Smart Parenting

By Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC


We often have to “wing it” as parents, especially with our first child. Like many parents, there are several bits of wisdom I wish I had possessed early on. One concept I have learned as a therapist would have been especially useful: the concept of containment.

Containment means (in terms of parenting) the ability to literally “contain” your own emotions so that they don’t spill over, inappropriately, onto your child. Say you have a longstanding fear of heights and your eight-year-old climbs to the top of a tree behind your house. Your child has no such fear of heights, and is quite an agile climber. Yet, you become so panicked because of your own fear that you project that fear onto your child. You scream and scold, until the child—whose confidence is now shot—scrambles down, almost falling along the way because you’ve made him so nervous. Containment comes into even deeper play with teenagers and young adults, who require much more nuanced parenting. If, as a teenager, a parent had a close friend who was badly injured in a car crash, the parent could likely struggle with containment when her own child gets his driver’s license. A more insidious example would be a father who has been laid off, or whose career has otherwise failed: Dad projects that sense of failure onto his young adult son by criticizing his son’s career direction. Instead of honoring his son with his confidence, Dad’s anxiety and disappointment about his own situation spills over onto his son, who is struggling to find his way in the professional world. Instead of having the confidence to follow his instincts, the son now questions his own, authentic path.

It is clear to me that if a parent corrupts the child with her own anxiety—if Mom “takes over” the worry about her teen’s homework—she is robbing the child of the opportunity to feel his own anxiety and sense of responsibility, and act accordingly.

Containment can also apply to supporting your child in containing anxiety or fear about something troubling in his life. Hazel Douglas writes about this kind of containment in her book, Containment and Reciprocity: Integrating Psychoanalytic Theory and Child Development Research for Work with Children. According to Douglas, “Containment is thought to occur when one person receives and understands the emotional communication of another without being overwhelmed by it, processes it and then communicates understanding and recognition back to the other person. This process can restore the capacity to think in the other person.”

In this case, the parent can help her child contain certain overwhelming emotions by attuning to and empathizing with these feelings and processing them with the child. This kind of supportive containment is akin to what therapists try to do with their clients. Ideally, therapists create a safe, confidential haven for clients and “join with” them as they work through difficult issues and emotions.

Parents also need to contain their anxiety from spilling over onto each other. Children are perceptive, and modeling mature containment in the marriage—with both parents working to support one another—can help children learn to deal with their own emotions in a healthy manner.

For parents, keeping firm boundaries around their own emotions is important in freeing children to build a strong sense of self—and the ability to form their own “containers.”