Dr. Elaine Heffner: In touch with feelings through stories
Recently, I heard a talk by Stephen Grosz, an American psychoanalyst who lives and practices in London. His book, “The Examined Life, How We Lose and Find Ourselves,” is about storytelling, his point being that we are all storytellers creating stories to make sense of our lives. The book consists of short stories about his patients, which he uses to illumine various themes that most of us can recognize.
As parents, we are storytellers, constantly telling stories to and about our children – but also about ourselves. Children love to hear family stories from their parents, wanting to hear again stories about when they were babies, or about things their parents did in the past. On the other hand, as parents we also make connections between our own behavior toward our children, our own childhood selves and our own parents. Grosz tells a story about a woman who, while expressing irritation toward a friend who had criticized her for another of her friendships, remembers an incident from her childhood.
The story concerned her love for one of her first teachers. She made a card to give the teacher, thanking her for being her teacher and telling her she loved her more than anyone, even her mother. Her father disapproved, telling her she could not write what she did because it was not true. She was told to rewrite the card because her eraser did not adequately remove the offending sentiment. This episode now seemed to her to be related to a lifelong pattern of doubting her own feelings – relying on what she thinks she is supposed to feel rather that what she does feel.
Feelings are an important part of any relationship and that is especially true of relationships between parents and children. Children express their feelings through their behavior – often in behavior that is socially unacceptable. They are often not clear what their feelings are, or what they are related to, which is part of the reason they are unable to express them appropriately. Actually adults, like their children, also may need help in understanding what is bothering them. All of us have the wish to be heard and understood, and stories at times help make that possible.
When children are struggling with their feelings about wanting to be grown up but also wanting to be a baby, they are helped by hearing their parents’ stories about them when they actually were babies. In the same way, when they are learning how to control their impulses and “bad” behavior, they love to hear stories about “bad” things their parents did when young. It is reassuring to know that your parents weren’t perfect either.
When my son was a young teenager, we were driving somewhere that took us through a tollbooth. No EZ passes in those days – you had to throw coins in a basket. I tossed the required coin in from the car window and my son admired my “great shot.” I reminded him that I had practice, shooting baskets with him in his room when he was little. Sounding pleased, he said, “I bet you are sorry we grew up.” I told him I was happy about how they were growing up but sometimes I missed those other people they used to be. He thought for a moment and said, “Me, too.”
We’re never too old to have times of wishing we were still children being cared for by our parents. Stories can help us get in touch with our own feelings and those of our children – which in turn help us better connect to each other.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.