How to Get Rid of Your Parenting Ghosts

John and Mike discovered the wonderful world of play-dates when their twins were born (as always, this story is made up of different clients of mine, and the details have been changed to protect their privacy).

When the twins, Emma and Maria, were six months old, they’re dads already started having friends over with children of the same age. Mike and John also enjoyed visiting other people with their kids. They enjoyed having like-minded people to talk through everything they are going through as new parents. They also enjoyed looking at the interactions their daughters had with other kids as they grew up.

When Emma and Maria were older, they used to invite a couple of friends they knew since they were babies. This group of girls could spend hours and hours of role-playing, drawing and singing. They had a blast together. It looked like they’ll be BFFs their entire lives.

happy children

But moving from kindergarten into school changed things. While before they were able to resolve squabbles and arguments with their friends quite easily (with their parents’ help), the group’s fights became a lot more powerful. What used to be simple childhood fights became power plays and intrigues and whatnot.

And while this is nothing special and disturbing – it’s just something that comes with the age of school – Mike had a really hard time adjusting. He used to look at his daughters go through huge fights over stuff that for him looked really, really stupid. Major, emotional fights over things like who will have the crown or who’s song will they dance to.

Mike tried to help and intervene. He tried to implement logical methods of turns or negotiations, but one struggle led to another and Mike just couldn’t handle it. He felt himself suffocating and stressing. Sometimes he even had to call other parents to come to pick up their girls before the end of the play-date.

Mike also noticed that those feelings stayed with him long after the play-date ended. He was full of worrisome thoughts. He developed a huge fear that Joanna (one of the girls) will stop liking his daughters and turn the other girls against them. He found himself at work, daydreaming about his daughters, alone in the school, with no friends to play with.

stressed parent
Photo by Nik Shuliahin

The Ghosts in The Nursery

I always felt that one of the most powerful things about parenting is how we experience our childhood again, through the eyes, hearts, and minds of our kids. If we allow ourselves, we could experience things we have already managed to forget. This is a magical process. But sometimes – too often than not – our kid’s experiences push buttons we have long repressed.

“Ghosts in the Nursery” is how this phenomenon was described by psychoanalyst Selma Frieberg, in an article with the same title. Friberg was a pioneer in the area of parent therapy and consultation, and she had major influences on how we work with parents today.

Selma Fraiberg

In her paper, Frieberg described how parents carry within themselves ghosts – which are hard and painful experiences and memories of their own childhoods. Those ghosts may lie dormant for many years but as we become parents, they rise up in all their ugliness.

The ghosts are making us blind and prevent us from seeing our children’s reality as it is. This is what happened to Mike. He saw his daughter’s lives through the filters of past memories, and his consciousness was thrown back to his own past.

When something like that happens, you have a hard time recognizing it and differentiating between you and your child. One way to deal with this situation is by going over things with someone else, such as a therapist. This is what Mike did with me.

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Revisiting Past Memories

Mike told me how he stayed up at night, thinking about all the ways his daughters could be bullied by her classmates and friends.

“As you think about this”, I told him, “try to focus on your bodily sensations. Just see what is coming up”.

Tuning into our body sensations is a wonderful gateway into our emotions. If I’ll ask you what exactly you’re feeling about something, you may not find an exact answer. But when you learn to check your body sensations, you familiarize yourself with your emotional world. That’s because emotions have a significant physical manifestation. When we focus on what we feel in our bodies, we usually tap into what we feel in our minds.

Photo by A B

Mike closed his eyes and concentrated before he replied. “I notice some nausea, and my throat is tight. I feel like my heart is pounding really hard”, he said. All of those sensations are classic symptoms of stress and anxiety.

“Try to notice is those sensations are bringing anything up. An image, or a memory”, I asked.

A few moments later Mike started to tell me about a childhood friend called Todd. Mike and Todd had a strong friendship that started in 1st grade and lasted for a couple of years. But in their 5th grade, Todd suddenly “changed course and went against me”, said Mike. Todd started to befriend other kids and turned his back on Mike, who never found out what happened. Now, more than twenty years later, Mike still remembered the sting of betrayal.

“Who knew? Did you tell anyone what was going on?”, I asked.

“No one”, said Mike. “Who could I tell? My parents were too busy and didn’t really care”. Mike told me about growing up with parents who had a hard time seeing his emotional needs and how he learned to keep things to himself.

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Over the next few sessions, Mike and I went back in time to those lonely moments in 5th grade. With experiential, emotional work, Mike could see and feel his pain as a child. He could also see the strength and all the defenses he used to cope better as a child.

Mike started to realize the differences between his childhood situation and that of his present-day daughters. This led to a significant transformation in his stance as a parent.

He felt much better, and more able to cope with the physical stress symptoms. He could handle the children’s arguments much better, now that he didn’t have all those ghosts of childhood past to blind him.

One major difference between Mike and his daughters is that while he didn’t have anyone to go to with the pain and distress – he and John were attentive parents who gave their daughter all the back they needed. Mike enjoyed seeing how his daughters were able to tell him and confide with him about their feelings, and he enjoyed feeling he could help them.

How to Get Rid of Our Ghosts

In the previous section, I talked about how Mike worked in therapy to get rid of his ghosts. But sometimes you could do so even without going to therapy. The key lies in building awareness to the possibility that the stress and worry are yours and not your children’s.

The book “Parenting from the Inside Out”, written by Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell, is a wonderful source written on this matter. You can read it yourself and learn more about your ghosts and how to step away from them.

Whenever you find yourself stressed or tighten up, or carried away with your thoughts, try to pause for a couple of seconds and take a big breath. Remind yourself that whatever you’re going thought is natural and happens to everybody.

Try to take a step back from the situations your kids are going through and ask yourself:

  • Am I scared about something that also happened to me as a child?
  • Is this thing really happening with my child or am I projecting things from my own memories?

If you answered “Yes” to the second question, ask yourself if your adult self can help with solving the problem. Have a calm, quiet talk with your child and try to understand their own personal experience. See if it’s really what you went through or not.

Eventually, our memories are the building blocks of who we are. The sack we carry on our back is our own, and even the longest therapy couldn’t replace it with another. But we can create a new relationship with that sack, with all its weight and ghosts. If we learn to take a step back and hold our memories lightly (instead of repressing them, which never really worked) – we could differentiate between our kids’ experiences and our own. This is how we can be there for them like they really need us to be.

Featured Image by Roman Kraft

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