Once a Parent Always a Parent

parent generations [1166589]I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains  important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

The intensive days of parenting are well and truly behind me. I recall them well. So much activity and so much constant change in a child’s life! -Adjusting to changing teachers, friends, subjects, sports, hobbies, technology, trends, – alongside their constantly changing bodies, cognitions, emotional expressions and fears. The challenge was always around how much to intervene in the child’s efforts to adapt to change and how much to step back and allow them to find their own way. Now that my children are well into adulthood my role is indeed very different, and my responsibilities substantially less. Given this, I kind of expected that I would have transitioned out of my parenting role taking up much energy, yet surprisingly I find that my grown children and their goings on are still very much in my thoughts. I have come to see that the parenting dilemma, around when to get involved and when to step back, remains a constant through all stages of life.

Just this last month I realised that I hadn’t had the usual catch ups with one of my daughters. I was wondering how she was going with a number of changes in her life including her work situation and paused to consider: what was the appropriate amount of contact for me to have with her? I always want my daughters to know of my interest in their lives but I don’t want to convey intrusiveness or worry. This is the very same dilemma for a parent of a younger child: How do I stay an interested support for my child while at the same time promoting their independence? Of course children’s developmental capacity for independence is very different in the younger years. In the initial stages of my children launching as adults I knew how important it was to step back and not impede their growth in responsibility and independent functioning. I think sometimes I’ve tended to go too much in this stepping back direction and not appreciated the value of regular contact. In my clinical practice I saw so much of over involved parents and dependent young people which primed me to focus on the independence side of the relationship balance. This meant that I sometimes avoided asking about aspects of my children’s lives that I thought might encroach on their adult launching. I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

As I reflect on the appropriate contact to have with an adult child I remind myself of my goal to be a loving, interested presence in their life and to also convey respect for their autonomy in making their way in life. It’s less about how much contact –although that question is worth asking – and more about the tone of the contact. I try to think more about my relationship with the child than getting caught up in thinking about their life issues. This might sound a bit uncaring. However when I think about myself in the relationship, instead of just thinking about the other person, I’m reminded of the effect I can have on them and how I want to address this. If my focus is all about them, it’s all too easy to fall into directing the proceedings of their life – which results in either anxious dependence or anxious distancing from the child. Being a calm loving presence can be easy when we know that our child’s life is going smoothly, with few changes making demands on them. It gets much harder to keep a relationship balance at times of perceiving stress and challenge in a child’s life. I make every effort to keep my anxieties to myself since my children and every other person in my life have enough stress of their own. I have learned that I can’t easily hide my worry from my children, it has a way of getting through and therefore I need to responsibly work out my worries away from relating to my children.

As I consider whether or not to make contact with one of my children I consider firstly the practicalities: Is there good quality, non-distractable time for me to make contact? Is it likely to be convenient for them? Then I consider the relationship: Am I calling out of interest and support rather than out of worry? Am I as open to sharing news of my life as I am hearing their news? Am I clear that I want to understand how they’re thinking about life’s challenges before jumping in with my thinking? The other area I keep in mind is not to parent on behalf of my husband. This means that I don’t convey too much news with him from my catch ups with our daughters. We discuss our mutual thoughts about our children and work to stay independently connected. (I admit this is an ongoing challenge to keep in balance)

So even when children have flown the coop and care taking is no longer an active part of the parent role, the work of being a supportive parent continues. Indeed I agree with the adage: “Once a parent always a parent.” There is always occasion for stepping in a bit more and for knowing when to step out of the way. My effort is to convey genuine love and interest without pushing any of my anxiety into the mix. Seeing the back and forth of the relationship rather than just focussing on the child helps enormously in not going too far in an unhelpful direction.

Questions for reflection

  • What do I see as the bigger picture goal as a parent? How much of my relating promotes responsible independence for each of my children (whatever their age)?
  • How do I manage my worry about my children? Does it get sprayed into the relationship unhelpfully?
  • What is the difference between thinking about myself in relationship with my child, rather than just thinking about my child? Which focus is most helpful for my child’s growth in appropriate independence?
  • In what ways did my own parents relate in ways that assisted me to be a responsible member of society? What are ways I can address any gaps in this as an adult?

Relevant M Bowen Quotes on parenting (from family Therapy in Clinical practice)

The motivated parent must carefully define his /her responsibility for self in his/her family, the operating rules and principles within the area of his/her responsibility, and what he/she will and will not do in relation to those who go beyond those rules.

The important principle is that the parent calmly defines self and rules and consequences, communicates them when they are sure of them and is prepared to stand on the consequences of broken rules if need be. P235

The parental problem was transmitted to the child through making a project out of the child…… parents who could make a project out of themselves was a turning point in both the theory and practice of family psychotherapy. P96

The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s (parents) anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. P381

“Once a parent always a parent” – Jenny Brown


When caring for others can be self-serving

helpingIt’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this ‘over helping’ pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support. 

I’m aware that I need to monitor myself when it comes to responding to those in need. Recently I observed myself, during my small group church gathering, being over involved in the meeting – saying too much, filling in the silent moments, anticipating others needs and indirectly speaking for them. I tend to do this unconsciously, when I’m a bit tense or feeling over responsible for others.  As I reflected on what was behind this lapse I realised that 2 of the people in my group had been opening up to me about some challenging personal issues they were confronting. Rather than just stand side by side with them I fell into a position I had in my family of origin of feeling overly responsible for how their needs were being considered in the context of the community gathering. Emotionally (not intellectually) I perceived that they needed me to make sure that the group process was protective for them in their vulnerability.  Neither of them had asked me to do this and the effect of my over responsibility was to impinge on the work of the group facilitator – my husband.  My reactive efforts crowd out others space to contribute to relationships. These days I usually manage to stay aware of the importance of NOT allowing anxious sensitivities to other’s distress move me into taking on responsibility for what is not mine.  I have seen the evidence many times that when I listen and am present with people but allow them to work their way through their own life challenges, people do better and our relationship does better.

It’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support.  My mother became a confidant to me in my teenage years and I tend to attract people wanting to confide in me and express their problems. You can see how well primed I was to go into the helping professions. I have come to see that any help giving that is used to steady one’s self is ultimately not genuine service to others. Just as any person seeking others to align with their complaints or overly bond with them through a helping process is likely to be reducing their own life responsibility. Both sides of the over helping and over venting are co-creators of a self- steadying pattern rather than a growth promoting relationship.

I’m often asked to give talks to church groups about ways to care for others constructively. In a faith community, with an imperative to love and serve others, this is a central issue. It’s such an interesting topic to tease out – What is genuine service to others and not a helping process that impinges on mature relating in community? The following is a list of questions I’ve developed to assist people to grapple with the different sides of this dilemma:

Questions to reflect on whether anxious relational sensitivities have gotten mixed up with caring for one another:

  • How thoughtful versus impulsive have I been in responding to the other?
  • Am I overly comfortable with people in need? Do I feel an impulse to rescue or fix?
  • How much is my response to the other based on my imagining what they need versus making the effort to draw alongside and hear what they think about their situation?
  • How much do I unknowingly bolster myself from the validation that comes from providing help to others? (Was this something that I experienced in my family of origin or early church community of similar non family group?)
  • Is the energy going into caring for certain people leaving any important relationships neglected? g. Family members. Not just neglecting being in good connection with family members but remaining responsible in family duties.
  • Is my effort to help another bringing benefit to them or is it resulting in increased helplessness and dependence? Are they responding by needing more and more time and attention?

And on the other side of the over helping pattern:

  • Is the way I expect others to care for me preventing me from maturing and being more responsible?
  • Do I talk more about the issues in my own life than showing interest in what’s happening in other’s lives?
  • When I’m struggling, am I prone to talk to others before thinking (and praying) things through for myself?
  • How uncomfortable am I with someone in need? Do I tend to avoid or distance?

By nature and nurture I have a high sensitivity to other’s pain and distress. I deeply care that struggling people should not be left to walk alone in their suffering. At the same time I know how easily anxieties can be caught up in the helping relationship. ‘Over helping’ and ‘over venting’ may temporarily make people feel important or valued but in the longer term can leave people burnt out and confused. In quite subtle ways what we think is in service of others can unknowingly be in service of ourselves. This is an area I continue to prayerfully and consciously work on in my relationships.

Reflect on the various postures towards helping that are shaped uniquely for yourself and each member of your family:

What was my position in my family in terms of helping?

Was I ‘over helped’ at time?

Was I valued as a helper?

Did I distance from any problems between other family members?

Was I encouraged to focus on self (my needs or achievements) at the expense of making space for others?

* Foot note – I think the issue of human selfishness/narcissism (in varying degrees) is universal. Hence even very good acts of care are often caught up in self- interest. Alongside this is the anxiety in family relationship systems that shape people differently in terms of their postures and sensitivities towards others.

Bowen quotes (from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice):

It is factual that dysfunctioning and over functioning exist together. P 155

It’s possible for the [person] to attain even more emotional equilibrium through the … helplessness of the [other]. The one down of the [other] permits her to function securely in the over adequate position. P 63

Basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood are used in all other relationships throughout life. P 462

I realized the degree to which I had been… instructing others and even functioning for them, while I had been irresponsible in failing to do other things that came within my own area. P498

‘When caring for others can be self-serving’ – Jenny Brown