This idea can be confronting. The idea that what we don’t address, we project onto other people and situations in our lives. When we are a parent raising growing humans, what we don’t address within ourselves, we can project onto our children. The projection occurs unconsciously, subconsciously and consciously, through our parent-child interactions. This is not further evidence that children need us to be ‘perfect’ in order to be a good enough parent who doesn’t ‘damage’ our children. In fact, it’s evidence of the exact opposite: that we are all completely imperfect people and thus are imperfect parents, and that is more than ok. It is how nature designed us to be; complex and amazing human beings.
It has been an interesting experience to work primarily as a child psychologist supporting many parents while also expecting my first child. My friends and clients have made many kind, beautiful and well-intended comments about this, from “you’re going to be an amazing mother” to “you’re so lucky to go into parenting with all of this knowledge and insight.” Both, I hope are true, but I also know that having psychological knowledge, insight and skills is not something that can replace my own inner and personal development that will continue to unfold and be required with each phase of motherhood. Just like everyone else, I will not escape the highs, lows and everything in between that will help me to continue to grow as a person.
The developmental psychology textbooks tend to acknowledge each ‘stage’ of the lifespan: conception, infancy, early childhood, childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood and senior years. Although I am aware that becoming a parent is not always a universal human experience (sometimes unfortunately without choice and other times due to conscious choice, which I deeply respect), I have always viewed parenthood as a unique developmental journey. Eastern philosophies talk about the concept of parenting in this light, such as “rebirthing” ourselves when we become a parent. As all parents know, birthing your first child is a radical life change and adjustment. While the idea of rebirthing ourselves can glamorise the very real and practical challenges of the post-natal experience, it is the beginning of a developmental chapter. As our children grow and evolve, we are challenged to grow and evolve.
Parenthood is a whole journey that, if we’re lucky, will last a lifetime. With the privilege of working in this space for a decade prior to having my own children, I have come to believe that we do the work, or the work does us. The idea that ‘what we don’t address, we project’, initially developed through my work and research in the field of parent-child interaction – and as my personal journey continues to unfold – I am now convinced. Despite the well-known and often frightening fact that we all have predispositions to certain “mental illnesses” due to hereditary factors, the projection does not necessarily come in the form of the passing on of our genetics to our children. We all have our own predispositions and hereditary risks, such as a family history of depression or anxiety, however research developments in the field of epigenetics have helped us to understand how our lifestyle, and importantly, our environment contributes our psychological wellbeing or difficulties. The environment in the context of parent-child interaction refers to the transmission that occurs between a parent and a child in their day-to-day lives.
This theory stands on both my clinical experience and observations, and a whole body of research that helps us to understand that children are more likely to be anxious if their parents are anxious. It is “contagious”. Studies show that children internally mimic the self-talk of their parents. Thus, the more self-critical their parent is, the more self-critical their self-talk is. In contrast, the more self-compassionate a parent is, the more likely a child is to develop self-compassion skills. In addition, there is such thing as intergenerational parenting patterns which means that we often repeat the patterns – both the good and those that are not ideal – of those who came before us. Of course, there are many factors that also contribute, such as the child’s personality, temperament and individual differences. However, these patterns still stand to be largely predictable.
I know, it’s an uncomfortable thought. It’s natural for parents to hope that their children will not have to go through the internal and psychological struggles they have been through. I, personally, would never wish the personal struggles I’ve experienced onto my daughter. I have the same innate protective desires as most parents; to wrap my precious baby up in cotton wool and protect her from the pain and darkness of the world. While we unfortunately can’t rob them of their own personal experiences and struggles – that are an inevitable part of being human – we can still take responsibility for what we can address so that we don’t project our ‘stuff’ onto our children.
If we are able to take responsibility for our personal growth journey, our children will still experience their own joys, pain, suffering, learning and lessons, but it’s not the result of our fears, our anxieties, our insecurities, our need for control, our unaddressed inner child, and our need for personal growth. I don’t say this as the expert looking down and telling you to do the work. I say this as another human who is standing shoulder to shoulder with you. As someone who has imperfectly done and will continue to do a lot of inner work to get out of my child’s way, so to speak, I intend to stay committed to self-reflection to ensure that I am empowering her to thrive in a way that pleases her essence, not mine. When we healthily turn towards and process our own pain, trauma and challenges, we become more open and present to savour experience the pleasures, the privilege and joy that it is to be able to raise and parent a child. What can sometimes feel like a rite of passage is one that unfortunately many people are not gifted with.
As we develop the courage to bring light to our personal patterns, fears and insecurities, we can also learn to hold ourselves with kindness. Diving into this deeper ‘inner work’ is not about relentless self-improvement and it is certainly not about blame and shame, but rather developing the willingness to look at what needs to be healed and addressed to set us free in the present and the future. There is nothing admirable or noble about suffering in silence as a parent. You are not only allowed to have ‘stuff’, but you are guaranteed to – just as all humans with a conditioned past, a subconscious and complex mind. When I meet a new client, they so often feel alone and isolated in their suffering, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. It just means that they, unfortunately, do not have open and honest spaces around them that hold the truth, that normalise their difficulties and validate their pain.
We are entitled to improve our situation and to hold our imperfections with compassion and humility at the same time. Although the inner work and building supportive spaces can seem overwhelming and heavy initially – especially when we are used to shying away from it – remember that when we numb our pain, we also often unconsciously numb our joy. In due time will come a lightness, with the right supports in place, which not only enables us to open up the pain but also the pleasures in our lives. If you’re feeling ready to take a dive within but are wondering ‘where to next’ from here, an easy-to-follow roadmap is presented in my upcoming book, Parenting Freedom.
Dr Renee Cachia is an Australian–based psychologist in private practice specialising in childhood, adolescent and parenting development. Her first book is Parenting Freedom: Transform Stress and Depletion to Connectedness and Meaning. To connect on socials, follow @reneecachiaphd.