Parenting Negativity with Older Children

  • Blog
  • 29/03/2017

“I know that my ‘self-talk’ in relationships tends to be negative and full of doubts. I need to work on improving this self-talk.”

I wondered whether there was more to this than a case of negative self -talk.  Together we began exploring the effects of the relationship reciprocity and not Helen’s individual cognitions.

*Helen is a recently semi-retired, professional woman. She had enjoyed a successful work life but was ready for a reduction in work responsibilities now that she was in her 60s. It was a huge transition for Helen who had been with the same employer for over 25 years. She had taken on this full time career track following her divorce. Helen described the way her adult children were stepping up to support her following this significant job departure.  They were all hearing about her fears that she would struggle to manage her finances and have sufficient funds. While Helen had followed sound advice on her investments and had offers of secure part time work, these facts did little to allay her fears.

As Helen reflected on her shifting relationship with her 3 adult children she recognised how much she was venting her worries to each of them. They responded with reassurance, statements of respect for her ongoing achievements and advice about her transition decisions. Helen did appreciate the caring response from each of them but said that she felt unworthy of their praise and encouragement. When asked about the effects of their increased support she replied:

“The more support they give me the emptier I seem to feel about myself, and my money anxieties are not relieved.”

Such an interesting response! I deemed it was worthy of further investigation. I asked Helen how she accounted for her discomfort with her children’s gestures of encouragement and affirmation. She thought that distance had been her main way to manage herself in relationships to her own parents and that this had translated into a comfortable distance with her own children. Not a cut –off kind of distance, as she saw them all regularly. Rather it had been an emotional distance where she refrained from sharing at a deeper, more personal level. She had been concerned not to be an emotional burden for her children. This current transition had prompted a greater connection with her children. Her recent expressions of vulnerability however, were clearly unsettling the previous equilibrium for Helen.

Helen’s next reflection was especially intriguing. She said:

“I know that my ‘self-talk’ in relationships tends to be negative and full of doubts. I need to work on improving this self-talk.”

I wondered whether there was more to this than a case of negative self-talk.  Together we began exploring the effects of the relationship reciprocity and not Helen’s individual cognitions. I asked about the pattern of receiving praise from important others. We explored how the more she expressed her self- doubts, the more her children responded with assurances; and the more Helen received assurances the more she was felt inwardly depleted. This cycle did provide positive connection with her children but it was also setting up a pattern for Helen to under-function. The more she was reassured, the more she feared for her future; the more she was praised, her sense of confidence diminished. The self- talk was much more than an expression of individual doubts. Rather, it was an outworking of a relationship phenomenon.

To investigate the relationship influences further I asked about the specific patterns with each of her children. While the over-all pattern of Helen venting and her children encouraging was apparent, each relationship had some unique features. Helen became increasingly fascinated as she explored the nuances of her interactions with each adult child. This was expanding her lens well past individual introspection. She could see that her eldest son responded with lots of practical suggestions and offers to help her save money by having regular meals with their family. Helen’s response to him was to present as less capable than she was in terms of her budgeting and life management. With her only daughter, Helen experienced a good dose of emotional caretaking. She felt quite overwhelmed by her daughter’s rescuing gestures but could see that she was giving plenty of invitations to be rescued through her expressions of worry.  Her other son was somewhat less responsive to Helen’s worries. He was more laid back in listening to her concerns.  After listening and empathising he would shift the conversation away from her worries to an exchange of ideas. Helen had first thought that he was less caring than the other two. However on further reflection she saw that she felt more solid and less vulnerable in this interaction. Each of the varied patterns with her children reflected differences in the degrees of worry she had for them growing up. The son she worried least about was the son who was now relating more to her capacities. The children who she saw as having more struggles during their growing up and young adult years were the ones that were relating more to Helen’s expressions of incapacity.

Helen began to appreciate how much she was contributing to a depletion of her ‘self’ in her relating – in particular with her eldest son and her daughter. This ‘de-selfing’ in the relationship exchange contributes to a negative internal dialogue.  Helen determined to stay connected to each of her children during her current life transition. She was not going to revert to the previous distancing. She stated however that she wanted to work on connecting in a less fragile manner. She resolved to be open about the impact of the changes to her circumstances. She would share what she was learning about herself during this time. Helen wanted to share in a manner that conveyed she was responsible for managing her worries thoughtfully. She would welcome her children’s gestures of care but endeavour not to participate in unnecessary rescuing interactions. All of this would require consistent observation of herself in each relationship and continued practice at presenting her more open and capable self to the other. It would be a different effort to just endeavouring to correct negative self -talk about her deficiencies.

I think that Helen’s example demonstrates how ‘systems thinking’ is different to individual thinking. The key focus of attention is how is each person is effecting and shaping the other. Each individual’s ‘mind set’ and behaviours are inextricably linked to the back and forth responses in important relationships. The question that promotes maturity is not: How can I change my self -talk and the consequent behaviours? The more constructive growing up question is: How am I contributing to this pattern that is either depleting my confidence, or another’s sense of capacity? How is the relationship dance shaping my thinking, feeling and behaving? How can I alter my part of the dance in ways that promote mutual responsibility?

*Names and identifying details have been changed

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