Have you heard yourself say things to your kids and then realise that it’s the same thing that your parent said to you? It can be a jolt, particularly if you thought to yourself that you did not want to become like your mum or dad. How parents influence your life is a tricky subject which you may not wish to think about or care to admit to others, and to yourself.
We observed and interacted with our parents and learned their mannerisms, their behaviours, how they related to others, the unconscious stuff.
Our kids now observe us – they hear what we say, see what we do. It can be a wake-up call to be an improved role-model to our children.
Memories of Childhood
Parents often ‘return’ to childhood memories when they have their own child. It may be jumping in puddles or conquering a large puzzle game because this is what they did as a child. I loved taking my kids to the beach, bucket and spade in hand, to dig to “the centre of the earth”, I told them. As a child, I spent a lot of summers at the beach digging to reach the earth’s core. I never did get there but it was a fun game with my parents.
At other times our experiences with our kids are opposite to what we grew up knowing. When my daughter was young, we sat in a chair, peering through the glassy door and watched rain falling. I would hold her tight, our cheeks warm against each other, as I pointed to the drops tumbling down. My parents did not do this, certainly I have no memory of this, so I wanted to create special time with my young daughter.
There are some childhood events, though, that contain unhappy memories. Your parents yelled at you or your siblings, they argued with each other, you were smacked for spilling drink, sent to your room for not finishing your dinner, maybe told that you were stupid. Whatever you received from your parents, their behaviours were absorbed into your psyche.
So when your kids don’t finish their dinner, or spill their drink, or have not yet learned a skill such as kicking a ball, or you’ve had a tiring day and the last thing you want to hear are your kids arguing, a switch turns to ‘On’. An automatic response where you yell or smack, or stamp your feet or other behaviours. These are just some examples, I’m sure you could come up with your own. These automatic responses go right back to your early experiences.
High Road and Low Road of Parenting
Though your experience of childhood can influence how you raise your child, it’s not the full story. Parents make choices each day, each hour, about how they will respond to their child. It’s referred to as the ‘high road’ and the ‘low road’ of parenting. The ‘high road’ are those days when a parent possesses an abundance of patience, understanding and a sense of humour. Many of us parents wish for those kind of days!
The ‘low road’ are the days when a parent is tired or is juggling too many things at once or there has been a significant change in the family, such as moving house or a bereavement, which affects a parent’s ability to be present for their child. Some days, life impacts our capacity to function at our best.
In his book “Parenting From The Inside Out”, psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegal, writes that when parents become stressed, their mind shuts off which impairs the ability to think clearly.
“When you are feeling stressed or find yourself in situations that trigger past unresolved issues, your mind may shut off and become inflexible. This inflexibility can be an indication that you are entering a different state of mind that directly impairs your ability to think clearly.
We call this a low mode of processing… or ‘the low road’ where you can become flooded by feelings such as fear, sadness or rage. These intense emotions can lead you to have knee-jerk reactions instead of thoughtful responses….The low road experience has four elements: a trigger, transition, immersion and recovery.
Triggers initiate the activation of our leftover issues. Transition is the feeling of being on the edge, just before we enter the low road; it can be rapid or gradual. Immersion in the low road can be filled with intense emotions including the frustration and out-of-control feeling of being stuck in the low road itself…
Our childhood experiences may have involved trauma and loss in some form. Resolution of trauma and loss requires an understanding of the low road and its connection to patterns of experiences from the past.”
Understanding the Past
Your past influences how you perceive the world to be, how you think about yourself, and how you see yourself in connection to your family.
Awareness is key to understanding what your triggers are, where the origin of these automatic responses come from, so that you decide not to repeat the same response toward your own child.
This is not about blaming your parents. They are people too and they have their own childhood experiences and for some, those events remain unresolved. It’s also not about blaming yourself for not living up to others’ expectations. That problem lies with others, not with you.
Reflecting back on your childhood experience, assists awareness of experiences but do this with a friend or a counsellor.
- the positive experiences you had with your parents and how you would like to repeat these customs with your own child.
- the negative experiences with your parents, how it impacted your life and you don’t want to repeat these with your child.
- the values you absorbed as a child – attractiveness, intelligence, physical ability such as sport, integrity, empathy.
- that your parents did the best they could with the resources they had – financial, being insightful.
- how you relate to your child now in contrast to when you were growing up.
- journalling, helpful for self-reflection and useful for these specific considerations.
- talking to a trusted adult or a counsellor who can help you towards healing.
It’s not what happened to you that determines how you raise your children but how you come to make sense of your early experiences. Compassionate understanding of yourself assists you to travel ‘the high road’ of parenting.
Researcher and author, Dr Kristen Neff, defined self-compassion like this:
“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
The bottom line is for you to have compassion for yourself, as this is the key ingredient that you missed out on as a child.
Janice Williams is a professional Counsellor and specialises in mother-daughter relationship counselling.
Janice offers in-person counselling, as well as online and phone counselling across Australia. Online counselling is available worldwide.