Remembering Essence:
Parenting as Emotional Healing
by John Breeding, Ph.D .
line2
As a parent and as one who works with parents, I have become intimately familiar with a universal law that as a parent, your "stuff" will come up. As night follows day, however much we vow and wish differently, we inevitably and repeatedly fall out of our loving as parents. This simple premise is at the center of all the parenting work I do and facilitate these days. Anytime we fall out of our loving and point the finger at our "bad" children, it always says more about us than about our children. In order to hold and manifest our high ideals of what it means to be good parents, we must face our "stuff" and somehow transform ourselves in the places where we are unable to stay present and available for our children. We either suppress our children or we transform ourselves and our lives, again and again.

Before explaining the process that I call parenting as emotional healing, let me first describe some foundational theory. Though perhaps already familiar, it is the kind of information which is always helpful to remember. First has to do with our inherent nature as human beings. Regrettably, as I will show with a recent example from my own life, even today we are faced with a powerful legacy of distrust in human nature, a view which sees humans as inherently flawed. On April 29th, 1999, I participated in a panel of four authors, organized as an event for parents, at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Austin, Texas, in conjunction with National Child Abuse Week. I am a psychologist, as were two of the other panelists, one in private practice like myself, the other a University professor. The professor commented on the recent tragedy of multiple killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. This academician had just written a book presenting research to argue the case that many human traits and abilities are genetically determined, and that parents really need to recognize the limits of their influence on children and let go of unnecessary guilt and overresponsibility. He said that the "default point" for human beings was simian wildness as in William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, and that our basic job is to provide an influence to civilize our children. He strongly felt that violence was biologically determined, and that incidents such as the killings in Colorado, though unpredictable, were to be expected, and could largely be accounted for by genetics. The philosophical underpinnings of this professor's worldview lie in a Judaeo-Christian theology which views us as inherently debased and sinful, fallen creatures desperately in need of God's salvation. The twentieth century scientific version requires mankind's taming of our primitive instincts by the forces of civilization. Today, this face is most prominently seen, as with this professor, in the worldview of biological psychiatry wherein our flaws are not due to sin or socialization, but to biological or genetic defect which can be controlled by psychiatric drugs.

I have grave concerns about the implications of this thinking. I agree that as parents we tend to overestimate our ability to control the course of our children's lives. Many of us err in thinking that our job is to control our children. Mostly, we do this out of fear or shame -- fear that they'll turn out badly; shame that they will somehow reflect badly on us. I part with him, however, in many ways. Perhaps my greatest concern is with the consequences of his conclusion that violence is largely biologically determined. I believe it negates or minimizes the role of conscience, morality and ethics, as well as compassion, caring, and a necessary responsibility for the well-being of all of our fellow beings -- in short, those qualities which make us essentially human.

I believe his understanding of human nature is seriously flawed and distorted. I agree that human beings come into the world with unique genetic and biological makeup, and that this makeup includes a primitive, instinctual, "animalistic" survival nature. Any adult who witnesses a child's passionate screaming for food and comfort, or her rage at frustrated desire knows this survival nature and its intense emotional reactivity. In this sense, it is easy to understand how one would conclude that simian aggression is the default option; it certainly looks that way when needs aren't met, and this seems true for all of us in infancy and early childhood. What makes it seem even more true is that so many adults, perhaps the majority, also behave this way! So, from this perspective, one has to admit this is human nature, or else one can be dismissed as a religious simpleton, clinging to the simplistic security blanket of a naive, pollyanna universe in denial of the obvious scientific truth.

Do you know the story of the blind men and the elephant? It reveals one key to discovering the truth of our nature as human beings. There are four blind men in a room with an elephant, and they are asked to tell what is in the room with them. One grabs the trunk and says it is a thick hose; one grabs the tail and says it is a rope; one feels the ear and declares it's a fan, the fourth grasps a leg and says it is a tree. So one truth is that we humans are multidimensional, multifaceted beings. We must not attempt to explain our nature by the tail of our animal survival nature. Yet we can benefit from a simple theory which still accounts for as much of the truth as possible. If the tail of our biological or genetic animal nature is not the deepest aspect of our human nature, then what is?

Inherent Nature

What really is "essential?" What is the essence of our humanness? What is our inherent nature? To the university professor on our panel, the essence of human nature, what he called the "default option," is simian aggression. Contrast this dark view with that of the Dalai Lama's:

One of my fundamental beliefs is that all sentient beings have gentleness as their fundamental nature. If we look at the pattern of our existence from an early age until our death, we see the way in which we are so fundamentally nurtured by affection, each other's affection, and how we feel when we are exposed to each other's affection. In addition, when we ourselves have affectionate feelings we see how it naturally affects us from within. Not only that, but also being affectionate and being more wholesome in our behavior and thought seems to be much more suited to the physical structure of our body in terms of its effect on our health and physical well- being, and so on. It must also be noted that the contrary seems to be destructive to health.

I love the Dalai Lama. I believe that our inherent nature is that we are born as highly intelligent, zestful, curious, loving beings. Barring organic brain damage, a toxic womb, the effects of drugs, or a severely traumatic birth, this nature is readily apparent in our babies. We are also born needing and expecting a tremendous amount of attention, care, nurturance and support by thoughtful, aware adults through our exceedingly long process of development. We are born with a dual nature. Our essence is as the Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lama and teachers and mystics of traditions including Sufism, Taoism, Mohammedism, Hinduism, mystical Christianity and Judaism and many others all describe: a place of divine love, unending flow and vitality, unlimited intelligence, and sheer radiant beingness. Many traditions include a practice called darshan, wherein a spiritual teacher graces people in his presence with a transmission of spiritual energy. All parents know the great gift of being in the presence of a contented baby, the beauty and power of what I call baby darshan. We are born connected to essence. The other side of our duality is the instinctual nature, evolved to adapt and survive as animals in this physical world; the discontented baby hardly looks like a saint resting in radiant loving; crying, screaming, face distorted, back arching, its well-being clearly dependent on the fulfillment of needs and desires. Living from essence with its attendant qualities of unlimited power, imagination and immediacy, the young child expects unlimited and immediate wish fulfillment and gratification. When this doesn't happen, the survival nature reacts in frustration (rage). The fall from grace is often not pleasant.

This complex being, connected to its true nature as radiant splendor, yet living in a body with persistent survival needs, and intense emotional qualities adapted to demand and insure fulfillment of these needs, is faced with an enormous task. The baby is physically separated from mother at birth, but psychological separation is a developmental task achieved only by trial and ordeal and a lot of help. To develop a separate self-sense from a state of being merged with mother is an awesome challenge. To successfully achieve what the ego psychologists call rapprochment, an ability to be in relationship while at the same time maintaining this hard-won separate identity is even more challenging, and by the looks of it, a rare gem even for our adult population. Babies and young children need a lot of help. And so, therefore, we parents also face an enormous task. Besides the often grueling adult responsibility to provide physical needs such as food, warmth and shelter, parents especially need to provide mirroring and modeling for our children.

Mirroring and Modeling

Children need mirroring, adults who reflect the world and our own actions back to us. In order to mirror for our children in a truly effective way, in a way that supports these vulnerable beings in their awesome challenge to become individuals who powerfully manifest their uniqueness and their true nature, it is necessary that we adults who do the mirroring know something of our own essence. Lacking an awareness of our essential nature, and its awesome qualities, we see only instinct and adaptation. We are unable to empathize and support the incredible challenge of developing an individual self that not only manages the slings and arrows of outrageously frustrating limitations of our physical and social world, but also maintains conscious contact, appreciation and enjoyment of essence.

As a parent knowing essence, the task becomes one of drawing out or helping children to express essential qualities in their milieu at different levels of development. The alternative task is to instill virtues which are seen as void and nonexistent in a child. The difference between somehow implanting a sense of responsibility into a child seen as inherently irresponsible, for example, and figuring out how to uncover a child's inborn need and desire to be responsible, is a radical one. Anyone who has either been around two-year-olds and their intense pleasure at helping out with responsibilities, or who has done inner work around experiences of their own abuse in childhood and felt the intense guilt and shame that comes from children's tendencies to feel responsible for everything that happens to them, should see these tendencies as evidence that responsibility is one face of our inborn essential nature.

Children also need models, idealized images they can internalize to provide inspiration and structure in their job of ego development. It is a magnificent, frightening, and at times overwhelming fact that who we are as adults unavoidably becomes a significant part of the structure of our child's psyche. Can't be helped. No way around it. Ideas, information, and techniques are helpful, but the biggest part by far is who we are as individuals, the level of our awareness, the quality of our attention and loving. The truth comes back to the fact that the best way to help our children is to help ourselves. This means doing whatever we can to get free of whatever gets in the way of or throws us out of our own inherent, loving nature, and the essential quality of spacious, free attention.

With such attention, children retain their intelligence and zest, and learn to share with others in a spirit of warmth, affection and cooperation. Without this support, they often succumb to the effects of neglect, insult and injury, and sometimes act very badly. I don't see this as a default option. I see it as the effect of having been systematically hurt with no recourse to ways of healing. One piece of good news, however, is that our inherent nature includes one inborn mechanism for healing which is to emotionally express the effects of hurt. Crying is the release of hurt and loss; storming anger is the release of insult and frustration; shaking, sweating and trembling releases the effects of fright, laughing of embarrassment or humiliation, etc. The Re-Evaluation Counseling Community calls this emotional discharge, and offers great information and grassroots peer support for parents and families.

The Cycle of Abuse

I want to review one more piece of theory, beautifully taught in the books of Alice Miller such as Banished Knowledge, before we go on to the specifics of parenting as emotional healing. Remember that children experience the world with themselves as the center; whatever happens, they feel that they are the responsible cause. Parents are seen as omnipotent and all-knowing, thus assuring the feeling that anything wrong must be the child's fault. Here is how it works.

A child is hurt by a parent. The child unavoidably internalizes both sides of the experience, as victim and as powerful adult perpetrator. Naturally, the primary identification is that of victim, afraid and ashamed. When a child is not supported and allowed to express and work through the effects of hurt, he will protect himself intrapsychically by the mechanism of "splitting." In order to function without continued feelings of fear and shame, the child will "split off" the internalized experience of being a powerless, terrified victim and banish this knowledge as deeply as possible into the unconscious mind. Just as it is natural for a child to initially identify himself as terrified victim, it is equally natural that, given a later opportunity, that same child will choose to identify with a powerful perpetrator in a relational world in which abusive inequities of power are the norm. The final part of this process is that the split-off internalized victim self is projected from the unconscious depths of the psyche onto the others within interactions. The individual denies (represses and forgets) the hurt and its associated feelings of shame and fear. Her perception, however, is determined by these unconscious feelings, so she is drawn to see others as shameful and deserving of the treatment she once received. Her identification as a powerful perpetrator leads inexorably to a well-justified punishment (a.k.a. "discipline") of the deserving other.

Four stages describe the process: An act of abuse, internalization of both sides of that abusive interaction, splitting and unconscious denial of victimization, projection of the denied powerless and shame-filled victim self. Now the stage is set for recapitulation, re-enactment and perpetuation of the abusive pattern. To the individual who unconsciously projects his own experience of terror and shame onto another, that other is bad and powerless, fully deserving and in need of correction. The original victim acts on such a conviction, and is fully justified in whatever act is perpetrated. A father who was hit as a child for whining now hits his own child for whining, justifying it as necessary to teach the child a lesson. The father has identified with his own parent and projected his own split-off, hurt, child self onto his child. The cycle of abuse is complete.

My first and foremost assumption, then, is that where we have a hard time as parents is when we get emotionally triggered, which not only interferes with our relatedness to our children, but also causes us to think less well. Something about our child's behavior triggers an unresolved area of emotional distress and we are thrown out of our true loving and intelligent nature. At these times, a feeling of urgency tends to possess us; there is a strong pull to suppress the uncomfortable emotions, usually by suppressing our child or by giving up and avoiding conflict. Often, we feel extremely righteous, a pretty reliable indicator that we are in the throes of a shame attack, from which place blame becomes a thoroughly justified defense. At other times, we feel hopeless and discouraged, a memory feeling of how we, or our parents, felt in a situation that was emotionally similar in our childhood past.

A Formula For Parenting

A wide array of our children's behaviors can be excellent triggers for unresolved feelings of hurt, fear, shame or anger. Disrespect, disobedience, defiance, aggression, whining, crying, lying, almost anything that somehow touches a place where we were hurt as children can be such a trigger. There is a simple formula which is useful as a way to begin working with this idea of parenting as emotional healing; K. Lavonne, author of Tomorrow's Children, taught it to me.

Step 1) Recognize that you are out of your loving with your child. This does not mean out of your permissiveness, but out of your loving and neutrality; it means that you are emotionally triggered. This usually looks like either an urge to punish or to give up and withdraw. It generally means that you are not able to think well about your child, and have forgotten that they are doing the best they can, and that their "bad" behavior is an effort to get your attention on a place where they have some distress and need your help.

Step 2) Ask yourself, "Who am I in this situation?" This means exploring your internal state when you are triggered. It might be, "I'm an angry woman who wants to throttle my child." Or "I feel like a hopeless, defeated little boy who just wants to curl up and disappear." It might be one of those humbling situations where you recognize, with a sinking feeling, that the precise words that just came out of your mouth were those of your own mother's, in just her tone of voice: words you had promised never to use with your child.

Step 3) Ask yourself what behavior or quality in your child are you reacting to. Perhaps you can't stand his whining or her defiance, or lying.

Step 4) Ask yourself how you are in relationship to this quality inside of yourself. This is the inner work of self-discovery and emotional healing. One place to work on this is in the area of lying. The work of personal transformation requires great honesty; my friend, Brad Blanton, has a bestselling book called Radical Honesty: How To Transform Your Life By Telling The Truth. His whole premise is that your personal growth is limited only by your incapacity or unwillingness to be honest. He says that we're all liars, and getting honest is a big work for all of us. The great task of parenting is to do our own work because we can effectively help our children only in areas where we are relatively free of distress. If your child has trouble making friends, and you have a similar pattern, the best way you can help your child is to go make friends for yourself. Similarly, the bottom line with lying is that if it is a problem for your child, the very best way you can help your child is to do the courageous and difficult work of getting honest in your own life. We need to be absolutely honest with our children and especially with ourselves. Blanton talks about three levels of honesty, in ascending order of both subtlety and difficulty: honesty with the outer facts or circumstances, honesty with how you feel about these circumstances, honesty with the deeper conditioning (distress) that lurks behind all this. I would say that a necessary first step is to completely surrender the illusion that there is any justification whatsoever for you to blame, punish, or otherwise be out of your loving with your children; it's all your distress, your responsibility.

Step 5) Do the inner work related to the difficulties you have in the area of distress. This might mean personal counseling, talking with friends, journaling, whatever support helps and is necessary.

Step 6) Be grateful to your child for being your teacher and pointing out to you the place you need to grow.

Lying or any other place where we get restimulated and reactive becomes another portal into the fires of personal transformation, and our children are the catalysts who provide both the stimulus to feel the fire, and the motivation to stay with it and endure the ordeal of countless ego deaths. If we are fortunate, these are deaths of those negative memories, feelings and habits which keep us out of our loving, and awakenings into greater space for acceptance, tolerance, compassion and clear thinking about ourselves and our children. Since honesty is an ongoing challenge, I will share a few more thoughts on this phenomenon of lying children.

Connection

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that closeness and affection -- connectedness -- with others, especially parents, is absolutely vital to our children, way more important than efficiency, productivity, or any aspect of how well things go on a practical level. When safety and closeness are at stake, the facts don't count for much. I think inaccuracy, distortion or downright lying about the facts is probably much less significant than the incongruency present when a parent is righteously stuck on details, and not fully aware that he or she is caught in an attitude of shame or blame, insensitive to the feelings and needs of the child at that moment. I know that, from the child's point-of-view, survival itself depends on the continued acceptance and support of adult caregivers. My own opinion is that when we adults in authority are acting out of the automaticity and harshness of our distress, rather than the caring, flexible intelligence of our inherent nature, it makes very good sense for a child to lie. There is no need to push. When there is safety, acceptance, warmth and affection, the natural trajectory of the child is toward complete honesty in sharing with loved ones. Why wouldn't it be?

Imagination

To a child, imagination is everything. The definitions of consensus reality, including both the "facts" and the rules about acceptable behavior, are won over a long time at a high price; and they are ever-evolving and changing. It is arrogant and presumptuous to assume a child's reality is like our own, and to impose ours on them in any kind of harsh or punishing way. I vote for a lightening up, and a greater investment in trust and confidence in the natural integrity of the developing child. Often what appears a lie when weighed against the outer facts, is an absolutely true expression of a child's inner world. Psychologist and author, James Hillman, in his book, The Soul's Code, recommends the following "necessary nutrients" for evoking imagination: "Among the many prerequisites for furthering imagination, I would single out at least these three: first, that the parents or intimate caretakers of a child have a fantasy about the child; second, that there be odd fellows and peculiar ladies within the child's perimeter; and third, that obsessions be given courtesy." Hillman's teaching is that these so-called obsessions are often windows to the soul, early expressions of the uniqueness of a child's gifts and purpose in life. That we can really know any connection between these early idiosyncracies and the journey of the soul only in retrospect or hindsight is another good reason to go easy on our judgments and pathologizing of our children's behavior. Certainly, we should avoid putting our children into situations where they feel like they have to lie in order to protect the gold of their soul's life purpose.

Control

Parent educator Tammy Cox clearly stated for me the truth that, for children, it is more important to resist control than to have things go well in their life. I have seen the accuracy of this truth again and again. So another place to check when lying or any kind of disrespect, disobedience or defiance is an issue, is our need and tendency to control our children. Look especially close when there is even the slightest edge of disrespect, what I call adultism, in our communication with a child.

Rank

With rank and power comes responsibility. With enormous rank and enormous power, such as we have with our children, comes enormous responsibility. Anyone who has been around children, and who has even the slightest awareness, knows that humans have a built-in expectation of fairness, and a natural tendency toward righteous indignation when things are unfair. It is also apparent that children naturally expect their needs to be met by loving, intelligent adults. In other words, children know we have rank and power, and expect us to use it in their best interests with love and wisdom. Arnold Mindell, psychologist, author and founder of process work, taught me the simple axiom that: "Unfair or unaware use of rank causes revenge." We all know that on any levelÑthe individual, the family, the community, the nation or the worldÑthe need for revenge overpowers outer truth almost every time. The best way out that I know is a tolerance which allows for full expression of all grievances, together with relentless desire for and action on behalf of reconciliation. This is, of course, what we all want in our families.

I conclude this essay with a brief personal account of how far we can be divorced from our essential nature, and how deeply healing the path of parenting can be. Even when we have an intellectual idea about essence, we often lack a true, living awareness of who we really are. I devoted a chapter of my book, The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses, to a story of my parenting experience with my son, Eric, now 14, when we was between the ages of 4 and 7. He was very angry, and showed it much of the time. My own adaptation to life had been to become a good, nice, passive boy, and I had a very hard time with anger. Eric's mother and I had the theory that we should trust Eric's nature and allow his expression, but it was excruciatingly difficult for me to hang in there with him. I was out of touch and suppressive of my own anger, often afraid of my son's powerful anger. At times, I became full of my own suppressed rage, and felt like throttling him. Other times, I wanted to give up, or felt an overwhelming desperation and need to cry. Fortunately, I had support (not the least of which came from the Re-Evaluation Counseling Community and its attendant playdays and family workshops) and got through it, but not without paying a price. The best news is that Eric has turned out magnificent. The most awesome learning for me had to do with essence. For all his life, I had seen Eric as very different from me. I was quiet, mild-mannered and introspective; he was loud, assertive, extremely rough and tumble. It seemed like his energy and personality dwarfed mine in comparison. The most astounding revelation came one day, after one more intense session, when it dawned on me that my true nature might actually be very like my son's, that perhaps I had been hurt in such a way that my adaptation to life was severely disconnected from my essence. Over the ensuing years, the truth of this possibility has continually been revealed to me. Every day I hold a prayer of love and thanksgiving for my son, Eric, in my heart. And for all our children. Today I pray as well that all parents may be grateful to their children for helping them reconnect and remember essence.