Grown-Up Ghosts

Young children are known to cry out at night, awakened from sleep by a ghost under the bed, or in the closet, who scares them and makes a parent’s protective presence necessary.  Sometimes, a parent looking under the bed and reassuring the youngster that the ghost is now gone, will be sufficient for sleep to return.  At other times, a parent’s continued presence may be needed.

Selma Fraiberg, social worker, psychoanalyst, and author of The Magic Years, gives us insight into the minds of young children, when fantasy is more developed than logic and children believe that their thoughts and behavior make things happen in the outside world.  In their magical thinking their thoughts, behavior, and feelings are responsible for events around them.  As we know, children often have angry thoughts and wishes about their parents, who often are frustrating and mean in their eyes.  Then if a parent becomes ill, a child may imagine that his thoughts or wishes were responsible.

The ghosts and monsters that children see are stand-ins for their own frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses.  They are frightening because in children’s magical thinking they are responsible for the bad things that happen.  And sometimes they are responsible, as when children are punished for “bad” behavior.  The struggle with these monsters and ghosts reflects children’s inner struggle with their own forbidden wishes and the untamed impulses that often lead to unacceptable behavior.

In her later work, Fraiberg wrote about other ghosts in the nursery.  These “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.

Most of us as parents can think of moments interacting with our children when we suddenly thought we sounded just like our mothers, or were scolding our children in just the way we didn’t like when our parents scolded us.  Often these ghosts turn up when something in a child’s behavior or development concerns us, such as times when a child is especially active, or rebellious, or otherwise difficult to handle.

We’re used to comparisons made about physical traits: he has his father’s eyes, she has her mother’s hair.   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.

Even when strong, loving bonds exist between parents and children, ghosts as intruders from the parental past may break through and a parent and child may find themselves reenacting a scene from another time with another set of characters. 

Fraiberg was interested in understanding more about those situations in which ghosts imperil relationships.  Her own work pointed to the idea that it was the pain experienced in the past that was too painful to confront, making it impossible for a parent to identify with the feelings of a young child, 

Ghost moments are familiar to all of us, but fortunately children are resilient and most ghosts don’t threaten the relationships that exist.