Today my client Karla rolled her eyes at me about her teenage daughter’s behavior. Her 17 year old Ann is a sensitive soul who struggles with the grounded practicalities of the world. Last week she had to write a test on a topic that was new to her. Freak-out central! First she asked her mom if they could cancel the test. Karla said no. The few days before the test were an on-going nightmare for the family as Ann expressed her fear of this test in the way only teenagers know how. She acted out – big time.
It was dad’s weekend and from her dad’s house Ann sent vicious hate mails and texts to Karla saying she was betraying her, not listening to her, didn’t care about her and all sorts of creative nastiness. Karla miraculously managed to (mostly) keep her cool and not get hooked into retaliating nastily. Finally – feeling quite saintly at this point – she texted Ann to go to sleep. Ann’s younger sister came home from the weekend rolling her eyes about the tornado that was her older sister, “Just ignore her mom, it’s the only way.” Tears, sulks and many slammed doors later Ann heads into the test, passes it and comes out smiling and happy and behaves as though none of the previous craziness took place. Karla stares at her, emotionally exhausted, furious and wondering what the hell just happened.
I’ll tell you what the hell just happened. Karla, the mom, is also studying. When it comes to her studies, just like almost everywhere else in her life, Karla feels totally disbelieving that she can do it. She feels insecure, inadequate and terrified of just about anything that is going to test her abilities in any way. There is a part of her that is absolutely certain she cannot achieve anything. “I can’t do it. What’s the point? Who do I think I am? I’m going to fail. I don’t want to be alive, I’m just not suited for this living thing!” she rants furiously every time exam-time rolls around.
“I can’t study, I don’t have time. I can’t concentrate. I don’t understand the work. I don’t know why I’m even going to the exam. I’ll just humiliate myself” I prepare myself to console and encourage her after she has failed the exam – as seems inevitable. The exam comes and goes, and at some point, certainly not the very next session after her panicked rant to me, she casually mentions in the midst of another story that she got good marks for that exam. What?! What the hell just happened? I fell for it the first couple of times but now I know better. Now I roll my eyes at her when she tells me how she can’t do it and that she’s going to fail.
Today I had to smile as she was going on about Ann. When her disbelief and righteous indignation about her daughter was all talked out I asked her, “Tell me, does Ann’s behavior remind you of anyone?” I barely finished my sentence before she snorted at me, “I know, I know!” She’s onto me by now. She knows who Ann is mirroring.
Then she tells me with eyes wide in amazement how her younger daughter is the complete opposite, taking difficulties in her stride with humor. How ironic. I can’t tell you how many times in my sessions with Karla I’ve been startled into laughter by the hilarious way she describes her very real difficulties. It’s fascinating to be the outside witness to people’s lives – to see what’s so obvious from the outside and see them not seeing it. “That is also you, you know” I remind her gently. Thoughtful silence. A big sigh, then, “They are such opposites. How do I help them find balance?” she asks me. “Find your own balance, that’s how. You know that. You don’t have to teach them anything. Just learn how to do it yourself.”
Children learn best from our modelling. It’s no good to tell them not to smoke or swear while you do it yourself. They do what you do. So, as Ghandi suggested, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. If your children are doing something you wish they wouldn’t, stop doing it yourself.
Of course, like Karla, the ways we do that same thing that bugs us in them is often hidden from our conscious view – but outside witnesses can usually see it. That means that your friends, partner and children could probably quickly enlighten you on where you do that very same thing. But if you can’t or don’t want to ask them, follow the clues of your distress and you’ll uncover where you also do that thing and also why. Now Karla says, “…and my exams are coming up” with her voice pitch starting to rise in a way that meant “I’m beginning the build up to horrible, being nasty to myself panic” and I said, “Before you start the usual thing, may I remind you of Ann and her test?” That stopped her in her tracks. “Oh yes” she acknowledged, “maybe I can do it differently this time”.
Tell me how your child has shown you something about yourself that was startling, funny or uncomfortable. I’d love to hear from you.