we fantasize will be going to Harvard to be a physicist could easily become a happy high school graduate playing in a band. Any developmental or psychological struggles that you child has will impact your own sense of well-being. A few different things can happen; our sense of having failed them can be overwhelming or fears of inadequacy can be devastating and our reaction to this can be anywhere from anger at the child to simply withdrawing. We need the space to take time to think before we react and recognize what is at the core of our feelings. There are many things as parents that we don't have control over and situations can arise with which we can’t cope. Meanwhile, our own childhoods are very much with us. It is an entire life’s work to make sense of what we witnessed while living with our parents, “the good, the bad and the ugly.” My experience in working, clinically, with the elderly is that family’s struggle with secrets, alliances, fights, and all manner of things are present till the end.

We all want what s best for our children. We, often, feel that it is our duty to deny ourselves our previous indulgences in order to provide for our children. However, we would be wise to remember, the often used reference to airplane safety, “put on your own air mask first before you put on your child s.” Obviously, you cannot take care of someone if you cannot breath. Parents intellectually know this and are told this. When people hear this they think, Yes, I should get a sitter for a night or take a long bath . While both these things can be valuable and restorative, as parents we need to think more seriously about taking care of ourselves. We tell ourselves that we are not going to make the same mistakes as our parents and whatever we suffered, however minor, our children will be protected from the same fate simply because we recognize and acknowledge our parent s errors. We desperately want to avoid repetition. What needs to be taken into account is our own issues and how they impact us and our family.

Simply put, we can tell our children that they are valuable, intelligent and lovable, but unless we feel that way about ourselves, it most likely won't have the desired effect on them that it should. The way a parent lives; how they make decisions; what makes them laugh; what makes them angry, all of these things have the most profound effect on how a child forms their own character. There will be times when you are going to be an inadequate as a parent and it is unavoidable. It sounds simple but it is true. If we want them to begin life with a solid and strong sense of self, we need to have this solid and strong sense of self.

Parents need to have the space and time to be taken care of. New parents, more than at any other time in their lives, deserve some space to be reflective about their experiences as children. We all have stories about who we are and what we experienced as children. Some of the story is real but some might be a polite veneer put on over embarrassments or feelings of unworthiness and shame. While consciously working on being the best possible parent, your family history is trying desperately to repeat itself. For many of us, having children to concentrate on allows us years to avoid our own issues and fears. We just get better at distracting ourselves with children, work etc. Every parent deserves a private quiet place to sort out what each stage of their child’s life evokes in them.

Adverse psychological impact during developmental years can occur on a continuum from a narcissitic injury to true child abuse/neglect. Other things need to be factored. The child’s personality, health, developmental issues all impact on the way a child may or may not feel traumatized. In my work with children, I have seen similar reactions to the disturbance of being placed in foster care to the insult of having recently acquired a younger sibling. I do not intend to lessen the negative effect of the former; however, both experiences include a type of loss of a child's primary care taker. Children can react to these losses in similar ways. Resiliency is the means for surviving childhood. Parents who are carrying around their own childhoods should be able to have frank and honest conversations about what a joyful, terrifying, and hard job it is.

Johanna McCarthy is a licensed master level social worker with over 15 years of experience in the mental health field. She has devoted over a decade to working with and advocating for families affected by developmental disabilities and mental health issues. In the past five years, Johanna has played a more clinical role while working with adults, adolescents and children. She has had the opportunity to work with people suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anger management, family and relationship issues. Her current area of interest and expertise lies in partnering with parents in order to help them better understand and meet the needs of their children. Johanna can be contacted at johanna@brooklynletters.com.

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