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You’re Not My Mother

Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Years of being helpless and being told what to do at all times will take their toll


Childhood is a time of true helplessness. Giant beings control every detail of your life — what you eat, where you go, what you can and can’t do. Your freedom of choice and movement is truly limited.

This causes many children to become traumatized. According to renowned trauma researcher Dr. Peter A. Levine, a trauma syndrome requires two conditions: the experience of helplessness and an overwhelming event. Overwhelming events for children may be “non-events” for adults. For a two-year-old, getting a haircut while strapped into a chair from which he can’t escape, can be traumatic. A twelve-year-old who must attend school every day might find the experience of being bullied by classmates traumatic. In such situations, the child feels trapped in a situation that he or she can’t handle.

Dr. Levine explains that feelings of intense helplessness initiate a chemical reaction in the brain that leads to a freeze response (when fight or flight is impossible). This leaves “unfinished business” in the brain even when the overwhelming incident has ended. As far as the child is concerned, the danger is ever-present and never ending. It remains that way until therapeutic intervention occurs.


Childhood Roots of Adult Feelings

The processes involved in becoming traumatized have relevance for normal adult development as well. An abusive parent — one who terrorizes a child through aggressive behavior such as yelling, threatening, or lashing out physically — almost always traumatizes a child. But even normal parents can induce a sort of trauma in their children through the activities of everyday parenting. This is because a child (particularly a small child) is in a perpetual state of being “helpless” and “trapped.” He cannot survive alone in the world. Even an older child has a psychological dependence on the parent that exceeds his or her physical dependence. In other words, even though a nine-year-old may be physically capable of escaping to the forest and living off berries (as many were forced to do during the Holocaust and other times of persecution), this is not the solution of choice for normal children “trapped” in normal families.

Instead, children simply endure the difficulties of childhood, feeling that they have no choice. If they live with a moody mother, a bossy father, or a cruel sibling — that’s just life. At least until the child grows up.


Free to Be Me (Not)

Perhaps one of the most common fallouts of childhood helplessness is the refusal to take orders from one’s spouse in adulthood. Average parents of recent generations, along with many modern parents (readers of this column excepted), knew little of the 80-20 Rule. As a result, they didn’t hesitate to exceed the 20 percent limit for unpleasant-feeling-communications to their children. For those who do follow the 80-20 Rule in parenting, there is a clear challenge in minimizing not-so-good-feeling-communications because these include, along with discipline, corrections, and complaints, all instructions. Because no one of any age particularly likes being told what to do, instructions must be counted as unpleasant forms of parental communication to a child.

Picture then, a normal home in which a parent tells her child when to get up, what to wear, what to eat, what time to be out the door, where to put belongings when returning home, how to speak and not speak, how to interact with siblings, how to greet people, how to talk on the phone, when and where to do homework, when and how to brush teeth, when and where to sleep, and so on and so forth — for twenty years. If the parent happens to be “controlling,” the situation is all the worse. When instructions are not carefully balanced within the 80-20 ratio, children can develop a lifelong “instruction phobia.”


You’re Not My Mother

An “instruction phobia” is the intense fear of revisiting the feelings of helplessness from childhood. A person suffering from this condition may say odd things to his or her partner. For instance, a wife might ask her husband to please speak quietly as the baby is sleeping; her phobic husband responds: “You can’t tell me what to do!” If she asks him to please take out the garbage bag before the garbage truck arrives, he responds, “You’re not my mother! I’ll do it when I’m good and ready!”

All of her requests for help and assistance are met with the same sort of defensive, even hostile, retorts. She is left feeling confused, hurt, upset, and resentful. Why does everything have to be such a battle? She may decide to cope by refraining from asking anything of her spouse. However, being left to do everything on her own not only exhausts her, but it also destroys the affection she once had for her husband.


Next week we’ll explore how to heal childhood wounds in marriage.

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