Mommy, the princesses won't let me play with them.
I pulled over and got into the back seat of the car with my 4-year old daughter.
What do you mean I desperately asked her, trying to conceal the panic in my voice . . .
She then launched into the details of how, during recess at her preschool, the boys and girls divided into gender-specific groups: Star Wars and Princess. My poor girl, a fan of the Star Wars films, found herself in the nether-region of such gender play and was effectively banished by both Han Solo and Sleeping Beauty.
Over the next few weeks, I was transformed.
The next thing I knew, I–a pacifist and a social worker–was taking names and forming opinions about these 4-year old girls who, much to my chagrin, were on the receiving end of my dirty looks at drop off the next day and the days that followed. My feelings and passive-aggression towards the parents of these perpetrators was no less shameful.
I then began down the rabbit hole of self-blame: If only I had scheduled more playdates with girls. If only I wasn t selfish in wanting to spend time play-dating with my friends, most of whom had boys. If only I hadn t been a tomboy myself. If only I had somehow been a better parent, this would not be happening. She was an outcast, and it was all my fault.
In the weeks that followed, I withdrew from my regular mommy-friends and sought out play dates with the girls who had rejected my child in an effort to prove to them once and for all that my little girl was awesome and worthy of play. These efforts were not only unsuccessful (due primarily to scheduling conflicts), but backfired terribly. The feelings of rejection! The anxiety! The depression! The shame!
The reality was, my daughter hadn t a clue. It was I who suffered the slings and arrows of this tragedy. She was fine. I was a mess.
After several weeks of this craziness, I took a step back to reflect. The inner chaos I was feeling had several layers. First, the Mamma Bear Instinct: protect my child from hurt at all costs. Ok. I ll give myself that one. But it was more than that. I was fueled not only by my protective instinct, but by my own history. My own pain. My own experience of being an outcast, feeling banished, not fitting in. My own rejection from the princesses. My own desire to opt for the headstrong Princess Leah over Princess what s-her-name who always needs to be rescued. Rescued. It wasn t my daughter who needed rescue from this social calamity. It was me.
I then went back to all I knew about child development, and the fact that children at this age need to have their own social experiences. This is how they develop social skills, conflict resolution and communication skills, and foster self efficacy and self esteem. If I intervene here, she will not learn to fight her own battles and navigate the social matrix that is going to be the rest of her life. She needs to do this herself. My job is to be there to support her, comfort her, encourage her and guide her. Not to manipulate her for my own comfort.
Good lord! I thought the nursing, sleep deprivation and diaper changing of the early years were tough! None of those what-to-expect-when-you re-expecting books said anything about this one!
Once I came out of my fog and regrouped, I began to share my ever-so-humbling experience, and found that many parents shared similar thoughts and feelings. I also began to formulate a theory based on my experience as both a psychotherapist and a parent. In psychotherapy, countertransference refers to the feelings the therapist has in response to (as triggered by) the client. It is the therapist s responsibility to be aware of these feelings and to be diligent not to react to them, as they typically interfere with effective treatment.
The countertransference of parenting, then, refers to our tendency to react to our children based not only on what we perceive to be in their best interest, but also out of our own needs and past experiences. Mindful Parenting is the process of enhancing our awareness of these issues in an effort to be the best parents we can be. By getting out of our own way and relying on our instincts and knowledge, we can foster our children's independence and growth. Thus, once we are aware of our triggers, we can tune in more effectively to our children and utilize our parenting skills more adaptively.
So how is this done How, in the throes of emotional turmoil do I–as a parent–take the time to reflect, when all I want to do is act on my impulse rescue (or fix or change)
The answer for today is this: Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Take a minute to reflect on some of the incidences your child has had where you felt driven to intense action (or feeling). What was happening How did you feel about it How did you react Did the event remind you of something you experienced in your own childhood Think about the situation again from an objective point of view. Would you have behaved (or felt) any differently about the situation if you took yourself (your history) out of the equation
It is important to note that the initial goal of this process is less about resolving these issues, but more about creating a framework for understanding your own reactions so that you might approach these situations differently the next time. It is also an opportunity to tune into your younger self and to recognize when she (or he) is being triggered and might be in need of some additional attention or self care. This might be where therapy comes in, or simply a chat with a supportive partner, relative or friend. At the end of the day, the more supported and nurtured we are, the more loving and mindful parents we can be.
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Fara is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Park Slope where she specializes in working with children, adolescents, parents and families, coping with trauma, addictions, anxiety and depression. Utilizing both traditional psychotherapy and creative arts therapy in her work, she provides individual, couples and family counseling and has developed and implemented psychotherapy, psycho-education and creative arts therapy groups for children, adolescents and adults. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 917-359-3335.
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