Stress and Parenting (4)

The article about the Chinese “Tiger Mother” (described in the last three posts) reminded me of another issue of key importance for the 55% of my stress illness patients who have survived dysfunctional childhood environments.  Often they struggle to perceive accurately the long-term impact of this experience.  There are a couple of reasons for this, most simply that they have no parallel life to contrast with their own experience.  More subtly, part of surviving a difficult environment involves suppressing your emotional reaction to what is happening.  When this is done repeatedly, in later years it becomes difficult to look back and accurately perceive what took place.

The result is seen in my patients who tell me that their stress level as children was “not that bad,” only to learn in response to specific questions that their early years were horrendous.  I still remember a 19 year old woman who initially dismissed my question about her childhood, but who later revealed that both parents were methamphetamine addicts and that she became the responsible adult for her two younger siblings starting when she was age 8.

To gain a more accurate appreciation of what they have survived, it can help these patients enormously to imagine watching their own children (or a child they care about) growing up in the same environment the patient endured.  I recall a middle-aged woman who grew up with frequent verbal abuse but no other forms of dysfunctional behavior from her parents.  As an adult, she recaptured some of the happy childhood she missed by playing with a friend’s school-age daughter once a week.  Initially, she discounted my reaction to the continual insults she suffered as a girl.  Then I asked her to imagine her young friend growing up in the same environment, even for just a week.  Her reaction, after a pause: “Oh, my God.”

This thought experiment brought home, more thoroughly than ever before,  how much she had endured.  It facilitated getting in touch with her emotions and reinforced her self-esteem as a true survivor.  Progress with her physical ailments was excellent from that moment.

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