You have probably been told that the goal is not to be a perfect parent but rather that you need to make sure you are “good enough.”But, what does “good enough” mean? How do you know if your parenting measures up?
This is especially confusing if you are an adult survivor of abuse. You grew up in an environment that was unsafe and unkind, and as a result it can be hard to know what is healthy.
There are many building blocks to being a good enough parent. The first building blocks—those that ensure the physical survival of your child—are adequate food, shelter, and clothing. If you were physically neglected as a child but have managed to provide better for your own children, you are a good enough parent in this area.
The second building blocks—those that ensure the safety of your child—are means to secure freedom from abuse. That includes freedom from physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and witnessing you being abused. If you were maltreated as a child but have managed to keep your child safe, you are a good enough parent in this area.
The third building blocks—those that ensure the emotional wellbeing of your child—are focused on meeting your child’s emotional needs for connection, independence, and comfort. This includes being able read your child’s cues accurately, being able to provide effective comfort, and being able to share in your child’s delight and joy. This is the area where many parents who were maltreated as children struggle.
How Do I Know if I’m Meeting the Emotional Needs of My Children Well Enough?
Finding the answer to this can be a bit tricky because when it comes to meeting emotional needs we tend to have blind spots. We may think that we are doing something well enough, but in actuality, we have slipped into automatic behaviours learned in our childhood.
Let me give you an example to show you how this can happen:
Lisa (not her real name) came to see me because her daughter Anna (not her real name) had become increasingly defiant and aggressive—not complying with simple requests and hitting both Lisa and other children.
Lisa had experienced a huge amount of maltreatment as a child, including physical abuse, lack of food, and an almost complete lack of emotional nurturing. She was especially punished if she showed joy or delight in her own accomplishments. She had worked hard to make sure she wasn’t repeating the same patterns with her daughter, and to a large extent, she had been successful.
In our work together I discovered that whenever little Anna ran to Lisa with a drawing or wanted to show her the amazing block tower she had built, Lisa turned away. She showed disinterest and her face shut down. Anna, being a feisty child, was learning that feeling connected with her mom while doing good things didn’t work, so she was exploring whether misbehaviour would meet some of her emotional needs.
The thing is, Lisa was completely unaware of turning away at these key moments. Instead of being present with her daughter’s delight, she was responding to her inner warning system telling her the danger in showing joy about accomplishments. So, to keep her daughter safe, this inner warning system was teaching Anna to shut down the joy. When Lisa behaved like this, she was on “automatic pilot” and not really able to reflect on her behaviour until that was brought to her attention.
We all slip into these kinds of automatic behaviours. Simply because you do, too, does not mean you are failing at being “good enough” as a parent. We only need to meet the emotional needs of our children well enough about a third of the time.
Learning to Recognize When You Get Triggered
Discovering if and when you get triggered around your children may take some time. Please be kind with yourself in this process of exploring what is going on for you. Nothing has ever been made better through shame or blame.
Here are some indicators that you may struggle with meeting the emotional needs of your children:
- When your child shows certain emotions, you get uncomfortable. That discomfort may show itself as anxiety, anger or dissociation. For Lisa, those trigger emotions were delight and joy. Other common emotions that cue discomfort in parents include anger, sadness, fear, and curiosity. You may have to really slow down and reflect on how you are feeling to notice this is going on.
- Your child has started to misbehave around you, becoming increasingly defiant, oppositional, controlling or angry.
- Your child has started to shut down around you, becoming increasingly quiet, anxious, withdrawn, secretive or caretaking of your needs.
- Your child has started to become increasingly agitated, inattentive, or impulsive (this is age-dependent).
When to Get Help
Some parents are able to reflect on their responses to their children’s emotions and behaviours with ease. They are able to stop their automatic behaviours readily and are able to switch to being present with their children. Often, this is because these parents did not experience severe maltreatment as a child, or because they’ve done much work to resolve their trauma.
For others, recognizing and responding to triggers is more of a challenge. This may be because you experienced a lot of maltreatment, or because you have recently started your healing journey. If that is the case for you, it may be that you need help to become the parent you’d like to be.
Please take your time to look at the free webinars and other blog posts on my website. When you are ready, I invite you to call me at 250–515–2123 or use the pop-up box to schedule a free 15-minute consult. I look forward to hearing from you!