It’s an interesting question. Can we ever really free ourselves from a troubled or difficult childhood? And if so, how do we overcome the pain? How do we do better for our own children?
The subject of breaking free from the negative lessons, lingering insecurities or painful memories of childhood is familiar to many of us. To some, this means dealing with the effects of physical or emotional abuse. To others, breaking with the past is about seeking out positive role models where there have been few or none in the immediate family.
I raise the issue as a result of this comment on avoiding parental patterns in which a reader named Raina asks:
Do you think it is possible to free yourself from the environment you were raised in though? I don’t want my family to be anything like the one I was raised in, but I’m worried because it’s all I know. I can see the good sides of other families, but I have no idea how they function truly in times of struggle and pain and anger, so the only way I know how to deal with those kinds of negativity in family settings with children is how my family dealt with it. But I don’t want that because it left me and my brother with major self esteem and social issues that have, and are still taking me, years to recover from.
Raina goes on to ask specifically about disciplining children, but of course the general question is broader and multifaceted, involving coping and healing mechanisms, not to mention how to acquire life skills that haven’t been modeled in the home.
Bad Examples Can Still Yield Good Behaviors
I understand Raina’s concern. Perhaps you do, too.
For all of my mother’s larger than life (and unpredictable) presence, my father was largely absent. And when he was home, there was little active participation in family life on his part. That left me without a sense of how men and women relate to each other in any meaningful way.
When I was younger, I was romantically inclined enough to assume that despite a good marital model in my parents, I would eventually fall in love with a nice man, and we would figure things out. But I was convinced that I shouldn’t have children. After all, I couldn’t be a decent mother given my less than pretty relationship with my primary parent. It wasn’t until my thirties that I began to realize that just because my mother struggled in certain ways, I wouldn’t necessarily follow suit.
And I didn’t.
Even if you think you had “bad” parents, that doesn’t mean you will become a “bad” parent, too.
Even if your parents fought endlessly and unfairly, you won’t necessarily fight with your spouse or significant other to the same degree or in the same way.
Even if you saw little affection or effective communication between the adults who raised you, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to communicate caring, concern and other feelings well, both verbally and non-verbally.
Even if your parents were selfish, self-destructive, quick to anger, distant or an example of some other emotional or behavioral problems that you don’t want in your life, the very fact of your awareness is, in my experience, an enormous edge.
Haven’t we all known wonderful people who grew up under adverse circumstances — with one more abusive parents, with emotionally distant parents, or in a household where substance abuse made life rocky for everyone? Don’t we see friends and loved ones explicitly choose and create a very different path?
How Can We Do Better Than Our Parents?
While my nuclear family didn’t live near my grandparents, we visited them several times a year. I had a strong bond with my maternal grandmother in particular, who remains an important figure in my emotional life though she has been gone for more than 25 years. And, even as a child, there were other parents I observed as examples of how mothers and couples behaved in ways that I found stable, loving, and reasonable.
When it comes to parenting, let’s also remember that we don’t exist in a familial vacuum. The people we choose as our partners will bring their influences and experience, and likewise, our peer groups and others with whom we interact.
Recognition of this broader set of influences, and perhaps looking back on my own 20 years or so of parenting, teaches me that becoming who we want to be, certainly as mothers and fathers, is possible.
I also remind myself that there is no “perfect” in any of this, and those families that look perfect from the outside gazing in certainly have their issues, too!
Problematic in a different way — when you have no positive example (or so you think) of how to behave — from exhibiting compassion to speaking honestly about your concerns to effectively standing up for yourself against disagreement. In my own life, I’ve found these challenges to arise more often in the context of relationships, in my own deficient set of expectations when it comes to supportive relationships, and less so, ironically, in the context of parenting.
In that last, who our children are, by nature is also a factor in how we parent. I believe we take many cues from our kids.
Sources to Learn From
I’ve said it before; I’m not a psychologist. What I’ve learned through life experience, reading, and self-examination works for me. It may not be relevant to you. That said, I’ve always found that if I can understand why something occurs — see the motivation, understand the cause — I’m far more able to attain the perspective I need to develop the tools to aid healing, coping, and necessary change.
Exploring the ways childhood affects parenting, Psych Alive cites attachment research that
… 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 maybe my inclination to seek understanding of my childhood is advisable, in general.
The Psych Alive article goes on to explain:
… 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… We can come to recognize that are our “instinctive” reactions are not always representative of how we want to parent…
As I interpret these words, awareness allows us to better understand when situations trigger responses we may have learned in childhood or adolescence, but we can learn to respond differently to those triggers. Very differently — from silences to hurtful language to yelling to being unable to deal with conflict at all.
The article that Raina commented on addresses more than our parenting skills that we fear will resemble those of our mothers and fathers, in less than desirable ways. Also addressed are unhealthy relationship habits, unhealthy habits in general, and of course the influence of other aspects of family dynamics in all their variations — sibling issues, single parent issues, money issues, and household values to name just a few.
Picture Perfect Holidays in Mind?
This is a time of year when we may imagine ourselves in picture perfect circumstances, or feel as if we are less than worthy if we find our circumstances don’t measure up.
We have idealized versions of home and hearth, romantic partners or spouses, children and extended family gathering to share meals, to exchange gifts, to talk and laugh together. Couldn’t we be less hard on ourselves if this isn’t what our lives look like? If we’re struggling with a key relationship, struggling with responsibilities to extended family, struggling to understand a child or what he or she is going through? If we’re facing health or financial challenges, and unable to create the pretty-as-a-picture domestic scene for ourselves or anyone else?
How many of us put undue pressure on ourselves to create holiday scenes that resemble those we’ve viewed in movies or the glossy pages of a magazine or in our favorite feeds on Instagram or Facebook? Do we realize that these surface representations feature little of the real dynamics that take place in these imagined households? What if we gave ourselves a break, and lightened the comparisons?
If we’re fortunate, as we grow up, we watch our parents communicate clearly and kindly, support us and each other during tough times, wholeheartedly celebrate each other’s victories and ours… or, we live the flip side or some more ambiguous version in which emotional and other skills are exercised inconsistently or in damaging ways.
More than likely, we’ve seen one or more of the adults who raised us go through good days and bad days, just as we do. Among other issues that is different, depending on your age, is the extent to which parenting was a media topic of (over?) examination.
The Nature of Change
Raina’s comment is focused on doing things differently from what we’ve learned, but let’s not forget that we tend to get stuck on what went wrong, and while that may be significant, in seeing behaviors that we do not wish to repeat, we can intentionally learn to behave otherwise. That process is helped along by a willingness to do right by our kids and our partners, our desire to change ourselves if we see it as necessary, and in my opinion, a great therapist or counselor can work wonders.
My bottom line?
Awareness is key, and that awareness leads us to the “narrative” or understanding that is mentioned by Psych Alive. That understanding helps us to recognize in our partners, our friends and even our children that there are positive, more effective ways to handle conflict, discipline, disappointment and other challenges that naturally present. Then, we can take steps to transform unhealthy relationship patterns into words, actions and perspectives we can be proud of.
Is this easy? Does it happen overnight?
In my experience, the answer to both of those questions is no. Nor do we achieve some absolute state of self that is entirely rid of negative influences that figured heavily in childhood. There are certain demons I continue to fight — all these years later — and I know they were nurtured around my mother’s kitchen table. But those demons visit less often; I am so much stronger and smarter than they are. I know what it is to live a healthier emotional and physical life. I have learned that we can believe in our best self, becoming a better self, “practice” those better behaviors, and that positive practice will eventually become habit.
And none of us do this in a vacuum.
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