Kids as Catalysts for Healing


An Excerpt from Parenting with Presence by Susan Stiffelman

At times I am astonished by how quickly a client’s long-repressed, unresolved feelings come to the surface when she is ready to face them. Cecilia was the mother of a five-year-old daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. Describing herself as gentle-natured, she scheduled a phone session with me because she became enraged when her daughter expressed anger. “As a child, I wasn’t allowed to get angry. I want my daughter to know that she can express her upset, but when she does, I become furious.”

I asked if a part of her felt that her daughter was breaking a rule — kids shouldn’t be angry — when she got mad. She admitted that she did feel that way. When I suggested that it might also bring up feelings about the fact that while she had to bury her upsets as a child, her daughter was being permitted to express them, she agreed. It wasn’t easy to reconcile the double standard she was facing — wanting it to be okay for her daughter to embrace unpleasant emotions that she herself had been required to suppress.

I invited her to simply sit with her anger, allowing it to be there without judging it. “Where in your body do you feel it? Describe the sensations to me.”

“It’s like a panic. I feel it in my stomach, and my feet feel like they want to move — like I want things to go faster. Like I want to escape.” She went on to say that she also felt her face tighten, as though she was concentrating intensely — trying to make something happen.

“Don’t get caught up in analyzing it. Just stay with what’s going on and see if any other feelings are there, too, such as sadness, or fear, or longing.” As soon as I said this, she said, “Yes, sadness. And longing…” She began sobbing; I could feel the depth of sorrow around whatever was being stirred up.

I remained quiet, letting her know that I was present with a few words here and there, while trying not to intrude on her process.

She described the longing as a black hole. “I can sense it’s there but it is so big I can’t reach it because I know I can’t… have what it wants.” As a child she told me she was not allowed to cry or to want things. And in spite of her parents and brothers expressing anger routinely, she was forbidden to do so. “I would be spanked and told to go to my room until I could be a ‘good’ girl again. I stayed there as long as I could, hot with anger but trying to numb it. I was a girl, and girls were expected to be quiet and good, and not make any trouble.”

“It is so courageous of you, Cecilia, to stay with this grief and give it room. Thank you for being so brave.” As her crying quieted, she told me that she almost never cries. I think she was surprised by how quickly those old feelings came to the surface when she gave them space.
In our conversation afterward, I explained that she was not the only one who would benefit from allowing these emotions to be experienced; her daughter would as well. “Anger is just the outward manifestation of hurt. It’s likely that you are going to find yourself getting less angry with your daughter as you let the sadness have its say.”

I also told her that by traveling this road, she would be better able to help her daughter move into her own sorrow when she becomes frustrated rather than lashing out in rage.
The next time we met, Cecilia told me that a new world had opened up for her as a result of that single breakthrough. She said she had no idea she could be less reactive. “Even my husband has noticed a calmness in my voice.”

We laughed about how perfect it was that she had such a feisty, strong-willed daughter. I said, “Isn’t it something, Cecilia, how the universe works? It didn’t send you a meek and mild child; it sent you a strong one — one who can say, ‘Here is what it sounds like to stand up for yourself, Mommy!’ so you could clean up these old feelings around having needs, knowing it’s okay to express them.”

As discussed, our children often catalyze tremendous healing within us, if we turn difficult experiences with them into opportunities to give old feelings room to breathe. Such was the case with Cecilia, whose willingness to heal painful wounds from her past left me inspired by her courage.

Susan Stiffelman, mft is the bestselling author of Parenting with Presence and Parenting without Power Struggles. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a credentialed teacher, and the Huffington Post’s weekly “Parent Coach” advice columnist. She lives in Malibu, California where she is an aspiring banjo player, a determined tap-dancer, and an optimistic gardener. Visit her online at

Excerpted from the book Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids ©2015 by Susan Stiffelman.   

Printed with permission of New World Library.