Halloween has long since gone, hopefully taking all the goblins and other scary things with it. Sometimes, though, it seems as if there are still some ghosts hanging around. Children often think they see them in their room at night when they are fighting sleep. But parents also may find them in some dark corners of the house.
Many of you perhaps have read a wonderful book called “The Magic Years” by Selma Fraiberg, a psychoanalyst who worked with parents and children. Her book offers great understanding of children’s minds when they are very young. She also wrote about something she called “Ghosts in the Nursery”, which had more to do with parents.
The “ghosts in the nursery” are things we experienced when we ourselves were children, which sometimes pop up to haunt us when we become parents. Those ghosts may have to do with relationships we had with our own parents, or things about ourselves that may have caused us difficulty. Without realizing it, those old ghosts can influence the way we see our own children and the way we interact with them.
Often these ghosts turn up when something in a child’s behavior or development concerns us. Many times when a child is especially active, or rebellious, or otherwise difficult to handle, a mother will say, “My mother says I was just like that. Now I can understand what she went through”. Or “My mother-in-law says my husband was the same way – and he still is!”
We’re used to those comparisons made about physical traits: he has his father’s eyes, she has her mother’s hair. Children usually grow up hearing them – more than once. But seeing a child’s behavior or personality traits through the lens of the parents’ childhood can interfere with our ability to know who our child really is himself or herself. Seeing certain things in our child that we identify with ourselves at times makes us feel proud. On the other hand, if it is something we don’t like about ourselves – or our mate – it can lead us to misread its significance for the child, and to respond in negative ways.
Sometimes we want our children to make up for things that were missing or that we regret about our own childhood. One father was determined to have his son excel at sports because his own lack of skill in this area had led to his feelings of exclusion. Sports were not a source of interest or ability for his son, and the father’s insistence on his son improving his skills were actually producing in the boy the same kind of feelings the father had growing up.
Relationships with other family members can also play a role. A mother talked to me about the difficulties she was having with a daughter who seemed very needy and demanding of her attention. The mom identified her with her own sister who was very demanding, got all of their mother’s attention, and who had many difficulties later on when they were grown. She did not want this to happen to her daughter and responded punitively to the child’s behavior.
In fact, this was a middle child who was very sensitive and immature in some areas. She had some real difficulties with separation, which were being intensified by what she experienced as her mother’s rejecting behavior. When this mother realized that she was responding to her child as if she were her sister, she also saw that she was trying to correct what she thought were her own mother’s failures. Once becoming aware of this, she was able to appreciate that her daughter had some real needs which she could respond to in more appropriate ways.
When parents to be are expecting a child, part of pregnancy is imagining what that expected child will be like. A connection is made with that imagined child. When the real baby arrives, part of the challenge for parents is dealing with the difference between the real and the imagined child. And that challenge recurs at various times as a child grows and develops.
Our imagined children are always perfect. Our real children never are. The “ghosts” may make their appearance when we react to what we may see as our children’s “imperfections”. Of course our own upbringing plays a big role in how we raise our children. But in thinking about our own lives, it helps to recognize that our children are entitled to their own. You are not your mother or father and your child is not you. Her life will be different from yours.
Ghosts are often invisible. Bringing them into view is what makes it possible to sweep them out.