As parents of today’s children in the age of social media, virtual reality and pervasive drugs, we’re seemingly faced with unprecedented parenting challenges. In confronting the onslaught of issues affecting children in this modern society — from cyber-bullying to escapism and withdrawal, whether through video games or drugs — we often fail to recognize that, at their core, our children’s issues are often not fundamentally different from those we experienced during our own childhood. In fact, they often mirror them.
To better equip ourselves to address our children’s issues, we need to look to our own past to identify the traumas that impacted us, to heal them, and to release our long-buried shame in order to find within us the compassion that is necessary to help our children confront these modern challenges and for ourselves to grow as human beings.
Children have always been a mirror to their parents’ issues. It’s karma in many ways. Things we couldn’t deal with as children — whether the experience of being raised by a narcissist, rejection by a parent, or being bullied or ostracized by peers — will often come back around to make us face the unhealed trauma, or what I call the unfinished business of our past. It’s understandable that some trauma from childhood remains unresolved. As children, it’s often too difficult for us to cope with the pain of it all, so we readily shut down those parts of ourselves until we’re more prepared to deal with it.
Unfortunately, many of us go our entire lives not dealing with these issues. Perhaps we’ve remained in denial, developed unhealthy eating habits, turned to substance abuse, attracted co-dependent or abusive relationships, or buried ourselves under the weight of so much work and responsibility that we can more easily avoid the old hurts. It’s often not until we have children of our own that the hurt, along with the shame of it, rises up again to get us to see precisely what we’d spent years seeking to avoid.
Most of us are familiar with shame because it’s often cultural. Many Asian parents rely on shame to control their children’s behaviors. The Catholic notion of original sin shames us from the time we are born and commits us to a lifetime of penance through moral acts. Then there’s societal shame, which much like the cultural and religious forms, teaches us to care about outside judgment. We want so much to be able to exist within a social unit that we allow our actions to be dictated by the whole and fear deviating from societal norms. We internalize these judgments and expectations to the point where we don’t even realize how much of an imprint it’s left on our psyches.
Compassion is the antidote to shame — compassion not only for ourselves of today, but for the hurt, traumatized children we were.
When we look back at the children we were, many of us only feel shame for being weak or stupid, assuming the blame for whatever happened when the reality is that no one is ever to blame. But rather than lose ourselves in our own victimhood, the challenge is to rise above it and find the strength that the pain and suffering are intended to teach us. It’s only through these painful moments that we become in touch with our own inner power and fortitude.
Instead of seeing our children’s difficult or painful experiences as opportunities for healing and growth for parent and child, our instinct is to shield them completely from it, thus precluding their opportunity to develop greater emotional maturity and further stunting our own.
We tend to underestimate our children’s strength and resilience because the shame from our own past and failure to confront our issues draws us back to those visceral feelings that we haven’t been able to heal.
These feelings blind us to our own inherent capacity for compassion, which had been stemmed because all too often we weren’t shown compassion as children ourselves. This is understandable because many of our parents had parents that came from the Depression era or from cultures where compassion is anathema to survival or career success.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that all of the issues I believed I’d resolved through my years of healing work surfaced in ways that I never thought possible. The more my children grew and interacted with the world, the more my own childhood experiences came up for me.1 The feelings of frustration and powerlessness that had led to my internalized shame were suddenly front and center again. I came to recognize that I could either project my childhood hurt onto my children or truly put it behind me by finally sitting with those painful feelings and working through them. The latter demands a great deal of humility, but our children deserve compassion and, frankly, so do we.
I have hope based on what I’ve seen of this young generation. Their ability to own their vulnerabilities shows a strength previous generations have not displayed. Their connection to compassion is truly inspiring. And yet, I feel they are being challenged more and more as many begin to cling to peer validation. We’ve permitted social media and valued socialization over individuation. We’ve gone to the extreme in negating individual growth and progress over team-building and collaborative groups. Of course the latter are essential to our evolution; however, these groups are inherently weak if they are not formed by strong, whole individuals.
Becoming holistic individuals isn’t easy for our children if we, as parents, cannot model it. And we cannot model it if we haven’t dealt squarely with the shame of our pasts that manifests itself in our current lives and relationships.
No matter when the trauma occurred, no matter what the karma, the reality is the same for everyone. We can only feel that we are good enough when we’ve successfully dealt with our shame. And we can only heal the shame we feel if we can show ourselves the compassion we needed and never received ourselves as children. Once we’ve achieved that, then we can begin the healing process and show others, even those who hurt us or our children, the compassion they need. It’s a cycle, and only once we’re in the cycle of compassion that turns into love can we eliminate the cycle of trauma and shame that many are currently locked in.
1 See my article, “The Life Lesson I Would Share with My Son’s Bully” (https://thecoffeelicious.com/the-life-lesson-i-would-share-with-my-sons-bully-96496db0450c).