The Joys and Agony of Parenting

Containing Enough

by Kenneth L. Stewart, Ph.D.  

The Container Metaphor

Going from one family to the next on my appointed rounds,

I try to step back and think about what would help these

families live differently. What will help this young person

feel safe, and regain enthusiasm for learning? Or what will

help him or her not be so vulnerable to the rage of emotions

that swirls them around in the family soup - spilling out into

the courts, social service agencies, doctors offices, and

detention centers? What will give parents greater effectiveness

in passing on their good intentions instead of their not-so-good temptations?

Some clinicians and theorists use a container metaphor to frame this process. The bond between a mother or father and a child can be thought of as a container for the anxieties, rages, and turmoil of growing up. If parents care and love each other, if they have positive images of themselves, if they show and create respect and if they work together as a team, then the family can fairly successfully contain the anxiety, uncertainty, and turmoil of young people and adolescents as they grow up. The bond within each of the parents to positive images of themselves as well as the bonds between the parents help to create the strong bonds necessary between parent and child that weave together to contain the challenges and anxieties faced every day of the week in each stage of development.

If all goes right, then the child develops strong inner bonds within her or himself, so that at some time in the future this person can bond with someone else to create a strong and safe enough container for the next generation. So the challenge of parenting and the challenge of growing up, according to this metaphor, is to have strong enough internal bonds and external bonds to contain the fears, anxieties, and challenges encountered in the world ú so that kids feel safe enough to venture out and not be too afraid or too uncertain ú but strong enough and confident enough to make it as good students, good citizens of the republic, and good marriage material.

Of course there are many contingencies that can muck up this process. Pain spills out in a family when people are cruel or abusive, indifferent or impassive, family bonds can create a dangerous or a very leaky container. When that happens, we go on some desperate search for a quick fix to a dangerous or leaky container. We feel very unsafe, and the price we pay for a sense of safety can be so high that we nearly self-destruct in the process. Sometimes the quest for a safe container for our rage or anxiety is successful soon enough. Sometimes it isn't.

Begging for Containment

I work with a lot of adolescents who ú by the observations of outsiders ú seem to be out of control. Their anger or rage or anxiety or sadness seems to have gotten control of them. Too often, neither they nor their family seems to be big enough or strong enough to contain these feelings. I've seen kids almost beg for constraints, for clearer rules, for more predictability. I've heard about kids who hold knives to their parents, asking them to call the police so that someone can finally contain their anxiety and rage. This of course only comes after years of living in a container that has never been predictable enough, stable enough, secure enough to quell the anxiety, panic, and rage that young persons feel in the course of growing up.

When there are two or three generations of faulty containers for the stresses of growing up, its no wonder that individuals and families fall apart. Holding it together is just too hard ú and finally something snaps. Mothers try to talk kids out of their holding onto to knives, and end up getting cut up in the process. Fathers provide harsh and abusive containers for kids and end up getting dismissed or blown away, depending on the weapon at hand ú abandonment or bullets. The double message that I hear from kids is: "Give me some rules," and "I don't want your rules." This confuses parents. So sometimes they come down hard with harsh rules and other times they just throw up their hands in futility and let chaos reign.

Some containers seem to get past the point of repair ú so that no matter how consistent parents try to become, its too little, too late, and is rejected outright. Now the kids have learned they can't rely on them anymore, and they'll turn to their peers for comfort - for stability, for predictability. Or they'll turn to something else to take away the pain.

Finally, outsiders are asked to serve as containers -or to try and patch up the leaky or confining container that is the family. And sometimes when these people sent in to patch up container fail, then the justice system is brought into the picture to contain physically what could not be contained emotionally and psychologically. It isn't just anger that needs containment, its anxiety, uncertainty, pain, grief, and sadness that needs to be held onto as well. And when anxiety, pain, and anger are kicking the heck out of us, its mighty hard to keep the faith and hold on. Still, it's what we need to do.