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  • Writer's picturelucybeney

We Cannot Pour from an Empty Glass

We know that children don’t always listen to what we say, but we can be sure that they are watching us - and copying us - all the time. Perhaps one of the greatest responsibilities we have as parents, after keeping our children safe and secure, lies in modelling healthy behaviour and relationships for them.

This is true in the field of mental and emotional health. Our mental ill-health or emotional distress can have a significant impact on our children’s health and wellbeing, and can mould the way in which they will go on to form relationships with others and cope with difficulties in their own lives.

This is, however, a very sensitive area. Many parents and caregivers are fighting their own battles, and have themselves suffered trauma, abuse and neglect in early life. This can result in the use of “most of their resources and bandwidth to survive chaotic, often frightening and unpredictable internal experience” (Psychotherapist Seerut K Chawla). This means that “there’s not much left for anything else”.

This is why it is so important to make self-care a priority - to look after ourselves and address our own needs, so that we are better equipped to care for our children. We cannot pour from an empty glass - but there is good news. There is always something which can be done. We now know that our brains remain “plastic” throughout life. Patterns of thinking and behaviour can be changed, old hurts can be healed, relationships improved and with the right support, we can stop being defined by the past and look forward to a better future.

Knowledge is power and the more we can understand about the effects of our own experiences and address them, the greater chance there is of a better outcome for our own families. However, without seeking to make changes, we run the risk of intergenerational trauma, which can see the same cycle of suffering repeated time after time - from grandparents, to parents to children and onwards.

Mental and emotional distress in adults impacts dependent children in a number of ways. First, we demonstrate to our children how we handle different and sometimes difficult emotions. If we “lose it” frequently - if our “lid is up” much of the time - our children will find it far harder to manage any difficult feelings they experience. Lashing out verbally or physically will be seen as a go-to solution. The same is true if we withdraw into ourselves and avoid situations, or seek to be over-controlling. It can prove to be very destructive, when both sides are emotionally over-wrought, so neither person is listening to the other and relationships can easily deteriorate. Learning to manage difficult feelings is a vitally important skill. Dr Dan Siegel’s brain hand model can be a very useful tool for this (please see the link to Mindful Emotion Coaching and “All Emotions are OK” below).

Secondly, if we find it hard “to name it to tame it” and struggle to identify our own emotions, it will be much harder for our children to learn to do that. We also become more susceptible to living other people’s emotions - reacting in the way we feel we should react, or in the way in which we have habitually done so, rather then responding in a more considered and authentic way. It is alright not to know what we feel immediately in any given situation, and take time to work it out. If in doubt, it is always worth taking a deep breath, counting to ten or walking around the block before reacting.

Thirdly, our own anxiety and depression can be very debilitating for our children. If we are anxious, it is highly likely our children will grow up to be anxious too. As already mentioned, emotions can be contagious, and our feelings will affect those around us, especially close family. Children can sense when we are not at ease, which in turn will leave them feeling ill-at-ease, even if they cannot explain why.

Depression in a caregiver can be equally alarming for a child. Building connections is crucial for brain development, and children need to experience “serve and return” relationships (Harvard Center on the Developing Child). When a child seeks adult attention, or wants to point something out to their parent, they expect - and need - an appropriate response. Some have suggested that “repression” or “oppression” would be better terms to use than “depression” - and the heavy weight which that suggests can keep us from responding in the way our children need. That withdrawal again raises anxiety levels within the child. Children depend on their adult care givers - and if that adult appears not to notice or respond to their needs, that little person is going to feel the fear. In the longterm, this can become “toxic stress”.

“Toxic stress” involves the prolonged activation of our stress response, for whatever reason. When a child experiences this without adequate adult support and “buffering”, it can “disrupt the development of brain architecture, affect immune systems, hormonal systems and how our DNA is read and expressed - in other words, how our cells work together (EHCAP Mindful Emotion Coaching) and the functioning of bodily systems. This can have life-long consequences for a child’s mental, physical and emotional health.

The great Gabor Maté tells us that “children don’t get traumatised because they get hurt - children get traumatised because they are alone in their hurt”. Research tells us, however, that having just one reliable, responsive and responsible caregiver can buffer a child from “toxic stress”. It is much harder to be that person, when we are fighting our own mental and emotional battles.

Finally, our substance use and abuse can also have a longterm effect on our children. Young people so often see things differently from adults. Several times, I have been told how it feels to have a parent or caregiver who enjoys a drug more than their company, or who needs a drink more than a meal with their children. “My mum doesn’t love me enough to stop”, said one. “My dad would rather take drugs and risk prison than stay with us”, said another. When resources are available to help us quit, children struggle to understand why we would not go down that route.

During the summer holidays, many children and young people are concerned about how they will be able to support and help their parents in the struggles that they face. Many worry about their parents’ wellbeing, and find themselves in the role of carer, which research shows can have an adverse effect upon their own emotional, social and intellectual development and can inhibit the development of healthy self-respect. Our children and young people need adults to nurture and care for them, to give them a real sense of their value in the world and build those relationships and connections.

There is support available. If you feel that you need help, please ask for it. We need to ensure that there is enough water in our own glass, so that our children can drink, grow healthily and be refreshed.

In the UK, you can get help via:

Free parenting resources:

All Emotions are OK by Dr Sarah Temple (available from Amazon).

Free talking therapies:

In addition, there are numerous charitable and private providers of support.

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