I need information about how to parent when raised by abusive parents.
February 13, 2005 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I was raised by an abusive father. Now in my early 30's I am looking ahead to the future when I may become a father. I am determined not to recreate the family environment I grew up in but know how these things sometimes turn out -- that people determined not to recreate something sometimes wind up doing so in an unforseen manner. I was in therapy for 2 years in my 20's to work on the issues but therapy is not an option now because of money. I have worked hard not to be my father, but part of me is afraid that I will wind up being like him as a parent. (In particular, I worry about being a father to a son because of my history). I am looking for information about the father-son relationship as well as information about how to be a good parent when you have a background like mine. Please offer advice, books, suggestions - anything that can help.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You could consider reading Breaking the Cycle of Abuse, by Beverly Engel. Knowing people who've been abused, I can understand your fear of recreating prior wounds. Good luck to you and your family.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:49 PM on February 13, 2005

I am a father of three children, 3, 5 and 8. In these years, kids are like sponges, soaking up small and large lessons about how life is, and how they should live theirs.

I faced some relatively minor tough times in my childhood (poverty), but always had two loving parents. I got my butt spanked sometimes, but it was rare and only came after I had driven my parents to extremes with my behavior.

My wife and I spend a lot of time with our kids, and working on how to create learning and enjoyment for them, and with them. Still, it's no exaggeration to say this recent AskMe thread has impacted my parenting. Even though I don't spank my kids the way I got spanked, I realized I was yelling at them in ways that probably terrify them more than teaching them.

This parenting thing is a work in progress, and there are no guarantees. That said, a thirsty mind on the subject, as you demonstrate by asking the question in the first place, in my opinion bodes well for your eventual fatherhood capabilities.
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:06 PM on February 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Find a friend or mentor whose parenting skills you admire. Pay attention to the way they work with the child, particularly at stressful times. So much of it seems to be coaxing out good behavior and rewarding it rather than punishing bad behavior. Your kids need to trust you, but you'll have to learn to trust yourself first.

So, reading up on parenting is good, but I highly recommend finding a mentor or two that's willing to be a sounding board. Work out several coping strategies before you have to deal with a wailing infant or a belligerent toddler. If you work out only one alternate strategy, then that doesn't work, in the heat of the moment you will fall back on whatever is familiar, regardless of whether it's a good choice.
posted by whatnot at 6:31 PM on February 13, 2005

You will be a fine parent. Just keep remembering why you don't want to do what your father did.
posted by caddis at 6:32 PM on February 13, 2005

Please know that there are plenty of free or low-cost therapy services available in most cities. Psychology students need to get experience somehow, so they offer their services for free/cheap, and some are very good. (Shop around to find one you like--don't feel bad politely informing them that you don't feel like it's a good fit.) Some insurance policies cover therapy, and some therapists offer cheap services to lower-income clients.

I applaud you for thinking this through, and I do think that you'll be able to find an affordable therapist who can help. While books can offer great advice, I suspect nothing beats the help offered by a trained professional. Good luck!
posted by equipoise at 6:49 PM on February 13, 2005

caddis has it: being aware that you may become abusive is a good start and will keep you on your toes.

As an abused child myself, the best advice I can give to a parent is: do not punish the kid in the heat of the moment. Give yourself and your child a time out until you calm down and can come up with an appropriate punishment (provided the time out wasn't sufficient).

And as sacre_blue says: there are no guarantees. You will fuck up on occasion. As long as you take it as a learning experience, you'll do okay.
posted by deborah at 6:55 PM on February 13, 2005

My father and I barely get along. And that's a huge improvement over years past.

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who's over fifty five and has two daughters in college. He mentioned that he called his daughters a couple times a week just to see how they were doing and that they liked to hear from him. I told him I guessed that was good, but that I'd never understood people who had that sort of relationship with their parents. He said that, while he was liked having that kind of relationship with his kids, he didn't understand it any more than I did. He only ever talked to his parents when he had to and he was glad that they were now dead.

The moral of the story is, I guess, that it's possible to be a much better father than your father was even if you don't understand why and how.
posted by Clay201 at 7:26 PM on February 13, 2005

You've got to learn about your hot spots - where you'd be most vulnerable to losing it, i.e., to being like your father, and then you've got to just tread carefully around those hot spots. Like if your father was most abusive around money issues, know that you're in a vulnerable spot if pressed about money. Similarly, if your father was most abusive when alcohol was involved, know that you are likely to be easily provoked when drinking.

Figure this stuff out, share it with your partner, and then be prepared to do the hard work of substituting new behaviors for the old ones of temper tantrums, acting out, etc. Feel free to take time outs, go for walks, etc when you start to feel some rage coming on. Be prepared to take feedback from your partner.

My father left when I was two, and I was really nervous I would do the same. My kids are well past that time now, and I feel like I've overcome that vicious generational cycle. You can too!
posted by jasper411 at 7:32 PM on February 13, 2005

Both of my parents were pretty seriously abused. I was spanked, like, three times, and I'm pretty sure I deserved it each time. My daughter, now 9, has never been spanked. The cycle can be broken.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:32 PM on February 13, 2005

I can tell you that being determined not to make your parents' mistakes can work. My mother's parents always favored her sister and put her down constantly. She made sure my brother and I were never ever compared and never made to feel that one was the favorite. My father's parents never encouraged his dreams and never understood his successes. He was the opposite with us.
I know it's milder than a background of physical abuse, but I do stand in awe of how they were able to avoid repeating those patterns.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:34 PM on February 13, 2005

My parents were crap. My brother-in-law had a looney for a mother. Still, my sis and her husband raised 2 kids about as close to perfect as 2 kids can be.

It's not about whether kids are spanked or not. That's an entirely different argument. It IS about being sane and fair with your kids, and making sure that whatever else you do, you make sure your kids know you love them no matter what, and you are there for them.

I, for one, would not want to be a parent. Thank God I'm gay and can't become one without considerable effort!

As for abuse: Those who think spanking is the problem are the ones that stand the best chance of emotionally abusing their kids the worse. I was seldom spanked, but the words were real killers. As a child, I often WISHED I'd be spanked and be done with it, rather than being constantly told what a worthless shit I was.
posted by Goofyy at 9:16 PM on February 13, 2005

That you are concerned about this is a sign that you'll be a better father than your father was. Yes, you'll make mistakes. But if you recognize your errors, admit them, and work to overcome them, you'll be a good parent, and a good man.
posted by SPrintF at 9:33 PM on February 13, 2005

An former coworker of mine had an abusive father and managed to break the cycle. I was not close enough to him to be privvy to the details, but I gathered that therapy and medication played a part in it. (The medication was for depression, which--while not making my coworker abusive--hampered his efforts to be an active and involved father.)

The single biggest factor in breaking the cycle, though, seemed simply to be his determination to break the cycle. He knew that the way he was treated as a child was wrong, and he made it his top priority in life to be a good dad--not just to avoid being an abusive dad, but to be a genuinely good one. So add me to the chorus of folks who think that your desire to avoid being like your father is a very positive sign that you will succeed.

You asked generally about the father/son relationship. One of your challenges for you, I'm guessing, will be setting the bar at the right level. You must never ever even come close to abusing your child--but you must not set the bar for your own behavior so incredibly high that if you say a single impatient word to your kid, you will never forgive yourself. Similarly, you'll want to find the balance between being too controlling and too lax with your kids. Since it's really hard to develop a feel for these balances from a book (or from advice over the Internet!), I think WhatNot's idea of a mentor is a great one.

Having said that, even a friend with an instinctive understanding of parenting might not know how to teach you about it, and you might look for parenting classes in your area. Also, depending on your particular circumstances, there may be specific skills (anger management, for example) that you need to learn from an expert. I second the idea of contacting a local religious or social organization and explaining your situation; I would hope that they could help you find affordable therapy and/or parenting classes.

I know a therapist who teaches parenting classes in Southern California. Anonymous, if you want to e-mail me (my address is yankeefog at yankeefog dot com) and tell me where you live, I can see if she has any recommendations for parenting classes and/or affordable counseling near you.
posted by yankeefog at 6:12 AM on February 14, 2005

I'm a woman and had a mostly emotionally abusive single mother. Growing up (since I was five) I knew she was off her rocker and not to follow her example. This helped me be who I am today, and I'm not (too) scared about my parenting skills. I suggest you do the same and listen to others and ask questions constantly as you go along - and this is a great start!

Here are two things I'm planning to do to be a good mommy.

1) Marry someone who has a very healthy family background. This way they will be able to help out and I'll learn from their example and their experiences with healthy parents.

2) Remember how I felt and see if my child is feeling that way. Even if I don't think I'm recreating what my mom did (and I probably won't) I could do something equally bad and I should judge my actions by my kid's reactions, not by "well Mom never did exactly _this_."

Little failures or temper flares do not an abusive parent make, so don't beat yourself up when they happen (this will lead to a snowball, feeling like you're already a bad dad, adding shame, taking it out on your kids, and repeat), but also recognize that it's a slip-up and not something to continue.

Remember you're a good dad and that you're going to continually work to be one. You'll do great!
posted by lorrer at 7:10 AM on February 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

Marry someone who has a very healthy family background. This way they will be able to help out and I'll learn from their example and their experiences with healthy parents.

Sure. Just don't go looking for someone with a 'perfect' childhood and family. They don't exist. Everyone has their challlenges. And every parent makes some mistakes. It's important to be able to recognize when you've made a mistake and to learn from it. Parenting is a fantastic (and terrifying) opportunity to learn about yourself and grow into a better balanced, more patient thoughtful caring person.

Be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster as a parent. You need to learn ways to deal with that and not let your emotions control you. It's okay to have the emotions, just don't let them take charge. You will probably re-live portions of your own childhood 9good and bad) as you raise kids. Dealing with your own childhood is likely to be an ongoing process. At least, this is what it was like for my mom, and what my SO and I are experiencing. YMMV
posted by raedyn at 7:58 AM on February 14, 2005

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