Have you ever felt that fluttering feeling in your stomach? The kind that rises up into your chest and makes your heart race and even though you couldn’t possibly have any idea why you’re feeling that way, all you know is that the decision you’re about to make feels either very right or extremely wrong? Those feelings and that reaction in your body are based on human intuition. And the impulse to act on your intuitions, are based on your instincts.
You see, if you look back in history, humans, like all other animals, have solely relied on intuition and instinct in order to survive. However, as we’ve evolved into a highly intelligent and sophisticated species, many of us have lost touch with those instincts. Instead, we’ve put our faith in technology, the ever-changing opinion of friends and family, what society deems to be “normal” at the time and other external, often fragile sources. In fact, our era could quite possibly be the most unstable existence humans have ever known because we’re so deeply out of touch with our intuition. And when we are out of sync with our own intuition and instincts, that’s when we find ourselves in big trouble as a society.
Whether we realize it or not, many of us have fallen into the habit of making decisions based on fear, avoidance, and what I like to call “status anxiety” — where we are clouded by superficial, material gains and how society says we should want to live our lives in order to be happy. But more importantly and what’s most concerning to me as a psychiatrist in youth and child mental health, is when those habits begin to seep into our parenting and family life, setting a negative cycle and precedence for future generations. So in celebration of Mother’s Day this year, I wanted to touch upon the subject of the beautiful, innate, and natural phenomena that is the intuition between mother and child, its importance, and how to gain that back if you’ve lost sight of it.
As a mother of three, I can understand why moms feel compelled to over-worry and over-react (in essence, react ineffectively) when we see our children lose motivation, stray off the path we believe they should be on, and distance themselves from us. A few years ago, I had a 14-year-old patient who was referred to me because he had locked his mother in their basement — with access to food, water and other necessities — while his father was away on a business trip. Not because he was angry at her or hated his mom, but because he was under so much pressure that in his words he simply “…just needed a break,” and it was that, or jumping off a cliff.
As parents, that’s a tough pill to swallow. We always have the best intentions and want to see our children succeed, be happy — even if sometimes what we believe leads to happiness is not always correct — and go on to do great things. In the case of this boy’s mother, she was no different.
When I interviewed her, I came to learn that since her son was six months old she was already prepping him for preschool, high school, college and his future even beyond that. She planned all of his activities, from extra tuition to piano lessons, his diet, and even tutored him herself when he had free time, while on the other hand spoiled him with video games, toys, and fast food treats in order to keep him “motivated.”
It was clear that not only was he receiving mixed signals, sorely lacking balance in his life between work and play, but he’d never been taught or allowed to enjoy things on his own terms. Everything was forced, bribed or scheduled for him, diminishing any sense of inner fulfillment, resulting in his slow decline into depression and lack of self-motivation.
But the truth was, he wasn’t the only one. On top of everything else, his mother was constantly volunteering, donating to schools out of the family savings and finding any opportunity to advance her son’s “path” — talk about overwhelming, stressful and exhausting! Still the most interesting point of all is when she finally expressed to me that she hadn’t been feeling quite right about how she was raising her son for some time yet felt completely stuck because it’s what “everyone else was doing” and what she felt she was expected to do in order for her son to be successful.
According to a study done by psychologist Antoine Bechara at the University of Southern California, when given the choice between a better, safe option versus an unsafe option (both of which appear to be ambivalent at the time), the subconscious human mind and body are found to intuitively know which option they should choose and which to avoid before the mind is even consciously aware of it, and long before the analytical left side of the brain can logically explain it.
However, whether people act on those intuitions is something completely different and based on many different factors, such as: outside influence, fear, and simply not being out-of-tune with one’s own mind and body. Going back to my patient’s case, deep down, his mother knew something felt wrong for a long time but due to societal expectations and pressures, failed to act on her intuition when it came to her son until the situation was taken to extreme measures. But it doesn’t always have to be that way.
Since your child was a tiny baby, you’ve known intuitively which cries meant it was bottle time and which cries meant it was time for a nappy change. You knew how to position your arm and when to quiet down your voice, without even consciously doing it. Those same intuitions are still within you and available to you, as long as you have the tools to unearth the reasons why they’ve been blocked off for so long. I can’t count the number of times a mom has said to me, “I just don’t know what to do! I’m so confused,” expecting to me to have answer they’re looking for.
But the truth is, at the end of the day, all I can do is guide people into finding their own solutions and motivations for their own families. Stress and intuition cannot co-exist together. Often I ask parents, “What does your intuition tell you?” to which the initial responses I receive from strung-out parents are usually the classic freeze, fight, and flight responses along the lines of sending their children away, having a harsh third-party intervene, scolding or punishing them, as well as several other responses you may typically see on a teenage TV drama, and so on.
These are all actions and instincts triggered by our stress response, fears, heightened emotions, and being disconnected with our inner voices. But once we are able to connect with our intuition, which can only be done through a place of calm awareness, that’s when we find clarity and the answers we’re looking for — and they don’t have to result in being locked up in a basement! A lot of the time the answers were right in front of us the whole time but were swept aside because of what we saw on TV, heard from a friend or read somewhere online (oh yes, I see the irony) that said otherwise and made us doubt ourselves.
I think the key thing to take away from this is that in order to get in touch with your intuition, we must first reduce the stress in our lives. That means a bit more sleep, some regular exercise, eating wholesomely, taking deep breaths, engaging in meaningful interactions, living in the moment, allowing ourselves and our children to have unstructured free time and ultimately, being able to look at the bigger picture in life. Practice really focusing on that big picture, from a completely unbiased perspective, unclouded by what your friends might think, what the other parents might think, how your mom raised you, what is being touted on TV as the “right” way of doing things, material and superficial gains, status anxiety, and trust your own judgement, gut feelings and instincts.
We know that childhood lays the foundation of all aspects of adult life and that an unhappy childhood increases the risk for numerous mental, emotional and physical health issues. So the next time you’re stressed out about your children, think about how much that particular issue truly matters to you in the grand scheme of things. Does it really matter and make a significant difference whether your child gets into a different school than that dream school you wanted them to attend? Is it really so bad if they spend some time with friends or go to sleepovers? Or if they don’t actually enjoy playing sports or the piano, and want to experiment with something you’re unfamiliar with? Learn how to calmly and objectively approach the issues in front of you and most importantly, learn when and what to let go.
Once you start listening to your true inner voice, the stress will fade away, your attitude, life and style of parenting will change for the better, and your children will follow your lead accordingly. You’ll also be happy to know that since learning to listen to her instinctual mother’s intuition and not society or her fears, how to guide and not control, my patient and his mother are now much happier, less stressed and have truly bonded a close relationship.