Messing up Children in Just the Right Ways
Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C
One of the most common concerns I hear from newly adoptive and biological parents, not to mention parents who have been doing this parenting thing for a while now, is the worry that the parents will, or already have, “messed up” their children. The worry is that their child is permanantly damaged or will have a “life-long problem.” This seems to be especially concerning to parents who had a childhood that would be considered less than ideal.
To the parents with this concern, I have these words for you, and I am writing them sincerely, with all the love I have in my heart. Do not worry. Your children probably are already “messed up.” If they are not yet, they will be soon. Just like the rest of us. While this may not seem like a loving thing to say. I assure you that I do, in fact, mean it to be a caring statement. I want to help parents to break free from the delusion that they will somehow, miraculously, raise the first ever, perfectly self-actualized human on the planet. A human that has experienced the perfect mix of trouble, discipline and love, with just the right number of family members who care for them and think they are fabulous while still remaining appropriately humble. A person who finds the perfect job, right after they finish their doctoral degree (having gone to school on scholarship), all the while dating the perfect mate for them, without any heartache involved, and maintaining perfect physical health. If we can all let go of this delusional belief, we will all breathe easier (literally), be so much happier with our lives and be more forgiving of our own imperfections, as well as stop taking our children’s imperfections so darned personally.
Humans are made to seek out better. We cannot avoid the questions that come to mind about who has what, whether we would prefer to have that or something different. Your children will be no different. Your curly-haired children will wish to have straight hair, your straight-haired children will wish it to be curly. Your athletic children want to be better at one particular aspect of the sport they play, even if they are the best at another. Your child who is amazing at Math, wishes to be better in English. We all long for things just out of reach. It is healthy and motivating for us to continue trying. At the same time, we inevitably feel as though we are “messed up” sometimes because we have not yet got that accomplishment we are seeking at that moment.
We can feed into this as parents. Kids come to me with many different labels, mainly involving mental health: Reactive Attachment Disorder, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder, ADHD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. I am supposed to fix them. Usually, the kids are not broken, even if they look like it. Usually, the kids are reacting the only way their systems know how to abnormal circumstances. Often times, in the response of the child, if you look hard enough, you can see creativity, even brilliance, and most definitely resilience that ultimately exceeds expectations if we can just step back a moment to examine it with a wider lens.
I find many times, the handle holding up the umbrella of concern about “messing up” children is the worry we have that they will experience the same hurts or slights we did as children. Some of us work so hard to make sure that we do not repeat any hurtful patterns from our own childhood. To that I say, “No worries! Your children, my children, all children will experience their world in completely unique and different ways that are very difficult for us to predict, even when we “know” our children so well.
A few years back, I was one of the teachers of a class for parents in the process of separating. In the class we talked about transitioning from couples, to co-parents. During one session of the class, there was a parent panel. More than five years later, I can still remember the words one of the parents on a panel said after she was asked by someone in the class how to predict which of her children would need help. “It’s hardly ever the thing you think is going to be the problem, and it’s usually the kid you are least worried about that you need to be the most concerned with.” As parents, sometimes, we think we are mind readers, and really we are not. Raise your hand if your parents ever thought they knew what you were thinking and they were wrong. If your hand is not raised, lucky you! You have forgotten that feeling of being misunderstood. My point is, parents, even very good parents, get it wrong all the time! Life happens. Unplanned things that seem very difficult to understand happen. We can’t control it, and yet- here I am about to tell you what you really wanted me to say in the beginning. I mean this one too. Really, your kids are not messed up. Your kids are perfect. Whatever struggles life has thrown your way or your child’s way, are exactly the right struggles for each of you. The “dings” in us are what make us uniquely, importantly us.
It is easy for me to say this with confidence because of the gift I have of seeing things through a wide lens as a result of my work experience and my own life. If that does not feel like enough for you to believe me, let’s see if we can name a few people whose moms and dads may not have planned their childhood to go quite like it did:
- Barack Obama (I’m so sure his mother did not anticipate two marriages, having her parents take care of her son for years at a time, and living on the edge of poverty)
- John Lennon (grew up with a single mother except for the time he was in foster care)
- Oprah Winfrey (ever heard of her? Her childhood was pretty rotten)
There are many more folks to list, but I think you get the point. No one is “ruined,” in fact there are quite a few amazing stories out there to be told. All of this is not to say leave your children, live on welfare, it’s all gonna work out. It is to say, lighten up on yourself for the moments when you can not do or be everything you wanted to be for yourself or your children and forgive yourself for your perceived failures. Show your children what you want them to do when they wish they could take something back or change their circumstances. I am assuming that among the things you would want them to do is to take responsibility for any part they played in what happened, learn from it and keep growing from there.
Your children already have an advantage, you. You do care. You do try your hardest. You do love them and care for them the best way you know how. You are perfectly imperfect, and so are they. We all are. We are all messed up. We are all perfect. So are our children.
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