The question this week is a subtext to so many of the questions that I get. People say what if I had done this, would my child still be anxious? Is it because I ddi that? Is that why my child has anxiety. And the gist of it is: Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety? Is there a perfect way to parent? If I avoid all of the parenting pitfalls will my child never struggle with their anxiety?
Boy being a parent is so hard, isn’t it? Not just the lack of sleep, lack of time to yourself, the drain on your resources. No, the hardest part is how it feels when your child is struggling. Or how it feels when we are struggling as parents, as people.
Let’s just stop for a minute and acknowledge how fragile we can feel as parents, which is so hard since we’re supposed to be the strong ones, right? Didn’t you think you’d have it more together when you became a parent?
I remember as a kid watching my mom wrap presents and she was so good at it. And I wanted to be that good. I wanted my folds to be razor sharp. I wanted the tape to disappear like hers did. And I thought that it would be like that when I was grown. I thought that was one of the secret things that adults just knew how to do.
So imagine my surprise to hit eighteen and still wrap lumpy presents. Of course you don’t have to imagine your surprise because I’m sure you have your own stories of running up against your incompetence in some thing, some event where you realized, “rats, I’m the grown up and I don’t know what I’m doing.” And this is especially difficult and even painful when you come upon this within your parenting relationship.
If you struggled as a child, you will revisit that in your relationship with your own child. You may be especially vulnerable when they hit certain ages where you struggled. Or when they arrive at certain events that you found especially difficult. There may be aspects of yourself that you see in them that scare or worry you. Or aspects that you didn’t like in other people and then you see it in your child.
Parenting is indeed the most triggering thing you can do.
It will be tempting to think that there’s a perfect way of parenting where you can avoid all of that. You might look at other parents who seem to be having an easier time and think they have better answers.
So let me dissuade you of this notion.
Here are some truths, some facts, about the reality of parenting that I have learned in my 30 plus years of working with parents and in my 26 plus years of being a parent.
The first is that, some kids are harder than others. That’s just a fact. Some parents have it easier not because they’re better parents or have made better choices, but because that’s the luck of the draw. They got a child who is objectively less demanding and/or a child that meshes with them in ways that makes parenting easier.
The second is that parenting is a job and sometimes jobs aren’t fun. You can love your kids and not like the job of parenting. You can love hanging out with a toddler and struggle with a ten year old or vice versa. Parenting is a job that changes because your child is growing and changing and you are growing and changing and sometimes you will have bad days. IT’s also a job that you learn as you’re doing it which means it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll have to course correct. I think a big part of effective parenting is being willing to change it up because it’s not working.
The third fact about parenting is that your child is not an accurate representation of what a good job you’re doing. This goes back to that first one about some kids being easier. Sometimes you can do everything quote unquote right and your child will still be a mess. Great parents can and do have children who aren’t always doing great. Sometimes your patience and your wisdom won’t show. People will look and say, “I would never let them get away with that” but the truth is, they don’t have your child and they don’t know.
The fourth thing is that your child is the protagonist in their own story. They’re starring in their own show. You are the protagonist in your story and starring in your own show. Once you realize that — I mean, really realize that — you’ll understand that even though you feel very consumed with what’s happening to you including your experience of being a parent, you’re a supporting actor in your child’s experience. Their story — their narrative — belongs to them. At the beginning when they’re an infant, we are enmeshed. We are almost the same people. Because babies, especially in that first year, are relying on us so heavily, that it’s easy to get confused. Where do we leave off and where do they begin? Sleep, feeding, even for the tiniest infant whether they’re on their front or their back is all up to us. But as they get older it becomes and more clear that they have their own movie to star in. They’re in their own cinematic universe and we’re just like backstory.
All of this is to say that our child will have their own experience and functioning and preferences and personality and mental health. And we are there to support them.
Which means some of them are going to have anxiety no matter what we do. Anxiety is born and made but it can’t made — that is to say, we can’t force a non-anxious child to be anxious — if they don’t;’ have a brain that is shaped to be anxious.
We can take kids who go through the exact same experiences and one will come out with an anxiety disorder and the other will not. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
What we can do is figure out how to support them. Remember it’s their movie, right? So this is part of the narrative they are going to explore and grow through. How do we help them do that? It’s not about us being good or bad parents, it’s not about us saving them from the trajectory of their lives. It’s about being the best supporting players that we can.
And in our own show, in the story that we are starring in, its’ about learning how to uncover our own strengths, confront our own challenges, grow through OUR narrative in being parents to these particular people.
It’s not about whether or not you can parent so well that your children don’t have anxiety. That’s not the right question. It’s’ about here is what we are doing together. Here is where we stand. How do I help you? How do I become the parent that you need and that I am meant to be?
How do I take my experience as a child and bring it to this experience as a parent. How do I confront and consolidate my past so that I can get out of the way of your future. How do I learn to heal parts of myself without visiting my own expectations on you.
Big work. This is big works. But it is work we are meant to do. I have faith in you. I have faith in your child.