Parenting From the Inside Out

In this installment of the Guest Room, filmmaker Matthew Williams goes on a search for parenting advice and is reminded that he already has many, if not all, of the answers he needed.

I can honestly boast that, once upon a time, my daughter was the happiest baby on the block, but now she's two and things have changed. We've moved way past Harvey Karp's 5 "S's" and into a much more complex form of communication. Her tantrums, willfulness, and power to say NO! have caused the degree of difficulty meter to peak. Sometimes a first-time parent can feel way out of his league, but where to look for help?

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I approached my daughter's day care teacher for suggestions and she pointed me towards a seminar called Parenting from the Inside Out. Led by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, a clinical professor from UCLA, the seminar was billed as way to explore the internal world of parenting through an examination of emotional childhood memories, storytelling, and brain function. Siegel claims that undergoing a "self-understanding process" leads to the development of what he calls a "secure attachment" with your child, helping them to thrive and you to retain your sanity.

On the way over I imagined I'd be walking into a quaint, supportive hand-holding session, maybe held in a pastel pre-school classroom. Instead, I was one of about 200 people packed inside a church in Santa Monica. It was a bit unnerving at first. The revival atmosphere had me thinking that I was such a bad parent that I needed a religious intervention. I literally started having an anxiety attack as I sat there, which flashed me back to a period in my mid-20s when I would have such attacks all the time.

The root cause of my youthful neurosis was no mystery: I was having a very difficult time with a new job as a junior high school teacher in the South Bronx. At the time a therapist tried to help me develop tools to become a better communicator - to listen to my students while separating my own personal baggage from the meaning or intent of their words - but I didn't get very far before another set of life changes had me leaving teaching altogether.

Back in Santa Monica, my anxiety lifted enough for me to realize Dr. Siegel was painting the same picture of language, memory and emotion as my old therapist had, only now applied to parenting. The way individuals react to any given exchange stems from their own experiences, and, for parents trying to raise their children, everyday stresses can trigger deep and dark memories of their childhoods and difficult events between them and their family members.

Dr. Siegel came up with a great example: imagine you are getting your child ready for bed. You go with her to the bathroom to help her brush her teeth, but she insists the other parent help instead. That moment of seeming favoritism can easily trigger a memory response rooted in a moment when your own parents seemed to choose someone else over you, thereby causing you to act irrationally towards your child.

Sitting in the seminar, I kept hoping that there wasn't some traumatizing memory lurking in the recesses of my unconscious mind, something to turn me into Joan Crawford from Mommy Dearest.

I can't imagine anything so drastic rising to the surface, but it was great to be reminded that my own childhood traumas could be potentially driving my present-day responses to my daughter. Knowing is just half the battle, but I had to thank Dr. Siegel for helping me make the connection... Not to mention reminding me of that most excellent therapist in NY!

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