Psychological healing for parents
By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
It is often said that parents get to re-experience childhood through their children. Our own memories of both the good times and the hardships are resurrected as our children meet developmental milestones and advance from one grade to the next. My sons are now 10 and 13 and will be in the fifth and eighth grade respectively. I have fond memories from these years in my life. In fifth grade I had a group of great friends and a teacher who encouraged my interest in writing. In eighth grade I had the chance to conduct a major research project about a crime spree in our community, a topic which foreshadowed the gratifying work I do today as a forensic psychologist. As my sons progress through the school year, I may recall additional positive memories from my fifth and eighth grade years.
The year my older son entered sixth grade was a different story altogether. I found myself anxious and afraid he would have a difficult time and could not shake my sense of dread. When I was in sixth grade, my family moved from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and I was devastated to leave my friends. With my “Yankee” brand of sarcastic humor, I stood out as a misfit in my new school—my peers in Georgia did not know what to make of me, and I experienced the pain of rejection for the first time. Memories from that school year were powerfully stirred by the mere fact of my son being in the grade I was in when those events occurred. Once I realized that the anxiety had to do with my past experience, and not my son’s life, I could see my fears were misplaced. I worked on my own issues, and my son went on to have a pretty good year both socially and academically.
“Once I realized that the anxiety had to do with my past experience, and not my son’s life, I could see my fears were misplaced.”
Another example shows how the development of psychological symptoms in a parent can be related to having a child of a certain age. My friend began having panic attacks when his son entered the first grade. The attacks seemed to come from left field. I asked “What was happening in your life when you were in the first grade?” He told me of having become very ill and being sent to live with relatives because his mother had a new baby plus a set of twin toddlers to care for. He recovered from the illness, but the relatives kept him permanently; thus, the first grade marked the end of his life with his parents and younger siblings. Through his identification with his child, he was re-experiencing the emotions associated with that powerful loss in his early life. Once he realized the historical context of his anxiety, the panic attacks subsided, and he was able to mourn his past loss and move on emotionally.
One of the benefits of being a parent is having opportunities to work through unresolved events from our past. Our identification with our children evokes memories and emotions that were hitherto inaccessible. For parents who suffered abuse, trauma, or significant losses in childhood, having children approach the age at which these events occurred may trigger painful memories of those times. Even though it is difficult and disruptive to experience these strong emotions, it is at the same time an invitation to heal psychologically and become more integrated emotionally. To heal, we must remember. Our emotions are not meant to be freeze dried and stored away, but rather to be reconstituted, expressed and released and to impart deeper meaning and understanding to our lives.
As the school year begins, we might take time for reflection, asking “What was going on in my life when I was my child’s age?” We do this for the sake of our children so as not to project our own anxieties onto them. We also do it for ourselves, because we, too, are deserving of greater psychological health and wholeness.