As I wade deeper into the my own dysfunctional shit and the shit of the clients who come to me, I’ve noticed that many of the solutions to their problems and my own are the same… and it’s not rocket science. That’s because we all have a pre-programmed developmental path and that our brains try to do the same thing no matter which environmental influences they encounter. They try and survive in specifically determined ways by using the coping mechanisms we have.
Being a parent means levels of stress like you wouldn’t believe (if you’re not a parent that is). The mess. The lack of control. The inability to communicate with your kids. The worry you feel as they make their way into the world. But the way you deal with stress – any stress – is developed far earlier. Your preferred coping mechanisms are developed from your own experiences and how they interacted with your genetic blueprint. So how do you understand your stress triggers?
All humans develop at least three adaptation mechanisms best known to us as fight, flight or freeze, early on. Which one you choose will be almost entirely dependent, at least initially, to the amount of stress that each option generates for you. As a baby, you will only be able to freeze. If you endure high levels of stress as a baby you will likely most use ‘freeze’ as opposed to the other two.
As I grew up, I developed an overwhelming fear of conflict stemming from an earlier mental model I had built around rejection. Conflict equaled rejection and I couldn’t handle it. Which means that my stress systems couldn’t handle it. I would not use fight. Similarly flight would mean losing my adopted parents so I didn’t use it until much later.
I was so averse to flight and flight that even as an adult my subconscious mind decided in many abusive encounters including several incidents of non-consensual sex that ‘freeze’ was my best and least stressful tactic for survival, even though in some of those I was faced by a situation where others could have said ‘No’… and walked away without much further repercussion.
Saying ‘No’ terrified me because it represented something my mind was prepared to avoid at all costs. Freezing and being raped was better than saying No or fleeing. Rape of course was stressful (to say the least) – and my mind had made a rather ridiculous short term choice which sent me into a cycle of shame and guilt causing yet more stress. My mind tried to help me survive in the best way it knew how, but ending up causing more harm than good. Your mind will most likely do this too because survival is instinctual and immediate. You do not plan how to survive.
As parents, the tactics we most often use are fight through getting annoyed… or flight either through making play dates or even into a nice glass of Merlot. But they too aren’t the most successful routes to promoting survival. Nor are they conducive good relationships with our kids. Our classic methods of survival are not what we need to be a ‘good’ parent. If you use them, it is not your fault. But you are the only one who can change them.
For you as an individual, you will make seemingly nonsensical decisions prompted by the neural connections you have made early on in life and the mental models you are accustomed to using. All three survival mechanisms (coping strategies) – fight, flight or freeze – are designed to reduce the stress hormones whizzing round our systems and put our bodies back to normal functioning. Each time a decision is made to fight, flight or freeze it is in direct relation to the perceived payback about how best to reduce the stress and get back to normal functioning. Stress after all, is not a comfortable situation to be in. Your normal bodily mechanisms shut down in preparation to survive. Prolonged stress can lead to physical and mental problems partly because you never get back to ‘resting’ state (and partly because you become a nervous wreck).
In modern life where fight, flight or freeze isn’t for the large part, appropriate, many of us have learned to deal with stress in different ways. Meditating. Dancing. Writing. All of them designed to calm the mind, and to ‘act’ in some way on the information in our bodies telling us that danger is near. These methods calm us. They are healthy options. There are also unhealthy options which whilst in the short term resolve stress may in the long term cause even more stress getting us into a never-ending cycle of self-destruction. Alcohol. Drugs. Accepting to have non-consensual sex. In fact any control mechanism which alleviates. One of my clients likes cleaning.
Her husband says, ‘Go and clean then if your stressed, I know how you like it.’
‘I don’t like it,’ She says. ‘But I must do it. I need to do it. It’s a compulsion.’
She likes it because it gives her the feeling of control in her uncontrollable life. During an abusive childhood, it was a task assigned to her from the age of 4. It was her first way of reducing her stress and worked… until her mind started to associate ‘mess’ with stress and the cleaning became compulsive and unrewarding, prompting more stress (and more cleaning) than that which it was originally designed to reduce.
Likewise alcohol. A fabulous solution to start off with, it becomes addictive, creates feelings of negativity – blame, shame and guilt which in themselves create more stress which prompts them to drink more and repeat the cycle (quite apart from the damage to the liver).
With many of my clients then including myself, the first and most important task is to understand why they follow their own survival mechanisms which will then enable themselves to rise above the judgement, blame, shame and guilt (which in itself creates more stress) and prevents them from disassociating themselves from their preferred and probably very unhealthy, survival mechanism. It is to accept wholeheartedly that… the way you act – no matter how vile you think it is – is not your fault. It is simply your mind trying to survive in the best way it knows how.
When you begin to realize this, your stress levels will immediately be reduced. This helps. Because it is initially the blame, shame and guilt which prevents you from doing something about your behaviour.
‘I’ve got a handsome husband, a great house and two perfect kids,’ she says. ‘I’m literally longing to see them when I get home from work. But then something will happen. Something stupid like them refusing to eat the dinner I cooked and I’ll get angry. Then I get angry with myself. I mean it’s normal that a 5 year old might not eat dinner. Why can’t I accept it? Why can’t I be happy with my amazing life?’
The reason is stress. When something occurs that pulls the stress trigger, life become intolerable and you will seek anyway to deal with it any way you can. But of course parenthood is not something you can escape easily. You are forced to fight (get angry). Or forced to fiddle with your iPhone desperately attempting to escape from your circumstances in any means possible and get annoyed when your kids interrupt your all important game of Candy Crush.
For this particular woman the stress trigger was the inference that she may not be the perfect mother. And that she was unable to control the situation around her. That she was, despite all her best attempts, powerless. It was stressful. It will come as no surprise to you, my readers, that this stressed woman… is me (in the third person).
So you are in a situation you can’t get out of. Like parenthood. Spending time with your children or dictating what a good parent should or should not do creates stress. What do you do? First of all you stop comparing yourself to others (it is after all a form of judgement). Judgement creates stress and is part of what you are trying to avoid. Trying to be the perfect parent will not make you one. It will actually do the opposite.
You are right now, the person you have become.
That doesn’t mean you can’t change, but trying to be someone you are not will prove counterproductive.
Give only what you can give with minimal stress. It might be a lot, it might be very little. If you have managed to fully accept that none of this is your fault, you will feel better about asking for support. Support to take care of your kids when your stress levels rise. Organizing playdates where you can relax a smidgen more. Know however, that if you completely absolve all responsibility, if you continually try to get out of the situation, it is unlikely that you will ever get to a place where you can cope better. You have to learn new coping mechanisms. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, but not so much that you completely flip out.
Explain to others exactly how it works, and that you are working on recreating mental models which will help you deal better and more positively with stress so that you can learn that you can cope with parenthood and its challenges. Don’t feel guilty as it just creates more stress. Reassure yourself that taking time out for an hour to deal with your stress will make you a better parent if not in the short term, in the long run… which after all is the most important aim. If you can’t take time out because you have sole charge of your kids, put on a movie. Make them popcorn. And don’t feel guilty about it. Use this time, not by playing on your iPhone (which does little to reduce your stress levels) but by listening to a meditation podcast. Relax. So that when the movie is finished, you can do some good non-stressful time with them.
My boyfriend used not to enjoy spending time with our kids, especially when they were babies. Squeezing crinkly books at them, shaking rattles or anything else left him with the feeling of isolation. It made him feel useless. His stress levels rose. He got into the habit of taking out his iPhone and trying to escape into his world of emails and Facebook.
When we spent time together as a family, during that period when he escaped into his iPhone, it stressed the hell out of me. Seeing his desire to escape triggered my own childhood issues of abandonment. I projected this on my kids – were they growing up seeing their father permanently preoccupied with something else? Something more important than them? But far from being able to redress the balance myself, my own triggered stress meant that my kids ended up with two stressed parents. I shouted at him to put his iPhone away. I fought. Then I took away his coping mechanism. Our kids sensed the stress and became ever more clingy.
But then we learned other – better – coping mechanisms. My boyfriend adores playing the guitar. We found a solution which amused both the kids and reduced his stress levels. He had a good time with them. He started to associate spending time with them with reducing his stress levels. It created a different mental model in his mind and redefined his relationship with them. The more he did it, the better it became. Practice makes perfect.
My way of reducing stress used to be through alcohol. It’s not something I can do with kids. Then I turned to writing…at the end of a long day, I ran to my computer and started frantically tapping on the keys. But it’s also something you can’t do with kids. The trick is to create situations where you can spend non-stressful time with your kids. I discovered taking baths with my daughter. Every night without fail and sometimes during the day, we’d get in the bath and I’d sing and splash with her. It was amazing. I treasured those moments. And so did she.
As they get older, it gets easier. Do something that you both enjoy. When they’re tiny it can be as simple as getting other adult company whilst still cuddling them. When they’re older it can be teaching them a hobby that you love too.
There will always be stressful times of course. Just make sure that these are not the only times you spend with them. Because your stress will make them stressed, and make them feel inadequate. But above all don’t guilt trip yourself about this.
To put it bluntly, an absentee parent is far better than an abusive one. Fleeing rather than fighting in many instances, is healthier for your kids. I’m not suggesting that you or I am abusive. Nor am I suggesting that fleeing is always the answer. You will need to find other ways of relieving your stress. But if there’s one thing abusive parents have in common, it’s an inability to control their stress levels. Don’t be that parent. And remember that abuse is not just physical, it is also emotional.
Learn how you work and why what stresses you, stresses you. Is it a feeling of not being in control? Is it resentment because you have no time to yourself? Accept that it is not your fault. Never judge yourself for trying and failing. You are not evil. You are just human. Keep trying. Because your kids are worth the effort and so are you.