The Wounded Parent
Updated: Feb 17
by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin county, California
Once in a blue moon I encounter a sleepless night where I am thrown to obscure and ominous corners of the mind. It seems to be something that happens to a lot of us at that hour. It’s like we lose our buffer against anxiety and suddenly life feels so worrisome. Our minds can’t help but gravitate towards danger, darkness, doom. But when the morning light comes I will have to parent and no kid wants a parent stuck in sadness, anxiety or anger.
My son needs me to be emotionally available and present for him. So as an act of love for both of us I can look to what brings fluidity and light back into my life. And when I maneuver through these heavier feelings perhaps there is an opportunity for him to learn about how to navigate life’s turbulence.
Whatever I am feeling, if I’m up or down, he notices me and is impacted. He will learn to handle his feelings by watching me respond to my own and by how I answer his. This relationship to my own emotions can become a subject of study. If I show him I only accept and have tolerance for the positive emotions in him and in myself because the others are too triggering, then I oppress his natural flow of feelings. This can have consequences later on with his capacity for full range of affect and self-acceptance. And if I always hide what is truly going on inside then my son might think something is wrong when his own intense feelings inevitably do come up. Nevertheless, if I release my emotions all over the place then he will learn that feelings aren’t actually safe.
It seems when I remember to become interested in what’s happening inside then I can be with the feelings rather than have them drive my actions. This shift towards curiosity stops the production of the stress hormone cortisol and increases oxytocin which has a calming effect. This process helps me to uncover what’s really happening at a deeper level so I can communicate that information to those around me, including my child. I can let him know I am upset simply by naming it and then actively tending to my feelings in various ways he can witness. I can slow my breath by making my exhales longer than my inhales until I feel a softer energy. I can sing and hum, or apply cold compresses to my face and the back of the neck or take a cold shower to stimulate the vagus nerve which helps the body to calm down. I can go outside and listen to the sounds of nature, engage in art and listen to soothing music or have my husband just hold me. These simple acts show my kid that it’s healthy to let ourselves feel the whole spectrum of emotion while also being responsible for locating outlets to release our more intense feelings.
This cultivation of curiosity in response to our bigger emotions is something my son gets to internalize. He can carry it with him and have access to it during life’s unavoidable hurdles. And it offers me the opportunity for intimacy and maybe some healing each time I have the courage to let him really see me. This way he learns to honor his own feelings and express himself so he can eventually be held by those he loves when he needs it most.