Sometimes parents have transferential relationships with their kids. This occurs when something about the past is triggered in the way they relate to their own children. My mother had a transferential relationship with myself and my brother. She identified with my brother and his struggles, but saw me through the lens of her sister. They were rivals, so the dynamics of our relationship played out as though we were, as well.
Sometimes, transference can act as a predictive device.
My son has ADHD. The most prominent characteristics of this, during his toddlerhood, were hyperactivity and tantrums. Having a sensitive soul, he feels deeply, but also, he can sometimes overact emotionally (or explosively) to his experience. For years, I worried that this meant he was going to grow up into an angry, hostile adult–like my brother. In this case, I transferred my experience of a volatile sibling onto what I anticipated would occur with my son.
My mission became single-minded: how do I prevent my son from becoming like my brother?
Unfortunately, sometimes this intervening transference functions like the Oracle at Delphi.
In Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex, the king and queen (Laius and Jocasta) receive a prophecy. Their baby boy will grow to murder his father and bed his mother. Not desiring to see this tragic fate unfold, the couple abandon their son, who then grows up to murder his father and bed his mother–albeit unknowingly.
In effort to avoid their unfortunate fate, the couple intervene in a manner that ultimately seals it.
Transference works in much the same way.
In the case of my childhood, my mother saw her own feelings of inferiority in my brother. In effort to intervene, she created a landscape in our family that validated my brother’s feelings of worthlessness and elevated me as subject of envy. By acting thus, she essentially ensured the reenactment of her childhood trauma in our sibling relationship.
As a parent, I’ve projected my brother’s volatility onto my son. A little over a year ago, I took him to a therapist. In effort to explain why, I told him it was because he has big feelings and a big temper and I want to help him to manage those feelings better. My little boy–then only six years old–internalized that message. He’s carried inordinate shame because I feared what he’d become.
I fucked up, royally, in this regard, and I discovered this within the past week. Thankfully, he is still quite young, and I hope there is time, yet, to rectify my mistake.
Brendan was diagnosed with ADHD this past fall, and because of the diagnosis, I’ve learned a lot about the neurological condition and its effects. This has helped me to break the transference in many ways. I see my son as a separate individual–no longer fated to be like my brother. The similarities that frightened me are simply natural symptoms of the neurological condition they (and I) share.
My son feels deeply. His expression of feeling is theatrical and grand. However, at this young age (8), he has already learned how to channel his emotions and employ strategies to self-regulate. He articulates himself eloquently, and he demonstrates self control and empathy. He is an amazing human, and I am proud to be his mother.
The other night he mentioned concern about his temper. In that moment my heart broke for him. I told him, “You know, B, your temper really isn’t that bad. It is really just an effect of ADHD.” We talked about the double sided coin of sensitivity. On one hand, we feel deeply and sometimes show our feelings in big ways, but on the other hand, we love deeply, and show compassion and empathy for others because we can relate. Then, I told him how proud I am because of how well he is employing self-restraint and regulation.
I regret projecting my fears onto my boy. It was wrong, and I am going to do everything I can to mitigate the damage my past words have inflicted onto his sense of worth.
He is not my brother.
But if I’d continued to project my brother’s volatility upon him, would he have grown bitter, resentful and burdened because of it? Would his temper have blossomed in response to my transference?
I commit to break the cycle of trauma. I commit to love my boy for who he is–now and always. I commit to put the past behind me and walk boldly into the future, with mercy and compassion on my side, to develop healthy, nurturing relationships with my children, alongside my husband.
Transference will not seal our fate.