I used to feel a strange sensation when my son was an infant and he would be inconsolable in his crying. I was surprised at the panic that would come over me as I became filled with a sense of dread and terror. Instead of being a calm center of patience , I became fearful and impatient.
I tried to look within myself to understand these sensations. I thought about the possibility that I might have been allowed to cry for long periods in my own infancy. I knew that the normal process of early childhood amnesia would prevent me from having an accessible recollection of such an early experience.
I tried writing a narrative. I must have been terrified of my own crying child. I must have had to adapt to the feeling that I was being abandoned. When my son cries now , it reactivates my emotions of fear and I experience the associated panic. I had no feelings about the accuracy of my story,no images,no sensations,no emotions.
In other words this narrative elicited no verbal memories. The explanation did nothing to change the panic.
I was with my son one day when he began to cry. I felt helpless to console him and I began to have that strange panicky feeling of needing to flee. Then an image came to mind. I saw a child on an examining table, screaming, with a look of terror on his reddened face. My internship partner was holding down his body. I had to not hear the child’ s screams. It was the pediatrics ward of the hospital where we would take children to have their blood drawn. We had to figure out why this little had a fever.
The child was feverish and thrashing and sick, frightened,and screaming and inconsolable. I was shocked I was sweating. Over the days that followed I spoke to my close friends about the flashback. I felt ashamed and guilty for inflicting pain.
Why didn’t this “trauma” from years earlier surface as a flashback before the birth of my son? This question raises issues about memory retrieval and the unique configuration of unresolved traumatic memory. Several factors make the retrieval of a certain memory more likely. These include the associations linked to the memory, the theme of the experience, the phase of life of the person who is doing the remembering and the interpersonal context and the individual’s state of mind at the time of encoding and at recall.
Once I found myself with a persistently crying child, I began to have an emotional response of panic. Then the flashback occurred.
There is often a reason why traumatic experiences are not processed. It may be that excessive stress and hormonal secretion during a trauma directly impair the functioning of parts of the brain necessary for memories to be stored.
I was able to see this as an unresolved issue in myself and not as a deficit in my son. And this understanding allowed me to easily imagine how having an emotional intolerance for helplessness can lead to parental behaviors that target that helplessness in children and attack them for it. This may be the origin of “parental ambivalence”. When their lives provoke the intolerable emotion in us , our inability to be aware of it consciously and make sense of it in our own lives leaves us at risk of being unable to tolerate it in our children. This intolerance can take the form of becoming blind to or ignoring our children’ s emotions, which gives then the sense of unreality and disconnects them from their own feelings. Or our intolerance may lead to a more assertive act such as an outright attack on the child’s emotional state of vulnerability and helplessness. Then, the unsuspecting child becomes the recipient of hostile responses that that become woven into his internal sense of identity and directly impair his ability to tolerate those very same emotions in himself.
If we have leftover or unresolved issues, it is crucial that we take the time to pause and reflect on our emotional responses to our children. By understanding ourselves we give our children the chance to develop their own sense of vitality and the freedom to experience their own emotional worlds without restrictions and fear.
Excerpt taken from from book titled Parenting from the Inside Out:Experience shapes who we Are by Dr. Daniel Siegel, M.D.