This exercise will help you:
1) Reflect upon what happens inside of you during the hard moments of parenting.
2) Identify the area(s) that you may wish to focus on so that you can relate to your child(ren) from a place of choice as opposed to reactivity or unconscious reenactment – in other words, from a more grounded, authentic, and wise place inside of you.
No child experiences a perfectly attuned, balanced, and respectful home and community environment. All adults carry a legacy from these mostly unintentional (occasionally intentional) childhood wounds.
This assessment will give you some insights into parts of you that might still be reacting to this legacy from your past or might be re-enacting (re-experiencing) things from your past. Most of us experience this to some degree. It's also not uncommon to feel fairly resolved about your upbringing to only have it re-triggered once you become a parent.
Reflect on the following yes/no questions and answer them based on what is true for you most of the time, but especially when you are sleep-deprived, generally under stress, and otherwise not in your tip-top parenting (or even human) state.
Some of the answers might be: ‘maybe’ or ‘sometimes’. That’s great! It’s great to notice that sometimes it might be true for you and sometimes not. Can you get curious about what factors or situations lead you more often towards a ‘yes’ and which lead you more often towards a ‘no’?
Disclaimer: While I recognize that we are not all raised by our biological parents, I use the word 'parent' here to describe whomever you were raised by.
1. When under stress, do you find yourself behaving or speaking in a way that closely resembles one of your parents (even if you recognize that it was hurtful to you when you were a child)?
YES / NO
2. Do you engage with your child from the exact opposite (often also extreme) stance than how your parent often engaged with you (i.e. if a parent yelled all the time, do you mostly speak very softly? If your parent was overbearing, are you very hands off?)
YES / NO
3. Do you over-relate to your child’s experience, assuming feelings or characteristics in your child based on how you remember being or feeling when you were a child?
YES / NO
4. Have you unwittingly recreated an aspect of your past such as entering into a relationship that is similar to your parents’ relationship or with a partner that has similar qualities to one of your parents?
YES / NO
5. Do you notice a way that you typically react within relationships when things feel tough? Do you tend to get angry and fight, or distance yourself in some way, or get anxious and freeze, or become needy/clingy?
YES / NO
6. When triggered or under stress do you feel emotionally flooded or revert to behaviors or defense mechanisms that otherwise don’t seem like you (ie acting out, distancing or self-isolating, eating/drinking, controlling, perfectionism, etc.)?
YES / NO
7. Do you have a critical inner voice that has negative things to say about you and/or how you are doing as a parent?
YES / NO
Many (MANY!) of us can relate to at least one of these. This does not mean that we are broken or terrible parents. It just means that we have some blindspots that our relationship with our child(ren) could benefit from attending to.
For each Yes answer above (or a strong 'sometimes'), reference the corresponding information below:
It would be impossible for our parents' behavior, words, and parenting style to not imprint on us. Even though a mother might pride herself on speaking respectfully to her child, when stressed and in a rush, she might find herself impatient, yelling, and even pulling or pushing her child’s body along the same way her mother did to her when she was stressed. 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 our own parents' maladaptive reactions to stress. Other examples of this are spanking even though you may have even sworn to yourself you’d never do that to your own child. Or finding yourself absorbed in your phone or a TV show, ignoring your child trying to get your attention.
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes we adapt to our upbringing by overcompensating in the exact opposite manner of our parents. We may be well-intentioned when we try to do it differently, but we often inadvertently go overboard. If we experienced our parents as too overbearing, we may in fact overcompensate by being not just hands off, but too hands off. While our experience was one of being intruded upon, our own child might experience being too hands off as neglectful or not caring. When we swing too far in either direction, we are still distorting our behavior based on our history as opposed to what our child needs from us and what we truly believe to be the best parenting strategy. Rather than choosing how we parent, we are still reacting to the 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,” the “baby,” or as “clingy/needy”. We may feel sorry for them, imagining 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 (or our child selves), we then put pressure on them to either be like us or excel in ways we weren’t able to. When we project ourselves onto our kids, we fail to see them as the distinct individuals they truly are. We may miss the mark in how we react to them – meeting the “needs” we think they have rather than providing an attuned and grounded response to their actual needs.
For many, it can be hard to put our fingers on the ways we, as adults, recreate our early emotional environments. However, even if our early circumstances were unfavorable, they became the first template for what a relationship is and what it looks like. Because of this early template, we may subconsciously choose a partner who replicates a dynamic from our past. For example, based on an early template, a part of us (much to our dismay) may be more comfortable in relationships with little emotional availability, recreating the way we felt ignored or neglected as kids. These situations may not be pleasant, but they have a familiarity that we may be drawn to. As a result, we may become attracted to people that help complete the family template we’re used to. This reenactment of an unfavorable family template ultimately exposes our children to the negative atmosphere of our own childhood.
5. Survival Strategies
Children’s brains and psyches are tremendously adaptive. They find the most creative ways to adapt to their particular family’s peculiarities. The way a child learns to adapt and get through childhood becomes what is known as a defense strategy. Each successful defense strategy begins to make up the child’s developing personality structure. These early adaptations serve us well as children, but they can create problems for us as adults and as parents. For example, if we had a parent that was rejecting or frightening at times, we may have learned to stay quiet and stay out of the way so the parent’s attention didn’t turn in our direction. We may have become very self-sufficient – not needing much of anything from anyone. This may have helped ensure safety or that our needs were met, but as an adult these strategies continue to play out even though we’re not children anymore. We may become agitated by how much our children depend on and need us. We may have trouble or feel uncomfortable accepting love from them or showing love to them. Part of growing up means getting to know and understand our built-in survival strategies and finding ways to shift these gently so that we are living more in the present and less based on our past experiences.
6. Getting Triggered
No matter how good our intentions, we are bound to feel triggered at times. In fact, parenting can be one of the things that is most triggering in life! Often in these moments we aren’t even totally clear what is happening inside of us, we just know that we feel terrible (hurt, scared, angry, etc). We may act out in ways that are either too rigid or too childish, but in either case our reactions don’t feel like us. 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. We may engage in distancing or soothing behaviors (drinking, eating, surfing the web) to manage the strong feelings that arise within us. When you have intense or seemingly exaggerated reactions as parents, look back at what about your own early experience could be making that moment feel even more intense.
7. Listening to our Inner Critic
Insecurities and self-attacks often intensify 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 “Inner Critic” starts to take shape very early in our childhood development when we internalize negative attitudes our parents had toward us and themselves. Perhaps as children, we felt unwanted or powerless. Then, as adults, 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 mother 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 mother.” These critical inner voices are the dialogue of a sadistic coach we all have internalized to some degree. The more we can become aware of when this is happening, 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.
One you have identified the area(s) that could use some attention, can you take a moment to pause and recognize how, deep down inside, it makes sense that this resides within you? Given your upbringing, can you find any appreciation inside for the way that your system adapted to help you get through it? There may be places inside as well that don't like this part of you or are judgmental and want it gone. But see if you can connect, even momentarily, to any self-compassion about it.
This exercise was about identifying the ways that you may be unwittingly impacting your relationship with your child because of your own "stuff". This is the first step to making an important shift.
One-to-One Therapy can heal any wounds that you're still holding onto from childhood that are influencing any of the areas discussed in this assessment.
When you're ready to take control of how you show up as a parent, contact Ellie at 510-859-3781 or by email to set up a free phone consultation about your specific concerns and how therapy can help you.
Also, stay tuned for more diverse offerings (in addition to One-to-One Therapy) coming later this year to help parents be more present, connected, and authentic with their children and in their parenting choices.