Parent worries, kid worries—expressing, containing and supporting each other

A recent comment by April in response to a post about parents not accurately reading their children’s levels of stress raised some excellent points:

“I think sometimes it’s hard for parents to acknowledge these things for a variety of reasons.  If you’re without health insurance, for instance, you might want to dismiss physical ailments as nothing serious that will pass with time.  Parents going through a divorce might not want to acknowledge how it’s affecting their kids. Parents may think that stress is not so serious because it’s just a part of life.  Kids might not want to admit their concerns about getting into a good school because parents might be quick to put the blame on the kids for not doing well, without acknowledging how hard it is even for the best of students.

Having said that, I do think it’s possible for kids to exaggerate their ailments. My own kids have fessed up to going to the school nurse because they wanted to go home, not because they were really sick. (And school nurses are quick to send children home even without a fever to avoid negligence.)

But I think it all comes down to a parent’s own feeling of vulnerability. Most parents don’t want to see their children suffer, and will sometimes choose denial over dealing with it.”

April concludes with a question:  “So how would you recommend that parents compartmentalize their own feelings/issues in order to create a more nurturing environment?”


And that’s where we jump in today…

April’s very comment, in being thoughtful, honest and authentic, is consistent with what I would recommend, and with what BLW and Khim said in their comments about being honest with our own feelings and creating open channels of communication. 

The question of “compartmentalizing” is crucial:  we need to express our feelings fully, and yet we must not spill our unmetabolized and raw worry, angst and sorrow onto our kids.  We parents need community, be it friends on the phone, over tea or online; in fact, one of the great things about the online world is that it has created a sense of community for many of us parents and the feeling that we have numerous places to go, read, share—and for us bloggers, we also have readers and fellow-writers with whom we can converse, share and download.  I’m hoping that all this has some positive effect on us, and on our kids (and yet I struggle with balance, and worry about how much is too much… when does this virtual world start to take away from our kids, vs. support us to do better with them?).  This is a topic for more exploration in future.

Further to compartmentalizing, this can also be framed as a boundary issue.  In families we can think of three sorts of boundaries:  cut-off, healthy and enmeshed.  If you’re drawing a chart, cut-off boundaries are marked by a solid line that cannot be crossed; healthy boundaries would be represented by a dotted line—it exists, but is permeable and usually open; while enmeshed boundaries would be represented by no line at all, a psychological chain gang of people joined together and undifferentiated from each other.  In a cut-off house everyone is in their rooms with doors closed and no one really talks to anyone else; with healthy boundaries doors are generally open to each other, but there are moments and matters that call for privacy; in an enmeshed household, there are no boundaries, and thus all doors are open at all times while inappropriate levels of development rein and parents infantalize kids. 

These are extremes to illustrate the point, but common sense (if we stop to think about it) will generally guide us to intuit what might be appropriate to discuss with our kids and what might constitute too much information.  We want our doors to be open to our kids, literally and metaphorically (at least most of the time), but since our kids are so often changing we are challenged (sometimes put through the ringer) to continually attune with where they are at—giving space, providing containing.  The demands of this task are the very reason I am so keen on communal parental inter-dependence (i.e. helping each other as central to good parenting); this is especially true it we interconnect past gender and developmental party-lines—mommy and me is great for mirroring our exact stage, but we also can be fed by interfacing with parents who confront different stages and challenges.  Ultimately, it is the very consciousness of inter-being (whether lived in the online world, or at literal schools, yoga studios or art studios) that I intuit can help us both compartmentalize/hold boundaries, but also cross-pollinate the blooms that feed our psyches and unfold our souls—a perspective that both recasts parenting itself as a path to higher consciousness as well as a way to fortify ourselves to be able to successfully engage the journey.

Ideally, we parents want to be the bowl to catch our kids’ overflow, but we do not want to overflow toward our kids.  Yet we do need to be honest about our limitations, such as admitting when we feel stressed, sad or exhausted.  This honesty helps kids realize that our moods are not a reflection of them being “bad” kids.  Congruence—when what we say, think, feel and do all line up—models how to be real for our kids, and ultimately how to be real and happy.  Still, there is a difference between acknowledging how we feel and overdoing it by asking our kids to be a shoulder to cry on, or a container for our overflow.  Also, while we parents might strive for consistency, it is best not to expect this from our kids.  They are all grown up one moment and regressing to our laps the next.  If we give them space to not be logical and consistent, this helps our kids better accept themselves more fully, and to not blunt their full emotional spectrum.

As for kids “fessing up” that they fake their way home via the school nurse, although kids may exaggerate physical illness to get out of school, this still suggests moments of emotional distress that lead them to want to get out of school.  Parents tend to take physical sickness much more seriously than emotional distress, and this can lead kids not only to fake illness, but also to unconsciously develop physical ailments as a way of expressing (or perhaps we should say leaking) their underlying emotional feelings.  When the psychological/emotional ends up as something physical, expressed in the landscape of the body, it is called somatization (from “soma” meaning body).  Examples of this would be unexpressed worry becoming stomach troubles, or repressed anger contributing to headaches.

April make good points about parents turning to denial if they do not have the resources to provide, for example, medical or psychological services even if they were to realize help was needed.  This is where best Self parenting moves from the personal to the political; given that we do have kids in our society who are lacking in good health care, we need to band together as parents to both care about this issue, to be aware about it and to vote in line with it.  Parents on line are a growing force to be reckoned with (at least in visibility and economics), it seems likely that it will prove an influential political force as well.  One thing to keep in mind is that if your child is having emotional distress, learning difficulties, etc. you can demand an IEP to have your kid assessed and then given extra help.  You may have to be the squeaky wheel, but it’s the law that help be provided at taxpayer expense.  For more on this see:  What is an IEP and how do I get one?

So, let’s dedicate today to supporting each other as parents to be self-expressed and connected with each other, as this is how we can be appropriately boundaried, not to mention emotionally nourished, so that we can healthfully notice and respond to our children’s needs, while compartmentalizing our own valid and important feelings, neither spilling them onto our kids nor denying them to ourselves and our friends.  If it helps, you can always leave your feelings here in a comment—not simply for me to hold, but for our parenting community to help hold—viewing this blog as a node in an interconnected community of parents, blogs, sites, neighborhoods and varied groups made up of all those who care about each other and each other’s collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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5 Responses to “Parent worries, kid worries—expressing, containing and supporting each other”

  1. Ambrosia Says:

    I loved reading this. It reminded me of my Family Systems class. Boundaries. Oh, boundaries.

    I recently discussed open on-line community and the many positive things that come from it.

    I want to ask you, though, doesn’t anger usually result in a headache? If you are angry, you will inevitably clench your teeth and furrow your brows. Each of these will most likely to contribute to a headache no? If so, their physical ailments are real, right? Or, do you mean their ailments are real but we need to see if chronic stomach pains and headaches are facial symptoms of deeper problems?

    But, as parents, do we treat the physical ailments because we aren’t patient enough to see the emotional ailments?

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    A wonderful elaboration, Bruce. And yes, the gathering sense of community helps enormously, particularly as we expand our understanding and have a safe place to bring our concerns and our venting.

    While we strive to appropriately compartmentalize, I nonetheless wonder (and worry) about boundaries that grow unrealistic. For example – our own excessive guilt when we express anger. And in particular, I believe women suffer from this tendency toward guilt in general, and reluctance to accept anger as a natural human emotion that needs out in some manner.

    We all strive to be the vessel for our childrens’ aches and confidences, as well as creatively finding real solutions to their sources of stress – some of which you (and April) mention.

    But must we – women especially – continue to live in our own land of “never good enough” – and isn’t the excessive compartmentalizing part of the problem?

  3. Lindsey Says:

    This speaks to a real challenge of mine – being mature and wise enough to know when I’m too tired, stressed, exhausted to be appropriately careful with my kids … I find myself snapping and they are old enough now to honor my apologies, but still, the damage is done. I love the idea of someone being a bowl for our overflow. And I support your feelings that the community of parents, even (or especially?) those whose children are in a different stage, is very important for us as we grow and learn about ourselves and our children.
    Thank you.

  4. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Thanks guys, as to Ambrosia’s question, perhaps emotions like anger don’t necessarily lead to headaches and stomach aches if expressed in a healthy manner; rather it might be repressed emotions that end up expressed in the body. Also, many aliments are NOT emotional at all, and a consult with the pediatrician would be ideal to rule out underlying illness. Conversely, facilitating happiness, connection and freedom of expression invites well-being in our kids minds as well as their bodies. Mind-body is a circle in which we can intervene either place to help both aspects.

    Maybe paying attention to emotional distress heads some physical distress off at the pass. Unhappy kids may be more accident-prone as well, and so sometimes a stitch (of compassion) in time might literally save nine at the ER.

  5. April Says:

    Thank you so much! This post was really helpful!! And I love the idea of the boundaries being dotted lines. I think there is something to be said about our kids role modeling our reactions, and if they never see us cry or deal with anger, they never know how to express their own emotions in a healthy manner. But of course, we need to learn how to do that first!

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