By Myra Strassler, LCSW-C
Have you ever found yourself sounding like a parrot, repeating to your child what your parents told you, instead of what you really wanted to say? Maybe you’d promised yourself you would never say that kind of thing to your children. Did you later wonder, “Who said that?” “What was I thinking?” But that pesky parrot just refuses to go away.
Many parents tell me they have this experience. What’s happening here? Are we somehow programmed to repeat our own childhood experiences with our children? Suppose we’d like to change some of the ways we relate to our children — can we do that?
Recent neuro-scientific research is uncovering useful information to help us understand how this works. An excellent book, “Parenting from the Inside Out,” by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzwell, M. Ed., gives some insightful answers. It turns out that experiences from our past – even the ones we cannot recall — do influence the ways we parent our own children. Some of our most confounding interactions with our children are actually windows to our past.
How do we recognize these “blasts from the past”? For example, what’s going on when we have an excessive emotional reaction to an ordinary circumstance? Let’s say it’s five minutes after curfew (not an hour later) and your son isn’t home and hasn’t called. Do you become almost hysterical with worry, imagining an accident or other terrible things that might have happened? Sometimes we catch ourselves having a strong physical reaction to an ordinary event in our child’s life, like getting a stomachache when you have to deny your daughter the shoes she wants because they cost too much.
What about when we have a “knee jerk” reaction to a seemingly harmless habit, such as when your child persistently touches you when she wants your attention and this drives you crazy? Sometimes we routinely misunderstand a particular situation with our child and can’t imagine why we repeatedly don’t “get it.” For example, you continue to expect your son to play and enjoy sports when he never has.
These emotional and physical reactions to our children’s behavior may be clues that something from our past is affecting how we parent. By recognizing this we can begin to change the nature of our relationships. Instead of just replaying old tapes and patterns, we can consciously use our past experiences to become more effective parents. We can actually reorganize or rewire our brains! Like changing a habit, the more we practice doing it, the easier it gets.
How would this work?
- When you hear yourself repeating something your parent said to you in a similar situation, something you wish you hadn’t said, recognize that this is coming from your past, but see it as an opportunity to make a change. Instead of thinking, “I’m just a worrywart” or “I can’t help myself,” tell yourself that you can change these old patterns.
- Change happens in little steps, not all at once. You are making a focused commitment to become more aware and to change one small thing at a time in your interactions with your child. For example, if you tend to jump in and react immediately when your child is upset, try to give her a chance first to tell you what’s on her mind. Take a few moments to really listen before expressing protective, critical or other feelings and thoughts.
- Be kind to yourself, don’t judge yourself harshly. We tend to say things like “I’m a bad parent,” or “I shouldn’t have done that,” or “I’ve ruined everything.” In parenting, as in everything else, we can learn from our mistakes.
- A mistake doesn’t have to be forever. If you feel you overreacted (or didn’t know what to say or do) in a specific situation, you can open a conversation later with your child: “I’m sorry I got angry,” or “This is what I wish I would have said.” You are teaching your child a valuable lesson: that we can revisit situations, things don’t have to remain the same, and that we can change for the better.
- One suggestion that Siegel and Hartzwell make is to try keeping a journal describing times when you are puzzled or concerned by your reactions to your child. In reading through your entries, you may find a pattern of a situation between you and your child that triggers certain reactions in you.
- Sometimes as parents we notice a “talent” we have in a certain area, such as resolving conflicts between our children or helping them engage their imagination, and we have no idea or recall how we learned or developed this. Many of the good things we do are part of our past memories and experiences, even if we don’t recall them, but they contribute to positive behavior. So give yourself credit for these positive parenting skills and use them.
- Learn from others. Check out the JCS Parent Discussion Series, www.jcsbaltimore.org/parent-series, where you can discuss topics of mutual interest, and get helpful tips from parents and from facilitators with expertise in helping parents deal with the challenges.
- If you have a concern about your child, you can talk with a professional at JCS. Take advantage of our new FREE parenting consultations, www.jcsbaltimore.org/parenting
These tools can help to solve some of the mysteries behind our interactions with our children. We don’t have to walk around with that parrot on our shoulder, blurting out what it has learned by rote. We can reflect on our experiences and we can change. The more we understand about how our past affects our present, the better equipped we will be to create the satisfying relationships we want with our children.
By Myra Strassler, LCSW-C, Therapy Services
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