How to tell if you are repeating an inherited a parenting pattern
There’s a lot of talk these days about ancestral trauma and intergenerational healing. We know that, if our grandparents experienced war, for example, they have most likely passed down their physiological adaptations to that trauma, such as a hyper-alertness to loud noises or an exceeding wariness of strangers. And these tendencies can be carried by subsequent generations, even if they are living in peace and abundance. We might be seeing them as our own unexplained fear or unjustified mistrust, without making any connection to what happened to our ancestors.
I believe it’s the same with parenting patterns. Our parents and grandparents had their ways: they were either honouring or crossing boundaries, allowing or denying emotions, encouraging or dismissing their children’s ideas. Their touch felt safe and warm or false and perilous. They were present or distant; they pushed their children forward or held them back. All of these are patterns that you may be unwittingly carrying forward.
One would think that you would be able to easily recognize these patterns in yourself but that’s not always the case. You received these habits, values and beliefs as innocently as you inherited dimples, a gait or an accent. And it can take a pivotal event to bring them into your awareness.
My mother had five kids, a full time job, a huge garden, cows to milk and was known as a positive, generous community builder. But at home, she would get overwhelmed and explode into periods of yelling, degrading and spanking. It was harrowing for this little girl. I didn’t understand what was happening, only that my siblings and I were very bad.
As I grew, I learned some tricks for staying under the radar. But as a teen, I became very rebellious and made myself the direct recipient of a lot of shaming and rejection. I swore that I would never do such a thing to a child.
Then I became a parent.
As a new mother, I was pretty overwhelmed. Sometimes it escalated into intense agitation and I would fly at my son like a dragon, yelling, threatening and shaming.
I know this is incredibly obvious as you read it now. But I honestly didn’t see the pattern at the time. I heard her words coming out of my mouth but my brain immediately whisked them away, refusing to believe I’d become like her in this way. I felt ashamed and hoped it would pass. I justified, rationalized, denied, promised myself I wouldn’t do it again, pretended…
Then one day, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror right after screaming at my kids. I saw the face of my enraged, out-of-control mother. I stood there horrified.
That’s the moment I embarked on becoming a different kind of parent.
Sometimes an inherited parenting pattern is disguised by trying to avoid doing what your parents did.
Amy is a client who came to me because she and her teenage daughter had reached an uneasy impasse.
“I just want her to give her full effort. She’s lazy and does almost everything below her capability. Now she’s letting doors close on her future and I just can’t stand it.”
The two of them had had dozens of yelling matches, her daughter accusing her of trying to run her life and Amy ordering her to step up. In between the skirmishes, they had stopped talking to each other any more than living in the same household required.
“I know I’m screwing this up but I want her to work harder. When she does things half-heartedly, it makes me so angry. I know I shouldn’t get so enraged and I’m probably too demanding but I can’t help myself. I expect more from her.”
As we gently peeled back the layers, Amy recalled situations in which her father was quite indifferent to her. He wasn’t impressed by an A at school or a making the ski team. Amy had worked hard to be successful but nothing really got his attention and approval. There was an ache in her heart where she felt she was a disappointment to him.
What finally emerged in her coaching program was that her anger about her daughter’s lackadaisical attitude was a subconscious strategy to avoid feeling disappointment in her daughter - and that was such a poignant moment for her.
“I was blind. I thought it was wanting what’s best for her. But all this pushing has really been me trying not to be like my father.”
That was a turning point for Amy to transcend the pattern of disappointment and expectations, which cleared the space for developing a new way of being with her daughter.
It’s not necessarily easy to recognize if we’re repeating a parenting patten. And yet, we must seek to see ourselves clearly. Here are some places to look - please do so bravely and self-compassionately.
· Your language. What phrases do tend to use when you’re in conflict with your kids? Were these words you heard in your childhood? What’s your tone of voice and who does it sound like?
· Your body language. What stances, gestures or facial expressions do you use with your kids? Check the mirror. Recognize them?
· Emotional expression. Which feelings are you quick to express to your kids? Which do you avoid? Was there an unspoken rule in your family about which emotions were acceptable or who was allowed to express them?
· Your childhood wounds. Which memories linger?
· The thing you keep doing. What’s your super-fast auto-pilot reaction to your child, the one that happens before you know it, the one that doesn’t express how you really think/feel and doesn’t align with your values?
· Your stand-offs with your child. What’s the recurring theme? What comes up for you that seems bigger than the actual issue at hand?
I’m all about breaking the cycles of suffering in families. It’s tender, intricate, sacred work. And I’m heartened that you are joining us. We are the ones leaving a different legacy for our children and grandchildren.