In my house we joke that we have to put a quarter in the kids’ Future Therapy Fund jar every time we make a parenting misstep. (This is obviously all in jest because if we actually were going to fund the therapy our kiddos would need, we’d be putting in ten dollar bills.)
In all seriousness, though, it can feel impossible to parent well in the swirl of modern life and with an awareness of all that our children need from us. It can be even more challenging and painful if we ourselves missed out on some of the fundamental resources we needed from our own parents.
This is where reparenting comes in. It’s a practice that can transform our relationship with ourselves, as well as our own children and loved ones.
Let’s start with the basics.
We all recognize that children need some foundational resources to grow into mature, well-resourced adults. These include the standard material resources like reliable nutrition and consistent shelter, but it also includes many non-tangibles. Here are a few:
- Predictability of reactions and consequences
- Validation of reality and feelings
- Emotional attunement and being seen
- Support with nervous system regulation
- Being considered precious and valuable
At first read-through, these might seem like the “softer” needs, the ones that are nice to have, but not necessary for survival. Certainly not things to get all bent out of shape about not getting.
But consider two truths for me. First, our human brains are wired to receive these behaviors and so crave them and seek them out. When we don’t receive them, parts of brains can literally atrophy and under-perform. Second, our modern day society requires that we function communally and in constant communication with other people. This means that developing the skills to do so effectively are, quite literally, imperative for survival.
So what happens when we aren’t offered things like attunement or predictability in our early development?
It’s important to understand that children are very resourceful, so they will try their very best to seek out similar experiences wherever they can, or deny their own needs for them. If a young girl couldn’t get soothing from a caregiver because he was frequently absent with his own depression, she learns to find the solace of food to regulate her nervous system. If a little boy doesn’t have his own feelings reflected back to him and is helped to feel understood, he begins to suppress his desire to share those feelings or begins to question their validity.
It might seem like these experiences happen in the most dire of circumstances, but in fact most of us experience deficits in parenting. We don’t have to have had cruel or absent parents to have lacked in some core areas. In fact, most of us had parents that did the best they could.
Recognizing that they did what they could with the resources and circumstances they had can be part of the healing process, but it can’t stop there. And this is where reparenting comes in. It’s the opportunity to offer to ourselves the experiences that we didn’t get or didn’t get enough of in our early development.
Reparenting doesn’t mean making ourselves peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch every day (though I’m most definitely not knocking this), but rather extending the love, compassion, and nurturance that we needed more of as a child to ourselves now as an adult.
It might look like responding to difficult experiences or painful experiences with any of the following, said to ourselves:
- I know that you are hurting right now and I’m here for you.
- What you are needing right now makes so much sense.
- Your desires could never be too much.
- I’m going to help you calm down by reminding you of your breath as a tool.
- You did a great job today setting that boundary. I know it was hard.
- Even if this situation goes poorly, you are deserving and I love you.
It can also involve some important other components, including:
- Developing consistency in the care we give to ourselves, both emotionally and practically. A simple example is that in my own reparenting work, I started making my bed each morning. It was a small, but important sign that I could value my future (nighttime) self enough to want to create a lovely space for her to return to.
- Helping ourselves set important boundaries with others, something that many of us failed to see modeled or were actively encouraged not to do.
- Putting ourselves to sleep at a reasonable time and giving ourselves consistent nutrition.
- Practicing self-compassion exercises to remind ourselves of our inherent worthiness, even in the face of mistakes.
This work isn’t easy, but it’s some of the most powerful I have found. As we begin to show up for ourselves with attunement, grace, compassion, and love, the changes in our senses of self and in our relationships take shape.