Is our love toxic to children?
Everyday, multiple times a day, I tell the children who share my life that I love them. I feel this amazing, deep love for them, as do the vast majority of parents.
Is my love harmful, even toxic?
Yes, sometimes, my love is toxic.
We tend to believe that love is supposed to be the purest, most noble emotion. When we love someone it is supposed to elevate us, take us beyond ourselves. It enriches our lives.
And yet, there are times when our love is clouded by fear. Love combined with fear motivates us to behave in ways that diminishes us AND the children in our lives.
That is the kind of love that is toxic to our relationships with children.
Some would not even call it love.
But, in our culture this kind of parental love is considered normal, natural, and expected. Sometimes it is called good parenting. Being motivated by fear in our culture is not considered a bad thing.
I don’t believe fear in and of itself is bad. Not at all.
If I use my moments of fear to open the door to understanding why I am motivated to act as I do, to get at why I might be triggered and fearful, the emotion of fear can be an opportunity.
When we are unconsciously rooted in fear, our love too easily becomes controlling.
I need us to set aside for a moment the argument I’ve heard many times when I talk about fear, control, and parenting. “If your 2 year-old is running into traffic, you mean you aren’t going to stop him?!?” “If a child is hurting another child, does that mean you’ll never intervene?!?”
Of course I will use whatever means I need to physically and immediately prevent a child from running into traffic and getting hit by a car. Of course I will step into a situation with children who are hurting each other.
This is not the kind of fear and control I’m talking about.
The kind of fear that produces toxic love is the fear we have of the future.
As parents, we may spend a lot of time thinking and planning for a child’s future. We may be setting aside money for college. We may be thinking about what kind of early learning children need in order to be successful academically.
We may be thinking and planning for how children will learn to be compassionate and care for others. Perhaps we want children to learn to care for animals and the earth and we do certain things to ensure they gain that perspective.
We envision our child’s life and we plan for it. We envision our lives with children and we plan for it. Sometimes thinking about the future is empowering.
Other times, our love gets caught up in doing all the right things to ensure children get everything we think they need in life. We create expectations for them and their futures.
We don’t want them to hang out with the “wrong” friends, get caught up in drugs or alcohol, have sex before they are ready (or before we’re ready), say please and thank you and know how to share with others.
I’ve done all of this kind of envisioning. And, there are times when all of my planning and future thinking gets me in trouble because I become fearful of the future outcomes.
We may not even be aware that this fear is operating within us.
In our culture, childhood is oriented toward the future. It is not about our relationships with children now, it’s about how we are preparing them for their future. So when I am operating out of fear of the future, I’m being a responsible, good parent according to dominant mainstream beliefs.
What I discovered about this belief is that when I connect my love with fear of the future, I become controlling.
It is a pattern I see repeated over and over in parents. Whenever our love is coupled with fear, we act to try and remain in control of ourselves and others as a way to get the outcomes we want.
We think if we can only control things today, we can ensure the outcomes tomorrow. We create a false sense of safety. And, in the end, children rebel from this control.
We get exactly what we don’t want in our relationships with them — disconnection, anger, and frustration.
Parents and children experience both of these things in relationships built on love that comes from fear of the future.
They rebel. They move away from us, physically and emotionally. They don’t trust us because we have an agenda for them.
We are toxic to the development of their true selves.
The extreme, you might say, is that we let go and have no involvement. We become neglectful parents.
There is an alternative that rejects control and embraces connection.
This kind of connection is rooted in love that is healthy. We can’t ever guarantee anything. But we can stay connected.
We can see children for who they are.
Not children as the embodiment of all our fears of the future. Not children as the embodiment of our displaced hopes and dreams. Not children as the representation of all the things that are left to be done like brushing teeth, combing hair or taking a shower.
We can see them as the individuals they are right now.
This connection to the present moment allows us to be with children in ways that create acceptance, love, and trust.
I still plan and think about the future. I don’t think I can ever stop doing this. You probably will to. Some of the planning is fun.
But, when all that focus on the future turns to fear of the future then our love becomes harmful.
So what can we do?
Our task is to bring the unconscious ways fear motivates us to control children into the bright light of consciousness.
When fear and worry about the future begins to overtake you, notice where you might feel it in your body.
Does you jaw tighten? Do you start to feel it in your stomach?
Notice how the fear manifest itself.
Do you lay awake at night worried? Do you get angry and yell in the moment?
We each develop patterns for how we deal with our fear. The more aware we are of those patterns the more quickly we can identify when we are operating out of fear.
Rather than focus on the outward behavior of the child that is causing our reaction, we can notice our fear and identify it.
Perhaps the fear is telling us that we have leftover emotions from past events in our childhood that are getting in the way of the present moment.
Rather than reject the fear because it causes us to move into controlling parenting, we could embrace the fear and listen to what it is really telling us.
In order to hear the deeper message in the fear, we have to understand that the fear is not about the child in our life, it is about us.
The fear can be a like a friend who is trying to point to some truth in your life. A friend who is there to nudge you (or hit you over the head) to look deeper and bring into the bright light what you may have avoided because it was uncomfortable.
And just like that friend that we depend on to tell us the truth, we can use our uncomfortable emotions like fear, or anger, to get us closer to our truth.
There are times when we need support to see how fear might be operating in our parenting. Consider the opportunity to get coaching from me to help you bring into consciousness that which might be hidden under the surface.
Here’s what a few parents have said about working with me.
It was wonderful connecting with you and receiving support to move out of the box. Your work is important and groundbreaking. Thank you! ~Savannah Hanson, Marriage and Family Therapist
Teresa is an amazing woman who is gentle and skilled at helping you to draw out “stuff” you may not even know is lurking there! ~Mellissa
Teresa’s insight and guidance have been an invaluable part of my personal growth and development, and all the relationships in my life are better because of what she has helped me process. ~Brianna Fricke