Child v. inner child: Navigating the triggers of parenting
It has taken me a while to accept that life is a journey of ups and downs. Mainly because I hate being down.
But whilst I would love to feel eternally connected, centred and serene, I have come to appreciate that the triggers that cause the downs in life are actually gifts. I have learnt to see them as opportunities to restore the spiritual imbalance which is presenting itself for attention (if we are willing, that is).
Somehow though, these potential lessons always seem to catch me unawares, despite being the parent of three small kids who provide me with perfect trigger-fodder on an almost daily basis. After all, they know exactly which buttons to press, they don’t ever let up, and I’m kind of stuck with them.
Last week was a particularly bad example. I’d had enough of being greeted at the school gate with a sulk. I was really fed up with restoring the living room to its normal state after daily ‘den-building’ exercises and I was finding them particularly boisterous, demanding and ungrateful. I was also premenstrual. And as a rule, the more stressed I am, the less present I am as a parent, so I was not being particularly patient, kind nor nurturing. Which made me feel even worse.
So, recognising how far I was straying from the ‘perfect mother’ archetype (to which I always aspire but never seem to get near), I immediately reached for some sort of parenting fix. This popped up in the form of a free online course. One video in particular caught my attention, with its pithy advice on laying the foundations of mama gurudom – to write down my needs as a parent. Here’s what I wrote:
I needed the children…
- To show autonomy in getting themselves ready for school on time (directly inspired by that week’s pre-school, stressful drop-offs).
- To show me appreciation and love (directly inspired by that week’s post-school, stressful pick-ups).
- To be easy-to-manage, quiet and to behave.
Well, I had a bit of a shock when I paused and re-read them. Not only because they struck me as pretty unreasonable but also because of how much they revealed about my current state of mind rather than anything to do with the children. So I took time to reflect on each requirement in turn in order find out what was really going on…
1. “To show autonomy in getting themselves ready for school on time (directly inspired by that week’s pre-school, stressful drop-offs).”
The first demand was the least unreasonable of the three but was still quite unrealistic. Sure, the girls (7 and 5) could show a little more independence, but the youngest is 3, male and quite a way away from autonomy: he can’t even reach the sink where the toothbrushes are kept, for goodness sake. He’s also not fully got the hang of getting dressed: he can just about put on all of his clothes but it’s a miracle if they are all the right way round, fastened correctly and not inside out.
It was also unrealistic because my children are still blissfully unaware of the adult notion of time, as all children are. Enviably, they are always in the present. Unlike me their priority is happiness, not what time or day of the week it is. As a result, they are usually too busy enjoying themselves to realise that today might be a school day, which would require certain chores to be completed as quickly as possible. And on reflection, I realised that I’d like to cherish these qualities in them rather than stamp them out. Indeed, I also recognised that this joyful playfulness was actually triggering me: I was jealous! I resented not being able to join in and having to take the nagging, adult role instead.
So what my need for them to be ‘autonomous’ actually meant was that I didn’t particularly want to parent that day: I didn’t want the responsibility of holding the whip nor to be the ‘baddy’ of the situation.
Thus the solution here was not to try to change my children but to change the way in which I interact with them. I may still be the adult, bound by a certain time constraints, but it is up to me to choose the way in which I comply: I don’t have to see the morning routine as a battle of wills and I can definitely approach the task more playfully.
2. “To show me appreciation and love (directly inspired by that week’s post-school, stressful pick-ups).”
Rereading the second requirement, it was clear that this was my inner child talking – she was feeling unloved. Our inner child is an energetic part of us that we carry throughout our lives, regardless of our age. It’s a positive source of both creativity and unbridled enthusiasm but can also be the driver for childish, tantrum-like feelings which can unconsciously take over if we are unaware of their origin. So to have projected this desire outwards, demanding that my children satisfy it, was totally unreasonable. Because it is not their role nor anyone else’s to quench my emotional needs. I alone am the best source of love for myself (which is why it is so important to maintain a regular, self-care routine).
3. “To be easy-to-manage, quiet and to behave.”
The third requirement shocked me the most because of just how unrealistic it was. In fact, it’s more like a secret fantasy – wouldn’t it be so relaxing to have puppets that did exactly what you wanted instead of children with their own unique mindsets and personalities? Here too I saw on reflection that it was the children’s exuberant vitality that had triggered my inner child’s neediness or ‘what about me?’ syndrome. And, once again, what was actually needed was not a change in the children’s behaviour but some compassion and appreciation for the little Lavinia inside me.
What this little exercise so clearly demonstrated was that behind the external trigger, there was indeed a hidden gift… an opportunity to restore the spiritual imbalance presented by my inner child. And once I saw this and had responded, I almost instantly felt better – more balanced, centred and at peace.
There are several ways in which one can ‘parent’ one’s inner children – different teachers advocate slightly different methods – but each is just as effective. The important thing is to do it and to do it regularly, because the more frequently you engage, the less time it takes to connect and to heal. And it is so worth it!
Because, as I have seen myself over the course of 7 years of parenting and 2 years of inner-parenting, the stress that my children trigger in me is a direct result of how soothed my inner child is. The undeniable proof of this was that when the children acted in an identical fashion the following day, it didn’t bother me at all – instead of seeing their behaviour as a deliberate, personal attack on my self-worth, I was able to see it as just kids being kids.
So my challenge now is to be a better listener; to hear my inner child and look inwards to see how I might satisfy her needs before projecting that discomfort onto others and demanding that they change instead.
In short, I need to get better at recognising the signs. That said, I also need to model self-love and to recognise that I’m not doing too bad a job either. To be gentle and patient with myself, and to appreciate just how hard it can be to navigate the ups and downs of life. For as some wise person once said before me: “I am allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work-in-progress simultaneously…”