Nothing turns one's focus toward the future more than having a child. Most parents who look into the eyes of their new baby see whatever lies ahead as a clean slate.
Yet attachment research tells us that one predictor of how we will perform as parents is how much we’ve been able to make sense out of our own past. So, while the last place we may look when we become parents is our own childhood, we should do so 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 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 our “instinctive” reactions are not always representative of how we want to parent. And 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 individuals are flawed, possessing positive traits we aim to emulate and negative ones we’d like to find freedom 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 infiltrates our parenting style, distorts our behavior, and potentially hurts both ourselves and our children.
Here are 7 ways our childhood can affect how we parent:
When we become parents, we start to notice in ourselves negative traits that are similar to our parents. Our kid spills something, and we shout, "Now look what you’ve done!” It may be an expression we’ve never even used but one we often heard in our childhood household. We may have learned plenty of good things from our parents, but we hurt our children when we fail to recognize the ways we repeat the maladaptive treatment of our parents.
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 countless proven studies showing that 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 to be the generation that breaks the cycle.
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-intentioned 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 feel neglected.
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.
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 once hurt or are angry in the same ways we once were.
When we see our kids as extensions of ourselves, we 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 distinct 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 childhood selves.
For many, 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 constructed to get through tough times as kids can become psychological defenses affecting us throughout our lives. These early adaptations may have served us well when we were young, 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 you have intense or seemingly exaggerated reactions to your children, look back at what about your own experience could be informing 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. 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 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 hearing 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. 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.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.