So much of the information out there about how to be a better parent focuses on techniques for modifying your child’s behavior. But it is missing the mark. Research has shown that the one thing a person can do to be a better parent is to focus on developing him or herself. This is where a person has to start in order to be a nurturing, attuned mother or father. When it comes to parenting, there are many reasons for us to look inward and understand ourselves as people if our goal is to become a better parent.
Children stir up buried and unresolved feelings from our own childhood.
Our children often reawaken painful feelings that we long ago blocked from our awareness. The innocence, liveliness, and spontaneity of a child can stir up the hurts in our own childhoods and threaten to reactivate them. Our avoidance of these old feelings can cause us to pull away from relating closely with our children. At times when there is an emotional connection, we may be uncomfortable and even feel anger or resentment toward our child. If we stay defended against the feelings that are being stirred up in us, we will be cut off from our children and misattuned to what they are feeling and experiencing.
In the preface to Compassionate Childrearing, R.D. Laing described this:
Those outstretched arms open up a well of loneliness [in the adult]. But in these feelings, mixed up in them at once physical smells new and stale of ghosts of awakened sensations in oneself, are evoked, by that dead me, that me that was me, I see in the baby. The baby is still appealing to me with the language of the heart, the language I have learned to forget, and to mistrust with all my 'heart.'
Instead of continuing to defend ourselves against feelings we suppressed in childhood, we can face them and make sense of any traumas that have been unresolved. Once we understand what happened in our own childhoods, we can be more effective parents and develop more secure attachments with our children. In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dan Siegel states, “The integration of our own self-knowledge facilitates our being open to the process of becoming emotionally connected with our children. Coherent self-knowledge and interpersonal joining go hand in hand.”
We project our critical feelings about ourselves on to our children.
The ambivalent attitudes we have toward our children are simply a reflection of the ambivalent attitudes we have toward ourselves. All people are divided in the sense that they have feelings of warm self-regard as well as feelings of self-hatred and self-depreciation. Therefore, it is not surprising that parents would extend these same contradictory attitudes toward their offspring. Parents' attitudes toward their children are a by-product of their fundamental conflicts and ambivalence toward themselves.
It is not uncommon for parents to disown their self-critical attitudes and negative self-image by projecting them onto their child. When they do this, they are then overly critical of these projected qualities and traits in the youngster. As a result, children begin to see themselves through a negative filter, which will stay with them throughout their lives.
But when we look into ourselves and understand where our self-critical attitudes and self-attacks come from, we will have more compassion for ourselves and our children. Dan Siegel says,
Children are particularly vulnerable to becoming the target of the projection of our nonconscious emotions and unresolved issues. Our defensive adaptations from earlier in life can restrict our ability to be receptive and empathic to our children’s internal experience. Without our own reflective self-understanding process engaged, such defensive parental patterns of response can produce distortions in a child’s experience of relating and reality.
We act in ways with our children that our parents did with us.
Every parent has the experience, most often when reprimanding a child, of suddenly hearing the same critical statement that your parent said to you coming out of your mouth. You are horrified; you can’t believe you are acting that way with your child. The reality is that, in spite of parents’ best intentions, they will most likely reenact how they were parented. Some parents experience this when their child passes through a stage of development that was particularly painful or traumatic in their childhood. During these phases, parents often treat the child as they were treated at that age or as if their child was experiencing what they experienced.
This transmission of parents' negative traits through the generations involves three phases:
(1) To varying degrees, all of us suffered rejection, deprivation, hostility, and trauma in our formative years. At those times that our parents were out of control, either emotionally or physically, we took on the punishing parent's feelings, thoughts, and attitudes toward us in the form of a critical inner voice. In other words, we assumed the identity of our parents as they were at their worst, not as they usually were in their everyday lives.
(2) We retained this destructive inner voice within us throughout our lives, restricting, limiting, and punishing ourselves as well as soothing ourselves as we were treated, essentially parenting ourselves as we were parented.
(3) When we become parents, we feel almost compelled to act out similar patterns of mistreatment on our children.
In order to stop this reenactment of the past, parents have to face the painful feelings they experienced as a result of the treatment they received. If they revisit the early traumas, they can identify the destructive attitudes that they internalized and begin to regain themselves. They will then be able to offer the warmth, affection, love, and sensitive guidance necessary for their children's well-being.
You are a role model.
In this month’s The Mind by Scientific American, Robert Epstein presents the results of a research study of 2,000 parents about what makes a good parent. In his list of the 10 most important parenting competencies, just 5 of them were about the parent/child relationship; the other 5 related only to the parent. And 3 of those mention “modeling:” Relationship skills (having a healthy relationship with your partner models relationship skills), Education and learning (having a good education models learning and educational opportunities) and Health (eating healthy and being active models a healthy lifestyle).
Psychologists have found that children really "do as parents do, not as they say." Being a positive role model for good behavior is far more powerful than specific training or disciplinary measures in raising children. These processes of identification and imitation overshadow any statements, rules, and prescriptions for good behavior. Children develop behaviors through observing their parents in day-to-day life. Every behavior that a parent engages in should be worthy of imitating because children will imitate it.
Bruno Bettelheim's observed, “While most parents are ready to teach their children discipline and know that they are the ones to do so, they are less ready to accept the idea that they can teach only by example.” Parents who are congenial, non-defensive, nonintrusive, consistent, and generous have a positive impact on their child's personality.
The fact that our children are looking to us to see how to be is enough of a reason for us to focus on our development as a person. Only if we have developed integrity in the way we live our own lives will we be able to provide our offspring with the necessary model for mature, adult functioning. Our honesty and maturity are far more important in determining the healthy development of our children than any techniques prescribed by child-rearing experts.
Live your own life
We can best help our children not by sacrificing ourselves for them, but by trying to fulfill our own lives. When we are involved in an honest pursuit of our goals, we serve as positive examples for our children. To teach our children how to live "the good life," we have to genuinely value ourselves, accept all of our feelings, wants, and priorities, and actively participate in our own lives. To the extent that we retain our capacity for feeling and a willingness to invest fully in our lives, we will have a profound positive effect on the personal development of our children and on their future. Bruno Bettelheim said, “We need not make any claim to be perfect. But if we strive as best we can to live good lives ourselves, our children, impressed by the merits of living good lives, will one day wish to do the same.”
Instead of living their own lives, many parents live through their children. Rather than offering to their children, they are taking from them. These parents are in fact acting out emotional hunger, an unsatisfied longing for love and care caused by deprivation in their own childhood. They confuse intense feelings of need and with feelings of genuine love. Sustained contact with an emotionally hungry parent leaves a child feeling drained and empty.
Rather than striving to fulfill the role of a "perfect" parent or even a "good" parent, mothers and fathers can offer their children much more by being real with them; by admitting their shortcomings and weaknesses, sharing with them the history of their own formative years, revealing their personal struggles as well as their successes, and in general relating to them as honestly as possible. Ultimately, parents' humanity and compassion for themselves are the most significant attributes for compassionate child-rearing.
Let your children love you
Parents who have grown up with an image of themselves as unlovable are often resistant to having close, tender moments with their children or to having their child look at them with love. When parents cannot bear to feel their children loving them, they respond negatively to them. Books on child-rearing fail to give this phenomenon the importance it deserves. In Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice I wrote:
Our children need to be able to feel their loving feelings for us, for the people we really are behind our roles as parents. If we deny this opportunity to our children, they will suffer emotionally. We need to learn to be receptive to our children's spontaneous expressions of affection and love toward us. This seems obvious, yet it may be the most difficult task faced by us as parents.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone at the free November 16 webinar "How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children"
To read more about parenting from Dr. Lisa Firestone, visit PsychAlive.org - Alive to Parenting