Why it can be so hard to parent in the way we want to and why I love doing one-to-one psychotherapy with parents!

Dr Kirsty Pakes, Parenting Consultant and Clinical Psychologist

One of my heartfelt passions and specialisms is working with parents in one-to-one therapy. This is partly because I know from the inside that there are often barriers that are hard to overcome that prevent us from parenting in the way we really want to.

Sometimes we can get to the point as parents where we know how we want to parent, we’ve done all the courses and read all the books, but somehow we often get stuck in the moment and get hijacked by our reactions or perhaps feel difficult-to-articulate barriers in our relationships with our kids.

There is nothing like parenting to call forth our own childhood experiences for healing! These childhood experiences often reside in us, beneath our conscious awareness, in the form of implicit emotional memories that get activated by our own children. When this happens, it doesn’t feel like we’re consciously remembering anything. It’s more like an emotional, behavioural and physiological reaction that gets activated in us. This is because implicit emotional memories are stored in the body, often beneath the level of the conscious mind.

And so that’s why it can be so frustrating and flummoxing as a parent, when our best intentions to respond calmly or playfully, or to spend more time connecting with our child end up going out of the window! We get hijacked often by implicit emotional memories from our own childhoods that interfere with how we want to parent.

It’s not our fault! No wonder it’s just not that easy to consciously control how we want to be as a parent! That is of course not to say that we don’t absolutely take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. But we can stop beating ourselves up about it, being mystified by it and we can take appropriate action and seek therapeutic support that can actually turn things around.

I’ve have been helped no end by this approach of compassionately examining barriers and triggers in parenting, giving space to all the different aspects of these and the feelings involved, and when relevant, reaching back to those unhealed childhood experiences that are calling for attention and healing in our interactions with our kids.

One example for me was around defiance in my then 3-year-old child. Intellectually and cognitively-speaking I was more than aware that defiance is expected and healthy at this age. It’s a sign that a child is discovering their autonomy and individuality, and it can demonstrate a healthy exploration of individuating in a relationship. It can also be a sign that a child is feeling ‘off-track’ inside themselves with difficult feelings.

I knew that I should respond warmly, perhaps with playfulness, perhaps with playful limit setting or warm, firm limits. However, in spite of all this knowledge and understanding, there were times when I would get really hijacked by a harsh and angry reaction in relation to defiance. I knew I really didn’t want to be that way, but in the moment, I really couldn’t seem to help it!

This is a horrible predicament for parents and this is why I’m so passionate about supporting parents to understand and overcome these hard-to-control reactions and barriers to their parenting. It’s really possible to turn things around!

With my reaction to defiance, I was really able to (in therapy, listening partnerships and focusing partnerships) to explore and identify the parts of me getting triggered in this reaction. I was able to be in touch with a child part of me that wasn’t given leeway to be defiant and had been on the receiving end of the very response/reaction I was giving my own children in those situations. I was able to experientially give that childhood part of me the reassurance, freedom and leeway to be her true self and ‘be defiant’ with warmth, playfulness and warm limits. This made all the difference and after that when my child was defiant, I was able to respond as I wanted, with lightness, appropriate perspective, playfulness and warm limits. What a difference! Hooray!

The good news is that becoming aware of our own triggers and barriers in parenting and giving them space and attention is a win-win for us and for our parenting. It’s like a parallel process of parenting our children and also parenting or reparenting those earlier experiences from our childhoods.

Learning to parent ourselves, the child parts of us, and our own children is all the same process! It’s a process of listening, attuning, holding a compassionate space and repairing, and it all strengthens each other.

Parenting ourselves helps our parenting of our children and vice versa. Learning connection-based ways of parenting our children helps us to give our inner child parts that are unresolved and in need of healing, what they really needed back then. It’s a beautiful, mutually beneficial process of both parenting ourselves and our children!

I think all parents need this information and this support and this is why I love working in this way with parents in one-to-one therapy, courses, consultations and listening partnerships.