Ghosts in our Closets

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

As we enter the time of year when the days get shorter and nights get longer one of the traditions that many of us share in the United States is Halloween. Ghosts, goblins, witches (and now zombies) are part of the ambience and excitement of the tradition. This is the night when goblins roam the streets, we go out to look for scary things and explore “haunted” places as part of the ritual. We dress up, look fearful things in the eye and make it fun. (Yes, candy is part of the routine too.)

The following day we figure out how to deal with children who’ve over indulged on sweet things and put the costumes, the pumpkins, witches and ghosts back in the closet. At least the ones we can see. Many of us however have closets that are pretty full with different kinds of ghosts. We are haunted – not just on Halloween by challenging experiences from our own childhood. There is now good research to show that these adverse childhood experiences have long-term impacts on our health.

These “ghosts” also have quite a bit of influence over our lives as parents. Perhaps we tend to be permissive because one of our parents was mean about how he or she set limits. Maybe specific behaviors from our children trigger some of us to over react. We might notice that we are particularly angry or frustrated or just plain have “had enough.” In those not so proud parenting moments we often sound like the parent we never wanted to be. How did we get there when we are trying so hard to be a better parent? It’s the ghosts in the closet: our own personal ghosts that have travelled with us since childhood and come out of hiding more often than we would like to admit.

Most of us would just like to push those ghosts further and further away, add better locks to the door or somehow banish them forever. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. They aren’t really “ghosts”. They are memories of painful or challenging situations that we were not able to make meaning of in a useful way as a child. Instead we aimed for survival by making decisions about how to do the best we could in the situation.

Befriending the ghosts.
Be compassionate with yourself. We all make parenting mistakes. Your job is to continue to do the best you can.

Notice what triggers you. Is it your children whining? Demanding? Refusing to do what you ask? Be a scientist. What happens in your body before you lose it? Then what happens? And then what? Just notice.

Share with a friend or other trusted adult.

Think about what you’d rather do instead of “losing it.” It is not going to happen overnight. It will take practice. Take small steps to begin to change your pattern.

Find a support person who can help you keep your promises to yourself.

There is a lot of candy everywhere on Halloween – but maybe what we are looking for is a different kind of sweetness: the kind that comes when we are tender and compassionate with ourselves, our past and others.

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Photo Credit Abbynormy