The reason it’s nearly impossible for most of us to significantly change the patterns our parents left us with is because we are trying to create new patterns of behavior while still drawing from the same tainted wells of experience that were passed on to us. Sometimes we try drilling a new well based on our good intentions to do things differently. But we can’t just drill into a fresh well because wherever we drill, we have brought with us the same experiences we grew up with and still have a well tainted with hurt and harm. Even great parents still leave kids with some level of harm.
For some the well is only slightly tainted. Others of us are not as fortunate and our wells are filled with trauma, hurt, and attachment injuries. I had more than my share of polluted water even though my parents did a far better job parenting than they received. And I also had trauma given to me by other trusted adults.
Since we can’t just drill into a fresh well of experience all we can do is start to clean up/heal the well of experience we already have.
Below is some of the process Kim and I learned as we began to clean out our own wells:
Step 1: Start Noticing Raw Spots by Noticing Intense Emotional Reactions.
A raw spot is a hidden unhealed wound in our emotional skin. A common sign that a raw spot has been bumped is a dramatic negative change in our emotional state. This process requires shifting attention from the actions of other people to your own internal and external responses. This involves noticing sudden emotional changes from calm to frustrated or angry. The emotional change might be noticeable through a change in behavior like suddenly yelling, instantly getting quiet, or something else.
Start to watch for parenting moments where you have an intense reaction and your behavior suddenly changes. When our kids were younger, one sign I began to notice that a raw spot had been activated was suddenly laying down the law by issuing drastic ultimatums that I never would consider in a moment of sanity. (I later learned these moments terrified my family.)
Step 2: Be Curious About the Injury Under the Raw Spots.
Once you notice an intense reaction, get curious. What tensions or discomfort do/did you feel in your body? What event(s) in your past might have created the raw spot? Often the initial injury happened in childhood. How far back can you notice similar emotional and/or physical experiences? Injuries can come from a parent(s), older family members, or other trusted adults like coaches, teachers, or youth leaders. Sometimes wounds can come from peers like siblings or bullies.
Step 3: Explore/Share with Another PersonEmotional wounds get created in relationship with people. And wounds get healed through relationship with one or more other people. Who can you talk to about the reactions you are starting to notice? Who can you explore possible sources of injury under the raw spots you are discovering? For some, talking with God can be a helpful resource. As a well-known Buddhist mindfulness teacher noted, when Christians meditate, they have an advantage—they are not alone. At times, journaling to yourself or God can be helpful resources while you look for a person to talk with.
Once you have started to clean up your well you are in a much better place to start improving your relationship with your teen(s), improving their emotional well of experiences as well. The next two steps not only can improve your teens relationship with your teen, but also the lives of your future generations.
Step 4: Start Offering Repair
Once you can notice your reactions and are starting to understand their source, and are calm again, you might be ready to start offering repair with your teen(s). Depending on the level of injury with your teen (as defined by them), a simple acknowledgement of what you did, how you imagine it hurt them, and expressing sadness or sorrow for how you treated them may be enough to initiate repair. In other cases, repair may need to be more involved. (See “Is Sorry Enough” for a description of different levels of apology.) An important thing to note here is that repair goes from parent to teen. It’s great for children to apologize too, but as parents, we exist to meet our kid’s emotional needs. Our kids do not exist to meet our own needs. When we get our needs met through our kids, we create a whole new level of trauma that pollutes their well of experience.
Step 5: Become curious about your teens experience
Once you have started to offer repair, it is helpful to express curiosity about your teen(s) experience in difficult interactions. Curiosity can look many ways. A few examples are:
• Do you remember when (x happened) and I yelled at you? I don’t think I understood what you were trying to tell me. Will you try again?
• When you were telling me about your frustrations with your work, it looked like my advice hurt you. Did it sound like I was telling you that you don’t know how to do your job, or something else?
Beginning to tune into your raw spots and reactions and offer repair and curiosity to your teen (or younger kids) will help your children experience less harm in their wells of experience, and can also improve the lives of your future grand-kids and great-grand-kids