There is an inherent paradox to parenting, and it confuses us all. It goes something like this: Parents shape their kids, kids shape themselves. Our entire role as parents is to help our kids learn to help themselves. The paradox is that if I neglect them, then they actually become more dependent upon me. If I smother them, then they back away without getting all the skills they need (they just have to get away!).
Such was the case with a coaching client, Carol. Like a lot of us, Carol was uncomfortable with the paradox. After feeling and acting responsible for her son throughout his childhood, Carol now had to watch him struggle severely as an adult (unemployment, drugs, legal difficulties, and a failed marriage).
Confronted with seeing her part in her son’s continued dysfunction, Carol simply wanted to correct the problem. “If I’m the one who created this situation, then what should I do to fix it?”
Carol came to see me, outwardly seeking a solution but inwardly hoping for absolution. Riddled with guilt, she was terrified of discovering that all his problems were her fault, that her bad mothering was the reason for his plight. She felt responsible for her son, and she didn’t know what to do next. And that was the irony. The more she felt responsible for her son, the more she continued to inhibit his growth as an individual, a person responsible for himself.
The more Carol anxiously fretted about her son, the less capable he felt about himself. He knew he was mom’s “challenging” one, the one she needed to worry about. So, of course, the less capable he felt about himself, the more he would give her something new to worry about (a new crisis, a new financial need, etc.). And when Carol would worry, she would feel guilty. And when she felt guilty, she would try to do more for him. Like rescue him from jail, or find him another job. And the cycle would continue.
So a great question for Carol is a great question for all of us: “What would happen if you were to stop worrying so much about your son?”
Now listen carefully to her response: “You mean just let him go wild out there, all by himself?”
Can you hear the underlying assumption? “If I stop worrying about him, then he’ll get even worse, so he needs me to keep him from getting any worse.”
The difficulty for Carol was seeing that despite her best efforts, her son’s situation was not all her fault. And nor was it his. Both of them were complicit in creating this pattern. And that meant fixing the problem did not mean focusing more on the problem, but rather focusing exclusively on herself.
Carol’s part of the problem was continuing to do what most of us say is “just part of being a mother.” That is, continually thinking and worrying about her son. This is not a mother’s right nor calling, because it simply creates the very problems it aims to solve. By directing so much worry-filled thought toward her son, Carol continued to communicate that he indeed is a problem to worry about. And this left him in the position of cradling that identity for his apparent survival, yet hating that identity and its crippling power.
But once Carol began to calm her own anxiety, she began to stop worrying about him. She thus began to communicate (through her lack of words) that he is not her problem to figure out, and that his problems are his problems. Most importantly, her lack of worry communicated that he is OK and capable of handling his own life.
Yes, because the pattern was so ingrained, he initially started to “get worse.” I helped Carol see that this was the pattern’s effort to pull her back into the worried mom role. But as she continued to keep her anxiety to herself, Carol exuded a new confidence in life. Her newfound calm began to free her up to relate to her son (and her other children) as equals, adults in their own right who are not her responsibility. And, in keeping with the paradox, this freed her children up to grow themselves up.
Now I won’t tell you that Carol’s son is now doing fabulously, becoming a self-made millionaire and raising a great family of his own. But he is beginning to make better choices, and he is beginning to do better than Carol ever thought he could.
As for Carol, life has never been more interesting. She’s now beginning to discover all the life she missed while constantly worrying about her son. That’s the power of learning to focus on yourself. That’s the power of becoming ScreamFree.
|Hal Runkel, LMFT, is the author of ScreamFree Parenting and founder of ScreamFree Living. For more information, visit www.screamfree.com|