“Becoming a parent has actually made me more confident in myself. I don’t have time any more to sweat the small stuff because I’m so busy running around after a toddler and making sure she is happy,” says British expat in Dubai, Sarah Hewitt.
She’s currently expecting her second child and is laser focused on prepping everything, from getting diapers in the right size to nursery linen, in time.
But while some mums and dads settle into their skin as they ready for their new role as nurturers, it’s also a time of trepidation and can hurtle you into the field of self-doubt. As time goes by and cooing young babes turn to toddlerhood, the path becomes more pressure worn. You see, the ironic thing about parenthood is, while you are drawn to your progeny because they are your legacy, they are not an extension of you. To think they are, is to trap yourself in a whirlpool of despair. To do so is to deny their individuality and to box yourself into a space you have no control over - their success will seem like your success and their hiccups will exact a heavy toll on your self-esteem.
Bene Katabua, Educational Psychologist at Intercare Health Center in Abu Dhabi, explains: “Our identities change once we have children - most parents view children as an extension of themselves, in a way. Many societies perpetuate this, and see children's behaviour as a direct reflection of how they are being raised by their parents. This puts a lot of pressure on parents and completely disregards the child's own genetic makeup, as well as other influences in the child's life.”
Our identities change once we have children - most parents view children as an extension of themselves, in a way. Many societies perpetuate this, and see children's behaviour as a direct reflection of how they are being raised by their parents.
When one hinges one’s own success in another’s it’s bound to exert a lot of pressure. “With this new identity or role as a parent, the effort put in is to invest in a person. It's quite different from working hard in school or in your career, because being a parent involves a whole different person. With a child, you're planting seeds, in hopes that they grow and you can witness the fruit of your labour. So when children are struggling, parents are left having to confront their role in the child's behaviour, and often take on quite a lot of guilt and shame,” she says.
Conscious parenting, which calls for a person to tease out, analyse and come to terms with their emotional baggage from their everyday interactions with their children - can help.
Feel terrible after an interaction with your child?
Take a deep breath if your child is doing something that you don’t agree with. Kabatua suggests using the following tactics to gauge the situation and diffuse your temper.
1. Name it to tame it: Take stock of what exactly you are feeling and name it. Is it shame, guilt, frustration, embarrassment, anger, resentment? Are these difficult feelings coming up because you're feeling inadequate, or is it because you're embarrassed about facing judgement?
2. Look for the reason: Once you've named the feeling - question if it has more to do with you or with the child. Parenting often brings to the surface issues from our own childhoods, and working through this can be quite sticky and messy - but so important to do. So that you are actually responding to your child and not inadvertently responding to your past.
3. Accept singularity: Acknowledge that your child is constantly evolving and developing, so their needs will change. Their needs may be different from yours every now and then, which can cause tension, but does not always reflect on your parenting.
4. Be good enough: Recognise that there is no such thing as the perfect parent - so the aim should really be ‘good-enough’ parenting. By aiming to be a good-enough parent, you celebrate your wins as a parent and also leave room for your parental failures - because they are expected.
The handing down of generational trauma is a real thing - if you don’t detangle the mess, you will trip yourself up. “Salma Fraiberg, a child psychoanalyst, used the metaphor ‘ghosts in the nursery’ to detail the relationship between how we were parented and how we end up parenting. Those early harsh or traumatic experiences - be it neglect, uninvolvement, invalidation, etc. - tend to show up unexpectedly and uninvited in our relationships, particularly once we begin our own parenting journeys,” says Katabua.
Signs you are healing from emotionally immature parenting
Katabua says the positive signs are that you:
- Stop operating from a place of fear
- Can separate yourself from other's emotions and reactions to events (don't take it personally)
- Are able to set boundaries with others
- Can express your needs without giving into the sense of being a burden
- Show yourself and others grace and forgiveness when they make mistakes
- Trust your own intuition and instincts
- Experience happiness and joy without feeling guilty or having to ‘deserve’ it
- Validate your own emotions and experiences
- Recognise and accept that others' experiences of an event may be different from yours.
A legacy of hurt
Feel your wounded sense of self is taking a chunk out of your child’s self-esteem? It is bound to happen. Finnish mum in Dubai, Elina, who requested that only her first name be used, points out that children are influenced by their environment even before they are born. “They absorb whatever is around them and of course this shapes their behaviour, personality and mood. To me, it is obvious that a parent's self-esteem will affect the child if it affects the parent's behaviour.
“This was actually one of the things on my mind when I was pregnant, how to make sure that I don't pass on my own insecurities and neurosis to my child when she is here. I think it does take quite a bit of self-awareness and reflection, children are like sponges and parents have such a huge part to play in shaping the child, especially in the early formative years. If I want my child to grow up confident, believing in themselves and their abilities, I need to lead by example first and foremost,” she says.
“A lot of the time, it's difficult to work through these issues by ourselves and it may be in your best interest to speak with a psychotherapist or counsellor to help us unpack and work through these underlying issues,” says Katabua. But once you do, you heal yourself and by extension, your child.
Sneha John, Clinical Psychologist at UAE-based Camali Clinic, adds: “When parents have high self-esteem, it would be easier for them to provide the warmth and positive reinforcement that help children thrive. Adults who have grown up hearing a lot of criticism, on the other hand, may have a tendency to be self-critical or to set impossibly high standards. They might be quick to point out to children what they have done wrong or how they could have done better or forget to celebrate their successes.”
Do this, not that
With every negative comment you shoot at yourself, you hurt your child a little bit. “If parents make negative comments about themselves, about how they look, for example, that can influence how children talk to themselves and how their feel about their bodies,” says John. Here’s how she suggests shifting the narrative:
Set a reminder: One simple thing that parents can do to boost their self-esteem is to make a conscious effort to remind themselves of all the things that are going well. At the end of the day, they can practise taking a minute to think back to the successes and happy moments that have happened that day.
Set realistic expectations: It could also help for parents to set realistic expectations for themselves. Unrealistic expectations lead to self-blame, which impedes self-esteem. Rather than thinking about they ‘should’ or ‘must’ do, adopting a pragmatic approach may be more effective.
One simple thing that parents can do to boost their self-esteem is to make a conscious effort to remind themselves of all the things that are going well. At the end of the day, they can practise taking a minute to think back to the successes and happy moments that have happened that day.
Change the semantics: Use statements like ‘It would be great if I could do that sometimes’ or ‘I’d like to do that a bit more often’ instead of negative self-talk.
Stop comparing: Comparisons to other parents and families on social media can negatively impact self-esteem. Parents can be encouraged to avoid comparing themselves and simply adopt an approach that works for them.
Feeling vulnerable is a part of being human - and shielding your child from your own insecurities may result in blowback. “I don't believe projecting strong self-esteem means we should aim to portray ourselves as super humans who are without fears and weaknesses, I think we should be able to have honest discussions with children as they get older and let them understand that everyone has fears and doubts and vulnerabilities, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. It's more about how we are able to deal with those things, that is the important skill and that's where self-esteem plays a huge role,” explains Elina.
It may be a busy job - parenting - but it can be a most healing one too. Just take baby steps.