| Family Reflections |

Stuck in the Past

If your reaction is too extreme for the situation, it may be coming from the child inside you


Fraidy asked the kids to put away their game so she could set the table for dinner. She asked nicely and then went to prepare the green beans. But when she came back a few minutes later, they were still playing, acting like their mother hadn’t even spoken.

So she asked again, a little more businesslike, and went back to the stove to check on the potatoes. She was ready now to put the plates out, and so grabbed a few on the way to the table. But when she got there, she found nothing had changed. They were acting as if she hadn’t said a word to them. So now she lost it. “DIDN’T I JUST ASK YOU TO CLEAN UP HERE? IT’S TIME FOR SUPPER!”

The kids look up. What’s wrong with Mommy? they wonder.



The fight-or-flight response is the body’s way of surviving perceived life-or-death emergencies. Fortunately, when it comes to daily family life, there isn’t a large supply of true life-or-death emergencies.

But in many homes, adrenaline is released like water from the faucet... it’s on a drip. Everything releases the emergency valve.

A child who won’t get out of bed in a timely manner signals the parent’s emergency response system. A child who “forgot” to do his homework or wants a test paper signed as he’s running out the door can trigger this emergency response, too. A child who kicks his brother can trigger the adrenaline pumping life-saving response in his mom.

But where is the life-threatening emergency in these situations? Why is the parent’s mind and body getting ready for war as if her life is being threatened? Feelings of overwhelm and helplessness drive the survival machine, but surely a parent isn’t really helpless — in the sense that death is a possible outcome — in the face of a child’s dawdling?


Trapped Children

Let’s look at what’s actually happening. In our table-clearing example above, we see that Fraidy’s children are ignoring her. Fraidy has made a simple request, but she’s invisible — no one responds.

This is not a life-threatening emergency for Fraidy. Fraidy is at least 25 years older than the children sitting at her table, 25 years wiser, and 25 years more powerful.

When her children don’t acknowledge her, Fraidy feels completely helpless. This feeling causes her brain to release fight-or-flight chemistry that then fuels her parental meltdown. The part of Fraidy that feels completely helpless is actually her own inner child. This is a part that’s still five years old and that resides deep inside “big Fraidy’s” psyche. This part is stuck in a time warp: While Fraidy grew up to become a competent adult, this part of her remained little, trapped back in 1982 in her parental home.

The middle child in a family of 12, young Fraidy never received the acknowledgment she craved from her very busy and distracted parents. It was hard for her to make her voice heard in the large, boisterous household, and little Fraidy often felt unheard and unseen.

In adulthood, these kinds of feelings are unpleasant, but not catastrophic. Adults can get support from others and have tons of resources with which to help themselves recover from emotional pain. Children, however, are stuck without tools or resources beyond primitive coping strategies. Unmet childhood needs go underground, where they fester for a few decades. Then the stresses of marriage and parenting inevitably trigger the buried feelings.


Bringing the Past Up to Date

Fraidy needs to notice she’s screaming instead of parenting. Once she notices, she can ask the screaming part of herself what she’s so angry about. Fraidy should listen to the answer to this question rather than think about it. Once she hears the concern (i.e. “Nobody has ever listened to me...”) the adult self can bring the small self up to date: “I’m here now, all grown up, and I’ll always listen to you. I hear right now, for example, how helpless you feel with the kids. Don’t worry; I’ve read books and taken a bunch of parenting classes. I know what to do to get these kids to listen. Let me take care of this for you.”

When the young part of Fraidy has the healing experience of being fully seen and heard at last, she’ll start to heal. Soon she won’t feel that helpless, worthless feeling that caused her to yell at “big Fraidy’s” kids! This development will be good for her, for the adult Fraidy, and for Fraidy’s family too. They’ll all live happily ever after!


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 783)

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