Most parents who look into the eyes of their brand new baby see whatever lies ahead as a clean slate. Nothing turns our focus more toward the future than having a child. Yet, attachment research tells us that the biggest predictor of how we will be as parents is how much we’ve been able to make sense out of our own past. So, while the last place we may be looking when we become parents is at our own childhood, that’s exactly what we should be doing if we want to be better present-day parents to our children.
Even though what happened to us in childhood shows up in our parenting, this doesn’t mean we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents. In fact, no matter what distress or even trauma we endured in early life, what matters most is how much we’ve been able to feel the full pain of our childhood and create a coherent narrative of our experience. By processing what happened to us, we are better able to relate to our own kids and provide the nurturance they need. We can come to recognize that are our “instinctive” reactions are not always representative of how we want to parent. We can start to understand why our kids trigger us the way they do.
This process isn’t about blaming our parents. Our parents were people, and all people are flawed, with positive traits we aim to emulate and negative traits we’d like to emancipate from. Yet, recognizing the ways our parents or other influential caretakers affected us is part of growing up and becoming our own person. With this in mind, we can start to notice the ways our history is infiltrating our parenting, distorting our behavior and hurting both ourselves and our children. A good way to catch on to this is look at seven ways our childhood can affect how we parent:
1. Imitating – It’s no great mystery that, particularly when we become parents ourselves, we start to notice negative traits we have that are similar to our parents. Our kid spills somethings, and we shout “Now look what you’ve done!” It’s an expression we’ve never even used but often heard in our old household. We may have plenty of good things we got from our parents, but what hurts our children is when we fail to recognize the maladaptive ways our parents treated us that we are now repeating. An extreme example of this is physical punishment. Many parents justify hitting their child simply because that’s the way their parents disciplined them, dismissing that there are countless proven studies that say corporal punishment only has detrimental effects. We shouldn’t justify harmful actions, big or small, because we learned them from our parents. Instead, we should aim be the generation that breaks the chain.
2. Overreacting – On the flip side of imitating our parents’ behavior, we may react to a destructive early environment by trying to compensate for or rebel against our parents’ way of treating us. We may be well-intended when we try to do it differently, but we often inadvertently go overboard. For example, if our parents were overbearing, we may react by being too hands-off with our kids. While we felt intruded on growing up, our children may not feel cared about. When we swing too far the other way, we are still distorting our behavior based on our history. Rather than deciding on the qualities that matter to us, we are still reacting to things that happened to us.
3. Projecting – Much of the reason we overcompensate for our parents’ mistakes is that we project ourselves or how we felt as kids onto our children. We may see them as our parents saw us, as “wild” or “incapable.” We may typecast them as the “bad kid” or the “baby.” We may feel sorry for them, projecting that they hurt in the same ways we hurt or are angry in the same ways we were angry. We may see our kids as an extension of ourselves, and then put pressure on them to either be like us or excel in ways we weren’t able to. We may expect them to carry on our own dreams or pursue our interests rather than finding their own. When we project ourselves onto our kids, we fail to see them as the separate individuals they truly are. We may miss the mark – meeting the “needs” we think they have rather than providing an attuned response to them – and behaving as if we are parenting our child selves.
4. Recreating – For many of us, it can be hard to trace the ways we recreate our early emotional environment in our adult lives. However, even if our early circumstances were unfavorable, we developed certain psychological defenses that may cause us to seek out these same circumstances when we start our own family. For example, we may subconsciously choose a partner who replicates a dynamic from our past. We may find ourselves seeking rejection, the same way we felt rejected as kids. These situations may not be pleasant, but they have a familiarity that we may be unconsciously drawn to. As kids, disagreeing with or fearing a parent can feel life-threatening. As a result, we may internalize our parent’s point of view or create a familiar family environment for ourselves in adulthood. This replication ultimately exposes our children to the negative atmosphere of our own childhood.
5. Being defended – The adaptations we make to get through tough times we experienced as kids can become psychological defenses that affect us throughout our lives. These early adaptations may have served us well when we were little, but they can hurt us as adults, particularly as parents. For example, if we had a parent who was rejecting or frightening, we may have kept to ourselves as kids, feeling self-sufficient and not really wanting much from anyone. This may have helped us get our needs met in our early years when we were dependent on our parents for survival, but as an adult, this attitude can limit our relationships. We may have trouble opening up and being nurturing toward our own children. We may have trouble accepting love from them. Part of growing up, means knowing our defenses and finding ways to live free of these early overlays on our personality, discovering who we really are and what we really want. How do we want to be with our own children? What example do we want to create for them?
6. Getting triggered – No matter how good our intentions, we are bound to feel triggered by our kids at moments of frustration. We are often stirred up or provoked by current day situations that remind us of pain from our past, even if we are not conscious of what is creating the distressing feelings. Often in these moments we feel transported back into the old, painful situation. We may act out in ways that are either parental or childish, but we aren’t really being ourselves. For instance, when a child doesn’t behave, we may “lose it” the same way our parent was enraged toward us, or we may feel terrified the way we felt as kids when we were punished by our parents. When we have intense or seemingly exaggerated reactions to our children, it’s important to look back at what about our own experience could inform the current situation.
7. Listening to a critical inner voice – Our insecurities and self-attacks tend to be cranked up when we become parents, because having our own kids reminds us of when and where we developed these self-perceptions in the first place. Our “critical inner voice” starts to take shape very early in our development when we internalize negative attitudes our parents had toward us and themselves. Perhaps as children, we felt unwanted or powerless. Then, as an adult, we continue to see ourselves as undesirable and weak. When trying to be strong with our own kids, we may feel bombarded with critical inner voice attacks that make it difficult to think clearly or act rationally, thoughts like, “You can’t control him” or “She hates you. You’re such a terrible mother!” Or if we had a father who felt ill-equipped to deal with us when we were born, we may find ourselves having voices like “How are you going to take care of this baby? You don’t know how to be a father.” These critical inner voices are the dialogue of a sadistic coach we all have internalized to some degree. The more we can challenge this inner enemy, the freer we will be to decide how we really want to act, and the less likely we will be to pass this line of thinking on to our children.
Knowing ourselves and making sense of our experiences helps us to differentiate, to shed destructive layers from our past that limit us in our lives and become who we really seek to be. This process is essential for parents, and it’s one I will be teaching both a free Webinar this August and an online course on this fall titled “Compassionate Parenting: A Holistic Approach to Raising Emotionally Healthy Children.” For all parents, looking for answers on how to be the best parent they can be, the key is often to venture into yourself and to do so with strength, curiosity and compassion.