When Children Go Astray

The love between a parent and their child is long lasting. The relationship progresses through time beginning with bonding at birth, hours of care giving, and the slow development of a more meaningful relationship as time is spent getting to know each other as unique individuals. This love is strong and though it is possible, it is rather unlikely to be easily forgotten. The ancient prophet Isaiah in the Holy Bible highlights this bond with the question “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?” Life sometimes will throw us curve balls that just seem to come out of nowhere. It seems like it was just yesterday that our child was lovingly embracing us or climbing up on our knee and then there is a slammed door and massive distance. What happened? Like tornadoes, nature’s most violent storms can develop so rapidly there is little advanced warning, the bond between parent and child can be disrupted leaving emotional devastation in its wake.

Parents for a variety of reasons find that they have lost the precious connection with their child and are flooded with a whirlwind of emotions ranging from sadness, doubt, worry, hope, frustration, anger, despair, guilt, shame and especially FEAR. The crushing ache in your chest does not come from disease or indicate heart attack rather your heart aches for a child who appears lost. Most of us when flooded with fear respond in one of three ways. We may freeze feeling there is nothing we can do, we may withdraw and refuse to think about the problem hoping it will go away or resolve itself or we fight with all our might to control the situation. Any of these reactions, will have an impact on the child. Like Newton’s third law of motion states for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Due to new neuroscience, we now know that mirror neurons exist, which means the child’s brain will observe and mirror the behavior of the parent as if they were themselves taking the same action. It follows then if the parent is feeling highly anxious and frozen in fear; the child’s brain may then mirror the fear and become more anxious. If the parent withdraws or becomes busy to distract from the pain, the child may conclude that the parent does not care. Most parents when feeling out of control attempt to take back control by imposing more limits in hopes of keeping their child safe and seeking to regain connection. Rather than feeling the love and concern, the child often rebels against the limits feeling the need to be free to make their own choices and seek to preserve their sense of unique identity.

One of the greatest gifts parents can provide their children is to take care first of their own emotions so that they can be available and present to help their lost child. This is counter intuitive. Due to the strength of the bond and the intense love felt for a child, parents focus outward and on the child’s behavior. They think that they will take care of themselves once their child is safe. Often this means both parents and child lose sight of their inner emotional world and the deeper more significant attachment needs go unmet. The focus remains on behavior and often each blames the other for the problem.

Exploring this inner world and using tools to help manage fear or shame will help create the atmosphere for increased connection. Allowing you to then communicate more clearly with your child the love and affection you feel and the truth behind the feelings I am here for you no matter what. Consider the following three topics as you begin your exploration of your thoughts, actions and deeper emotional longings.

1. Am I living in the present moment?
2. Am I exercising self-compassion or am I blaming myself or my child?
3. What is the balance between the time I spend focusing on providing rules, consequences and structure versus the time spent on nurturing the relationship?

When we are experiencing the intense emotions of disconnection and our deeper attachment longings are not being met, we may feel like I did once when my airway was blocked and I could not breathe, DESPERATE. At these times, we have an increased need for self-care, social connection and emotional fuel. However, these are usually the things that we set aside due to the crisis. Remember at these times taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to take care of your child.

Take a moment to journal what are my current thoughts about this situation. What am I doing or not doing in connection to these thoughts? What are the different feelings that I experience because of the issue between myself and my child? Often our statements and actions communicate our more reactive emotions like frustration, anger and demands for respect and compliance. Rarely do we find moments to clearly express our softer emotions like fear, loneliness and longings for knowing that we are lovable and acceptable. Our children also have softer emotions and longings that go unexpressed and due to the distress between parent and child both feel these intense painful emotions and seek ways to cope that may help in the moment but rarely bring connection and healing. For example, yelling, blaming, screaming, ignoring, defiant behavior or abusing substances are all possible ways to cope with underlying pain yet never solve the real underlying needs.

There is hope, tools for healing, and actions that lead to increased safety, vulnerability and connection. Be sure to also read Finding Connection in the Here and Now, Why does my Child Blame?, and Parenting Styles: Getting Out of Balance for additional tools and ideas for coping with the crisis of a wayward child.

By Jennifer Solosko LMFT, CEFT
© May 2017

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