Mostly I learned how many people don’t have a clue how they are abusing their children. I was not a good mother. I was self-absorbed, selfish and self-centered. I loved my three sons authentically but also egotistically, they were an extension of me. I took great pride in the fact that there probably wasn’t another mother on the planet who could love her children more than I did; however, I failed to see how my need to get my emotional needs met through my eldest son would impact his life. This emotional dishonesty is called emotional incest and I saw it’s devastating effects in many of the young addicts I had the privilege of serving. Needing their sons and daughters to meet their own emotional needs, parents and in particular mothers, condemn their children to a life of failure and shame. In the first place, the child is never able to make his parent happy and every time he sees him or her suffering he feels a deep sense of inadequacy and shame for having failed. This shame is intolerable and he buries it deeply in his psyche to survive and adapt to the dysfunctional environment. If the adult child of this dysfunction has the presence of mind to seek help later in life, it takes years of therapy to uncover and heal the buried wounds. More often, though, these kids grow up learning many self-defeating coping strategies including addictive behaviors to reinforce their reality that they are not enough.
I also learned that my emotional immaturity set my boys up to disrespect authority. I was inconsistent with consequences for unacceptable behavior; I often overlooked the needs the boys had for correction because I was too busy or too distracted with issues in my own life. Sometimes, when they were small, I even rewarded them by laughing at their “cute” use of bad language or sassy remarks to me. There were no firm boundaries; nothing for them to push against to discover the right and wrong of things. In reality, I didn’t know much about parenting, but I was convinced I knew everything there was to know. The current trend at that time was to allow children full self-expression and I was going with that all the way. The problem was that I didn’t back that up with healthy boundaries. I gave my boys the power to direct their own lives way too early, because it was the easier softer way. I gave in too often, I turned a blind eye to behaviors that I knew were placing the kids on a dangerous path but I didn’t want the confrontation and arguments. I just didn’t know what to do but I could not admit that, even to myself.
I saw the results of all of these parental failings and more in the boys I worked with in treatment. They were the ones who showed me my shortcomings as a parent as they revealed the effects of their own parents’ failings. Some boys were raised by such emotionally needy parents that they were put on pedestals and made into tiny tin gods. They could do no wrong all the while they were cute and little but when they turned into snotty brats and sullen teenagers because of their own unmet emotional needs do to having to be responsible for the happiness of others, they were labeled bad, uncontrollable and were certainly misunderstood which only fueled the rebellion. Kids who have parents who have strong, healthy, mature and honest emotional lives and who can tolerate being the “heavy” when they need to; aren’t afraid of saying no and can maintain parental authority and role model healthy boundaries, those kids generally don’t end up in treatment.
Somewhere along the way, my kids learned enough from their experiences in life to live life on life’s terms. They each became really decent and responsible young men but they all carry the scars of their childhood. They were lucky and I was lucky to have survived the insanity, but those boys I worked with in treatment had a rougher road to hoe and some didn’t make it. Most people “Have” children but not all people “Parent” their children. Parenting a child requires that the adult be responsible for their own physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs as well as the needs of the child in each of those areas. If I had know who I was, what my own needs were (not wants) and knew how to get them met in a healthy way at the time I had my babies, I probably would have been a much better parent.