|Q: I have two children who
have been a constant struggle for the past 8 years. Each suffered
emotional and physical abuse, as well as neglect for the first 3 or 4
years of their lives. Our whole family continues to spiral and loop in a
pool of frustration, chaos, and tension. I’ve never been so unhappy in
my entire life and I find myself unable to be as compassionate at this
A: My experience has shown that much of the loss of happiness with parents raising challenging children is due to the loss of compassion. Research has linked the state of happiness to one’s ability to be compassionate. In a study using EEG and FMRI’s, researchers studied a highly trained monk. They first measured the brain of the monk in a resting state to generate baseline brain activity. Then the monk was asked to perform an intensive meditation on compassion. The results showed that during this state of compassion, there was a dramatic shift in his prefrontal function, lighting up the “happiness” region of the brain.
Just the thought of being compassionate can evoke feelings of happiness. When we are concerned and connected to others, we have a sense of well being within ourselves.
Unfortunately, most parenting approaches are grounded in a belief that if the child is obedient and well behaved, then the parent can be happy and the family is functioning. This approach places all of the responsibility onto the child and I deeply believe this is unhealthy and creates a dysfunctional family system. It is never the child’s responsibility to make the parent happy nor can the child's behavior be used to determine the health of the family system.
Many problems in a family are caused at the most fundamental level by distortions of perception and negative interpretations of situations.
It takes changing to a new perspective and for the parents to take responsibility for their state of emotions, despite the behavior of their children.
One antidote to this begins with understanding the very nature of early childhood trauma (developmental trauma) and the lifelong effects it has on our children. Trauma never goes away completely. Be sure to educate yourself from the child’s perspective as to why they do what they are doing and what it means to live in a perpetual state of fear and overwhelm (My OnDemand parenting class is a great way to get yourself into this place of understanding for your children and it is available for immediate download: www.beyondconsequences.com/ondemand/parenting.php).
A new perspective of your children can return you back to a place of compassion. Compassion will then return you back to a place of joy, amusement, and happiness.
Compassion is essential to our well-being…it is the pinnacle of human emotions. Compassion is the openness to the suffering of another, combined with the wish that they be freed from their suffering. It moves us to be understanding, kind, affectionate, tolerant, warm-hearted, and caring. Compassion is love.
Research shows that individuals are more likely to experience compassion for those who they perceive as similar to them in some way. If you can relate to your children’s struggles, rather than view them as outright disobedient or disrespectful, you will be more apt to help them move past their struggles and be more effective in creating an environment of healing.
Most importantly, if your family is in a negative spiral, you have the ability to pull out of this vortex. It doesn’t have to hold you captive. There is now substantial evidence that shows we can train our minds to overcome negative emotions. We can be in charge of our happiness, despite our life circumstances.
The amygdala is involved with anxiety and fear, which creates the feeling of unhappiness. However, studies have shown that you can counteract the reaction of the amygdala…you’re not powerless anymore! You have the ability to make your life work for you. It takes regaining hope and a practice of compassion.
The next time you begin to feel overwhelmed or realize you’re unhappy, say to yourself, “I’m not powerless anymore.” Change your pattern. Don’t allow your child’s negative state to fire your amygdala. Don’t allow him to shift you into stress and fear. Don't give up your personal power anymore. Just give it a try!
Love is available in all circumstances and at any moment of any day. There is a way to help your children get beyond the negative behaviors and remain happy at the same time!
|Heather T. Forbes, LCSW|
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.