Amy: One of the best-kept secrets that even families themselves don’t know, is that kids worry about their parents. And why shouldn’t they? After all, kids depend on the folks for their very existence. Their well-being is deeply affected by the psychological condition of a parent, or parents. They know when the grownups in their lives are well, and when they’re not. Kids are great emotion-detectors, sensing parental anxiety even when the parents themselves may be unaware. This can feel heavy for kids, which often gets expressed in their behavior, rather than words.
Here’s a case from my office where anxious, over-protective parents learned how to “let go”….
When Janet called, saying she and husband Larry wanted to bring their nine-year old son Henry in for a “check-in”, I wasn’t too surprised. I had worked with these good people for several sessions earlier that year. Some of our work revolved around the behavior of their only child, Henry, an adorable, almost too-good kid.
A bit of background: Henry had always been under the microscope, partly because of his single-child status, and partly because his parents were primed toward over-protectiveness due to their own childhood experiences. The dad, Larry, was diagnosed as a Type I diabetic as age seven. He spent much of his childhood “in the kitchen” next to his mom. Larry described his mom’s fears about “something going wrong” related to his health, which created a constricted, though loving, atmosphere for this young man.
Judy’s childhood had a markedly different quality, characterized more by neglect. According to her, her folks “worked all the time” and “never, ever attended one of my events.” She says, though she knew her parents loved her, she and her brother almost “raised ourselves”. Judy remembered this absentee parenting as painful, and she vowed not to pass this on to her son. Judy also described being highly tuned in to her parents’ stresses, and her worries about them colored her childhood landscape.
As the family walked into my office for the “check-in”, Henry, as usual, brought a smile to my lips. I always enjoyed seeing this child. He was unusually cute and sweet in every way. A good and dedicated athlete, Henry always came to the office regaled in some kind of sports outfit. That day he came fully decked out in soccer gear. As they settled themselves on the couch, Judy opened up with the most recent concern. Then she invited Henry to tell his side.
Not much to tell. Briefly, there were some relatively normal, though bruising, childhood politics. Henry was now on the “outs” with the other “best athlete” in the school, who used to be his friend. Henry was a popular kid, with other friends to play with, but became very upset at being rebuffed by this kid. After hearing the various versions, I realized that both Judy and Larry gave too much weight to these normal squabbles and bruised egos. Their emotional heaviness about it weighed on little Henry. In fact, Henry had begun feeling so bad about this that he “didn’t want to go to school” and, according to Judy, talked about “wanting to die.”
After briefly checking on the suicidality of this child–nothing to worry about– I wanted to help Henry not be so perfect about everything. And I wanted to get his parents to help him be a little less good. This kid wanted to be liked by everyone, and loved being considered a great athlete. But every move he made, every “result” mattered too much. His parents took every feeling he had too seriously, and Henry absorbed this weight. Now, his feelings took on huge proportions, overwhelming for a little kid.
I sensed Henry’s anger beneath the hurt that he expressed. I thought that getting in touch with his anger would be good for this “too-good” child. I asked the parents about kids they found “annoying” when they were Henry’s age. We then expanded this to include all the “pain-in-the-neck” people we could think of. I talked about how I love to curse to myself when someone steps on me and I don’t like it. Henry’s eyes lit up. I spit out the word “bastard!” as one of my favorites. Henry loved it.
This led to a curse-jamfest where I invited Dad to talk about his favorite curse words when he feels pissed off at someone. Dad, a “good boy” by training, at first reluctantly began sharing some of his moments of irritation with other grown ups. I think he was worried that if he showed a less-than-perfect side to his son, he would be a bad influence. Au contraire. Soon Dad got warmed up, and revealed that “scumbag” was on his top-ten list. Henry went nuts! He never heard that word and he thought it was one of the best words ever.
Soon mom joined in on the act and we were cursing up storm. Little Henry looked about twenty years younger. He went from being an old man to being a kid. We spent the last twenty minutes of the session like this. Of course the grownups in the room felt duty-bound to remind Henry that most of these curses take place in our mind. We have to be very selective when we choose to curse out loud.
Everyone left on in an upbeat mood. Judy gave me a huge thanks. I think it’s because they got a chance to play. There was a sense of freedom in it. We messed around with words that were harmless. Henry–and mom and dad–got a chance to step outside the “safety zone” and they enjoyed themselves. I think Henry got permission to get pissed off at his friends, instead of only being hurt. Everyone got something out of it. Including me. I had a ball.
I got a call from Judy the next week saying that Henry was “much better”. He went to school without a problem, and was having fun savoring the word “scumbag”, which he had proudly learned from his dad.