How to Not Burden Our Kids With Our Own Emotional "Stuff"

Being a good enough parent on a practical, task-based level is a bit like doing an iron-woman triathlon—daily. But the real triathlon of parenting is the work that goes into staying awake and aware of our own emotional “stuff” and not putting that on or leaking that into our relationship with our kids.

I recently witnessed, yet again, how utterly vital self-awareness and discernment are for the job of good parenting. I’ve known my friend Dan (all names are changed) for a good long time. Because he’s been in my life for decades, I’ve also known his kids since they were born and have my own relationship with his son and daughter, who are now teenagers.

On a recent walk, Dan was raging to me about his teenage daughter Kim and an incident that had just occurred between them. Earlier that morning Kim had been taking photos and Dan, who knows a lot about photography, had offered Kim a suggestion for how to frame her photos in a more rich and interesting way. Kim, who is 15, had gotten irritated with her father and rejected his suggestions, telling him to leave her alone so she could take her own photographs the way she wanted to.

Dan was very angry because, according to him, Kim rejected everything he offered because she didn’t respect him. In his narrative, his daughter didn’t think that he was someone who knew anything of value. She ignored his suggestions because she didn’t think he was someone whose opinion mattered.

I listened to my friend with a lot of mixed feelings. I knew that this narrative about not being valued for what he offered had been Dan’s experience since I knew him. I was aware that my friend had struggled with feeling invisible for his entire life, and that he had always felt unseen, unappreciated, and unvalidated in his work. I knew that this was Dan’s “stuff” being triggered by his daughter’s healthy need to make her own choices and create in her own way. I felt sad too for my friend and his desire to have his daughter appreciate him and be valued for all that he did know.

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As Dan expressed his anger to me, I also had in my mind conversations I had exchanged with his daughter. She had shared with me how controlled she felt by her father, how he never could just let her do anything her way and had to constantly teach her something and show her what he knew. She had expressed great frustration that her father was constantly trying to improve her and could never just be with her as she was or let her be who she was. She felt that she was relentlessly being fed the message that she wasn’t good enough. She had to do everything and be better.

Simultaneously, because Kim is a very emotionally savvy young woman, she had shared with me that when she took suggestions from her father, she felt like the whole experience became about him, like she was being held responsible for making her dad feel valued, important and seen. She naturally then resisted taking his suggestions because she felt like to do so kidnapped her experience and turned it into a “Look what dad can offer you… see what a valuable person/parent dad is,” all of which she (understandably) wanted nothing to do with.

I knew all this as Dan raged on about Kim’s crimes and how she was deliberately rejecting his wisdom and expertise. When he got to the end of his rant and wanted me to validate his feelings, I was in a bit of a pickle. But because he is a dear friend, and because I love Kim too, I felt required to speak a bit about what I saw happening. And so I empathized with him about his frustration and anger. I tried to make space for the feelings of invisibility and dismissal that he was expressing. And then I offered too, a possible other explanation for why Kim might not want his photography advice, one that might lessen the sting, but at the cost of contradicting his storyline.

I reminded my friend that Kim was 15 and needed to learn, but also to be allowed to figure things out for herself and that it was terrific she was playing around with the camera at all. And I told him that I knew she did most definitely not think he was a piece of crap, as he had decided was the case, but rather that she was trying to become a person in her own right and sometimes his suggestions felt like they worked against that for her. I tried to be gentle with him and decided to leave out the age-old quality of his storyline, how he had been struggling with these feelings long before Kim appeared on the scene with her camera. I also left out my belief that he was accusing his daughter of intentions that didn’t belong to her of being the cause for his own hurt. I knew Dan was raw and that feeling unvalued was his core wound, and so I simply attempted to add another possible experience, truth, or frame (Kim’s) into his storyline, to bring some air into his airless narrative, to break up the solidness and certainty of the story he had constructed with his daughter.

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The truth was I felt compassion for both Dan and his daughter, and I wasn’t sure how to help the situation other than to hold up all the truths that coexisted—that meant Dan’s feelings of invisibility, his wish to not only be valued but also teach his daughter where he could (which was a healthy desire), and Kim’s need to be valued as she was, without improvement, and her need to not have to continually validate her dad for his knowledge, to make up for her dad not having been seen by the world. But what I couldn’t sit by and allow was my friend’s assignment of blame to his daughter for what was his own wound; I couldn’t stand to simply watch as he denied his own “stuff” and placed it on her. The experience with Kim had indeed triggered his core wound, yes, but not because she intended to do so. He was making something that had nothing to do with him about him, collapsing his personal experience with a larger truth, which was not okay.

When I shared Kim’s experience with Dan, an experience that was radically different than the one he had assigned her in his narrative, my fantasy was that he would suddenly feel a wave of fatherly compassion for his daughter, that he would be able to step out of his own ego story, ego defense, and feel empathy for his daughter’s experience of never feeling enough, of always having to be better (so that dad could feel valuable and visible). But nowhere in me did I really think that scenario would happen, and indeed it didn’t. My friend stayed loyal to his ego defenses, stuck with his narrative, and exploded at me. By offering a different truth, namely his daughter’s, I had asked him to look at his own "stuff," his history and what he was assuming to be truth, and also, perhaps, to open his heart to his daughter’s actual experience rather than the one he was constructing for her. This, apparently, was not what he was wanting or needing and we decided to convene again when he was calmer.

But all that said, it got me thinking again about how important it is for us as parents to separate out what “stuff” belongs to us, from our histories, and what is actually true for our kids. What our experience is and what their experience is, letting them co-exist with dignity, as different as they usually are. We’ve all been Dan at one time or another, and, when we were younger, we’ve all been Kim and had our parents’ stuff projected onto us. I grew up in a home that sometimes felt like a house of mirrors, where you were rarely in a conversation that included your actual truth, but rather were related to through the projections of others, always saddled with something you had been assigned (positive or negative) that was part of someone else’s story. And so, when my friend Dan attached an intention to his daughter that belonged to his story and was not her truth, I felt my own wounding arise.

Often as parents, we are triggered by something our child says or does. If we don’t catch in the moment or shortly after, if we don’t own our “stuff” as ours and keep it safely away from our kids, we end up in a distorted and confusing relationship with our children, one that denies them the right to have their own truth seen and honored, their own intentions validated, and denies ourselves the possibility of a fresh and real kind of relationship between us.

When we collapse our stuff and their motives, we end up believing that our kids are responsible for re-wounding us in the way that our narrative dictates, when in fact we re-wound ourselves by turning our subjective experience into an objective truth with all the accompanying perpetrators.

Try to always be the adult you claim to be and have the emotional self-control to offer firm guidance, support and moral leadership. Sympathise with them but try not to solve their problems for them.

Instead, when we are triggered, we can pause, feel the triggered-ness, the wound, and take the experience as an opportunity to bring ourselves compassion. Our kids, if we can stay awake and aware, offer us the gift that is an opportunity to awaken, pay attention and bring kindness to our own pain. They show us what’s buried in us; let us not, in our ignorance and defensiveness, bury our kids back in with our pain.

Because we have a subjective experience does not mean it is an objective, capital t Truth. We can have a very real and strong experience, but that does not mean that the other person is doing that to or at us. Their actions trigger something in us, but their experience, what’s happening in and for them, is undoubtedly very different than the experience we are having. And both experiences are true and valid.

Our kids are trying to become people, to individuate and discover who they are. That’s tough enough without having to figure out, pick through, unstick from, and climb their way out of our storylines. Our kids awaken in us what we’ve lived, which includes our suffering. We can bow to our kids, as the messengers of our own pain; they bring it, some of which we might not have even known was there, but they bring it so we can heal from it.

As parents, it’s our responsibility to separate what belongs to us from our own childhoods and adult lives and not intermingle that with our children’s truth. Their truth belongs to them just as our truth belongs to us. And all such truths can, with awareness, co-exist in harmony. Our greatest responsibility as parents, as important as showing up for all the softball games and dance recitals, is our own self-awareness and the willingness to take responsibility for our own “stuff,” to feel what arises without turning it into a story about anyone else. And in so doing, we offer our kids the dignity of deciding and discovering their own truth and having it heard, without our wounded and wounding intrusions.