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A certain child enters our life with its individual troubles, difficulties, stubbornness, and temperamental challenges in order to help us become aware of how much we have yet to grow. The reason this works is that our children are able to take us into the remnants of our emotional past and evoke deeply unconscious feelings. Consequently, to understand where our internal landscape needs to develop, we need look no further than our children’s gaze.

need to look no further than our children’s gaze. Whether we unconsciously generate situations in which we feel the way we did when we were children, or we desperately struggle to avoid doing this, in some shape or form we inevitably experience the identical emotions we felt when we were young. This is because, unless we consciously integrate the unintegrated aspects of our childhood, they never leave us but repeatedly reincarnate themselves in our present, then show up all over again in our children. Hence by offering us a reflection of our unconsciousness, our children bestow on us an inestimable gift. As they provide us with opportunities to recognize our unconsciousness as it manifests in the here and now, we have a chance to break free of the clutches of our past so that we are no longer ruled by our early conditioning. Our children also reflect back on our success or failure in this venture, thereby showing us in which direction to proceed.

Because we interact with our children based on how we were raised before we know it—and despite our best intentions—we find ourselves recreating the dynamics of our own childhood. Let me illustrate how this happens by telling you about a mother and daughter I was privileged to help. Jessica was a good student and the ideal daughter until her fourteenth year. However, during the next two years, she turned into her mother’s worst nightmare. Lying, stealing, clubbing, and smoking her way through life, she became rude, defiant, and even violent. Being around her daughter, whose moods fluctuated by the minute, making Anya anxious. Too deeply triggered by Jessica to contain her emotions, she unleashed her fury on her daughter, yelling, screaming, and calling her names a child should never be subjected to. Anya knew that Jessica’s behavior didn’t warrant these extreme explosions of anger, but she could neither control her rage nor understand where it was coming from. Feeling incompetent, thinking herself a failure as a parent, she was unable to provide Jessica with the connection she needed.

In due course, Jessica confided in a school counselor that she had begun cutting herself. When Anya learned how much pain Jessica was in, she contacted me for help. “It’s as if I were six again,” she shared. “When my daughter yells at me, I feel the way I did when my mother yelled at me. When she slams the door on me and shuts me out of her world, I feel as though I’m being punished, like I did something wrong. The difference is that whereas with my parents I could never protest, yell, or scream, now I can’t stop. Every time my daughter makes me feel like my parents made me feel, it’s as if my world crashes around me and I lose my sanity.”

The only way we could unlock the unconsciousness that Anya’s daughter triggered in her was by revisiting her past, in particular her family of origin. Anya’s father was emotionally cold, which meant she felt starved for affection. Her mother “was just never there,” Anya explained. “Even when she was there physically, it was like she was never there. I was seven or eight when I began to know loneliness.” So great was the pain of Anya’s isolation and the lack of acceptance by her parents that she resolved to create a new personality. “I decided I would start acting just like mom, then dad would begin to love me as much as he loved her.” Anya’s mother was always well put together, beautifully dressed, on top of things. “I changed from a girl into a grown-up woman overnight,” Anya recalls. “I began to exercise like crazy and did brilliantly at school.”

Unfortunately, no matter how responsible Anya became, she was never good enough for her extremely strict father. One incident in particular led to a turning point. As Anya tells it: “I remember one day my father was annoyed with me because I wasn’t sitting still to do my homework. Not a man of many words, he took me to the corner of the room and raised my arms in the air. He then folded my knees and sent me to the floor. I knelt on the floor for the next two hours with my arms raised in the air. He didn’t say a word the entire time. My mother didn’t dare say anything either. No one looked me in the eye. I think that what hurt me more than the punishment was the lack of acknowledgment. I cried and begged for forgiveness, but no one seemed to hear me. After two hours, my father told me to get up and start studying. From that day on, I swore I would never get myself into trouble again. I swallowed my anger and hid beneath layers of resentment.”

In the same way Anya had learned to be the “perfect” child, she had trained her daughter Jessica to be her little automaton, devoid of emotional expression, super-responsible, perfectly controlled and manicured. However, being a different spirit, Jessica could only take her mother’s rigidity for her childhood years. The minute she was able to break free, she did. Not having any sense of a center, her emotional pendulum now swung to the other extreme. The more Jessica rebelled, the more controlling and dominant Anya became. Finally, Jessica snapped. So it was that the cutting began

Through all her daughter’s behavior, Anya only saw her own wounds, caused by her own parents’ anger, rejection, and betrayal of her. Instead of seeing Jessica’s rebellion as a cry for help, she interpreted it as undermining her role as a parent. This served as a reminder of how powerless and worthless her parents made her feel as a child. Only now, instead of becoming the “perfect daughter” as she had all those years ago in her parents’ home, as a parent herself she fought back. The tragedy was that she was fighting with the wrong person.

Anya had no awareness that her daughter was behaving quite normally given the circumstances of her rigid upbringing. She couldn’t see that Jessica was saying, “Enough of the charade. Wake up and notice that I’m a unique individual with different needs from you. I can’t be yours to control any longer.” Jessica was in effect screaming for the release Anya could never claim for herself. She was the flag bearer of her mother’s unfought war. Though she appeared “bad” in the eyes of the public, she was in truth being a dutiful daughter, enacting her mother’s unlived past for her. Through her antisocial behavior, she was facilitating her mother in finally expressing all that had been trapped inside her for decades. In terms of the journey of becoming a conscious parent, Jessica’s “badness” was a service to her mother, the opportunity for Anya to revisit her childhood resentment and heartache. Thus Anya was finally allowing herself to scream, letting out her emotional toxicity. Our children are generous in this way, willingly becoming receptacles for our misplaced emotions so we can ultimately set ourselves free. It’s our unwillingness to walk toward this freedom that creates the illusion our children are “bad” and must be doing things maliciously.