dearest apple, I pray you fall far from the tree
January 14, 2015 2:04 PM   Subscribe

How did you prevent passing nasty family patterns to your kids? Especially if you grew up in a personality disordered household. What did you consciously do (or not do), or think, in order to be a decent parent, and raise mentally healthy kids. General anecdotes also welcome.

My parents were NPD & BPD and I am interested in how you parented despite having a personality disorder yourself or having lived in a PD family. How did you break those family patterns? I had strong BPD traits myself and went to therapy for it. But I would hate to pass any of it on to my kid, and while I live well now and my fiancé and I are happy, I know that these patterns are subconscious and insidious and that raising kids can be stressful (= triggers old habits). Thanks everyone.
posted by serenity soonish to Human Relations (14 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would consider finding a parenting book or two that fit the style of parent you would like to be and then really try to remember what you learned when dealing with a parenting situation. A lot of parenting is "trusting your gut" but it seams that might not be the best idea if your "gut" is likely to send you down a hurtful or unproductive path. I think I would try to respond as the parenting book instructed and disregard your own opinion when the two don't align.
posted by saradarlin at 3:01 PM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I guess my approach could be distilled to: try to keep out of the way of them being awesome. It wasn't ever going to be flawless but my plan was to pass on less shit to my kids than I got, and it worked out very well.

1. Apologize when you fuck up with your kids. Pretending at perfection creates resentment.
2. Earn their respect, don't demand it.
3. Keep working at being a better person yourself.
4. Let them be themselves.
5. Let them make (non-permanent) mistakes.
6. Let them be imperfect, too.
7. Create as much space as possible between the kids and the crazies.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:04 PM on January 14, 2015 [35 favorites]

My husband had kids before we met, so mind you I'm a step-dad. That said, his mom has some very dominant mental issues that made childhood very confusing and difficult for him and his siblings. In fact, none of his sibs who have children of their own speak with their parents any longer (this goes for my husband as well) as the coming of grandchildren sparked those issues anew.


The parents in question are not in the picture, but my husband has come to realize over the years the indelible impression of his childhood. He's worked on it heroically, bless him, which is great. It took us a long time to get to the point where we could do this, but now he listens (and I no longer back off) when I see shades of his mom coming out. That helps. That helps a lot.

Also, we spend a lot of time with my family. I won't say that we haven't had any issues of our own, but compared to my husband's family we are a miracle of compromise, love and happiness. Even though I live 1,500 miles away from my hometown, we go at least twice a year so the step-kids can hang out with my folks, my nieces and nephews, my sibs, and so on, and experience a lot of what I'd call Happy Medium.

My husband still reacts with shock (and sadness) sometimes to the love and gentleness that my mom shows him and his kids. He loves the time his kids spend with my side of the family, because frankly there's not much of that on his side (even from his siblings, who are cool but a bit distant). We've had this discussion many times--he's grateful for the opportunity.

If you have friends, family whose paths and choices you admire, socialize! Hang out! Give your kids exposure to as much of the stuff that you admire as you can.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:09 PM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Parenting from the Inside Out is a great book about how parenting triggers childhood stuff and how parents can deal with those triggers in healthy ways.
posted by jaguar at 4:16 PM on January 14, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry to say it, but I made a conscious effort to think about what my dad would do, and NOT do that. And whenever I started sounding like my dad, I would stop and re-think what I was doing.
posted by The Deej at 4:28 PM on January 14, 2015 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up with a somewhat neurotic mom, I'm not sure if she would be considered to have Personality Disorder or not. But I've since gone on to raise two relatively successful children (they're both in college now, one was her HS valedictorian, the other is more social and musical than academic (but I think he'll live)).

I've come to the conclusion that, as a parent, you won't have anywhere near the amount of influence upon them that you worry that you will. Kids are remarkably resilient, and if you screw up once or twice and do That Thing You Swore You'd Never Do To Your Kids (spanking, snapping at them, etc) it's not going to warp them for the rest of their lives. With some regularity I found myself remembering and 'understanding' my parents' actions and attitudes. Which is not to say that I did what they did; but I gained a greater understanding of their motivations.

Although if you have issues with actual physical violence or neglect - like, you really can't tell if you're being too rough or not feeding them enough - then please skip the rest of this, I can't help you, I'm sorry.

Really, if I have advice, it's to love your kids, pay attention to them, and take care of them like they are the most precious things in your life. If you remember the movie City Slickers, they are now your "One Thing". Psychologists all agree that few things will mess up a kid like neglect. I always liked what Al Franken wrote about how, in addition to quality time with his kids, he believed in spending huge amounts of big fat non-productive time with his kids, too.

The other thing is to note that parents are the models that children will learn from. And so, as my wise friend (and darn good father) Ira told me: "When you have kids, it's for real. You gotta stop fuckin' around!" So cut it out with the cigarettes, the drugs, the drinking, the shoplifting, racist slurs, etc. I don't know you, I don't know if you do these things or not. Just: if you get wasted every day, don't be surprised if your kid has drug or alcohol problems.

Finally: your job as parent is to help your child become the most successful person they can be. So: encourage them, and don't be afraid to tell them the truth about things. Don't ever call them stupid or dumb. They might do something dumb - but that does not mean they're dumb.
posted by doctor tough love at 4:33 PM on January 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: When I was younger, for a time, I read a lot of biographies. One of the things you see is that social workers et al will say things like "Poor people grew up poor and they don't know anything else, that's why they are poor." But people who grew up poor and then became rich will say things like "There was no place to go but up" or "I had nothing to lose by trying." So, in other words, a lot of experts will tell you that the past predicts the future and cannot be escaped, but a lot of people famous enough to have a biography will tell you the opposite. I found that really helpful.

I also went through a period where I watched time travel movies and other things that dealt with the idea of showing different possible paths, depending upon the choice made. Although not a time travel movie, one of my favorite films for exploring this idea is The Dead Zone. I highly recommend it. I also like the line "You still have a choice" from Minority Report and some of the lines from some of the Terminator movies, about "no fate but what you make" and that kind of thing. I spent a lot of years feeling doomed to a Greek tragedy style fate and like there was no hope of escaping it. I no longer feel like I have no choice. I feel like I always have some kind of choice to make. My experience of life suggests that's a pretty powerful position.

So, first I started with wrapping my brain around the idea that my tragic past did not dictate a tragic future. Then I took the position with regards to my children that "The buck stops here." I developed really, really clear boundaries about some things and I communicated to my sons very clearly that just because I had some issue with x did not mean they needed to have some issue.

One example that I hope isn't too loaded or crazy sounding: When my oldest son was little, he used to say he wanted to make a living playing video games when he grew up. I never told him he can't do that. What I told him was stuff like "I don't think that's very realistic. I think that's a child's idea of a career. But don't be limited by my lack of vision. Feel free to prove me wrong." So I gave him my honest assessment without trying to squelch his dreams or rain on his parade or give him some beef where he felt required to prove something to me. Later, he decided that he wants to make games for a living, not play them. He and I have talked about the fact that some people do actually make a living these days playing games and if I had shot him down and told him it could not be done, he might have felt compelled to go do that for a time just to prove me wrong instead of feeling comfortable changing his mind as he got older and developed a different understanding about what a job was all about.

I also tried to give my sons some context with which to understand stuff that happened in the family. For example, I talked to my oldest son about the background of both of my parents: That my dad fought in two wars and my mother grew up in a war zone. I had this discussion with him when he was pretty little, about age four or five. My parents are very intelligent, compassionate, competent people in many respects. But they also had big issues in other respects. Giving him some background info and general context helped him sort the wheat from the chafe.

I talked a lot with my sons about the fact that having a particular personality trait or tendency does not mean you are doomed to anything in particular, that any given trait has both positive and negative expressions. I talked, for example, about the actor who did the voice for the bird Iago in Aladdin (because it was something they were familiar with -- it was a movie they had on tape). That bird is incredibly annoying -- and someone got paid to do that incredibly annoying voice role. I gave him other examples like that. I had read some article with career advice where some woman working as a private investigator said she was basically a nosy person and that was the secret of her success. I gave him a lot of examples like that over the years, saying things like "If you like arguing, join a debate team or become a lawyer, but stop making your mother crazy."

So, in other words, they got told ad infinitum that no matter the trait, there are constructive outlets for it and they were responsible for actively seeking out constructive expressions and not just making everyone around them nuts. They got the message over and over that it was okay for them to have those traits. They didn't need to feel like terrible human beings for having difficult traits. But just having some unlovely traits did not give them a pass on trying to figure out how to relate constructively to people around them.

On preview: Not my dad, but I have a relative that I hold up as the example of What Not To Do. My sons know this and we sometimes use the metric of "Would (relative) do that? Yes? Then we are going to do ANYTHING but that." If I can't think of anything that looks like an actual good decision, I will default to doing the opposite of what (relative) did. I try to not talk trash about said relative in public, but my sons know my unvarnished opinions about (relative) and why I use that metric and they heartily agree.
posted by Michele in California at 4:43 PM on January 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

I don't know where you are in your own healing and relationship with them, but the more distance you have from being enmeshed with old patterns, and the less you see that modeled in an ongoing way, the better (obviously).
posted by salvia at 5:27 PM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I know a couple people who have done an amazing job of this. I think their key to success is a combination of self-awareness and reading lots of parenting books. Finding a way to hang with people whose parenting style you respect is also good. (For some people, this can be your partner's family or just friends.) I met some people who were involved in a parent-paticipation pre-school - those program tend to attract parents who willing to commit their time and energy to doing a good job of parenting.

If you don't have kids yet, one thing you can do now is working on becoming a calm, nonreactive person - you want to give yourself space to be aware of what your feelings/instincts are telling you so you have the chance to choose to listen to them or not. Kids will push your buttons. Making your buttons harder to push will help. I think meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, is a widely recommended approach to this although there are probably many paths to the same goal.
posted by metahawk at 7:24 PM on January 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It's great to spend time around other families, to see how they approach things differently. It's really great if you can spend enough time with other families to see them when they're not just on best behavior for company (and I mean healthy families, not necessarily relatives who might be repeating the unhealthy patterns you want to avoid).

It's also great to work with a family or children's therapist. We worked with a children's therapist around some specific issues with our kids, and I feel like it was as much about us learning some good parenting techniques as it was about our kids getting help. Ten minutes of conversation with this therapist about a specific issue was worth an entire self-help book.

It's helpful to continue your own therapy as well. I think parenting brings out some of this old stuff -- we react in certain ways without realizing it, and talking to a therapist can be really helpful in processing this stuff. Parenting can also be stressful and tiring, and those are oftentimes when we revert to old behaviors.

Another thing you can do, if you have a strong relationship with your partner where you've discussed these concerns, is to ask them to give you a heads up if or when they see this behavior. This involves a lot of trust and care -- yelling "You're just like your mother/father!" in the heat of the moment is never going to work -- but it can be good to have conversations later on, in a moment of calm.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:16 PM on January 14, 2015

Man, I worry about this a bunch. I don't know how likely I am to have kids, and one of the big weights in the "no" column is worries about passing on bad coping patterns.

I think you have two things right here already: you are aware of the problem, and you have a partner who can help you maintain that awareness. I think having an even broader community can help set good patterns too- I certainly learned most of the good coping skills I have from people other than my parents.

Of course the broader community may also contain examples of what not to do- but as Michele in California suggested above, those can be teaching moments.

Ah, another thing to keep in mind is that some predispositions may be genetic- I can't tell if I inherited my crappy temper from my parents just from watching, but the fact that I get hangry so easily is clearly genetic. Since you have worked hard to get to a good place yourself, you know what tricks work for your genetics, too, and can thus teach your kids.
posted by nat at 10:40 PM on January 14, 2015

My mom had a really controlling, aggressive mom who's default answer to everything was always no. My mom has made an effort with me and my siblings to have her default answer to requests be yes (within reason of course). Can I have a slumber party with 5 girls? Yes (if you clean up after yourselves). Can I go on vacation with my best friend's family? Yes (please call home every evening so we know you're okay, be polite, say thanks).

She was open about the kind of mom she wanted to be, and explained to us why. Her mom was also a shouter, and so she told us it was her goal to never shout. She always hated being at home as a kid, so she's gone out of her way to make her house "youth friendly" and to make our friends feel welcome. I think that her telling us her goals and the reasons for them helped keep her accountable to them. Another benefit of telling us is that when she is stressed out and can't keep up with her own goals, we understand why she wants to default to shouting and saying no, and this way we know it isn't all about us.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:55 AM on January 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

I don't have children but I am coming at this from the perspective of trying to make some of these changes in myself.

I think it would be really helpful to pay attention to your emotions and be careful not to act from a place of being angry and upset. Take some deep breaths and then say to your kids "I'm feeling really angry/upset/tired/stressed out right now and I'm going to go be by myself for a little while and then when I'm feeling calm we can talk about this." But do talk about it, talk all the time, communicate about family expectations, talk about problem behavior when it starts instead of blowing up three months later with "you ALWAYS do the thing!"

Right now you can do that in situations that don't involve your kids - when you're angry/upset/tired/stressed, step back and pay attention to the physical signs so you can recognize it later. I also think actually talking to these feelings, figuring out their source, and not avoiding them is helpful. I noticed that I'm more likely to have certain emotional responses and engage in certain behaviors if I haven't slept well, or if some other stressors are present.

Also I've seen some people say "don't be afraid to apologize to your kids when you're in the wrong" but I think that advice misses that no matter how apologetic you are or how bad you feel, if you scream or punch a wall or smack your kid they will still be afraid of you. Apologies do not fix it.
posted by capricorn at 8:55 AM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think metahawk's excellent comment really nails it:

"a combination of self-awareness and reading lots of parenting books"

This times a million. We are so lucky to be living at a time when there are so many helpful parenting books at our disposal. Whenever someone says, "Oh I never read parenting books" I automatically think that's some unexamined privilege talking there - this person is not as fearful of repeating something bad from their own childhood as folks like my DH and I are. People from shitty families of origin really benefit from the right books (titles of which can be found in some old Asks).

"working on becoming a calm, nonreactive person - you want to give yourself space to be aware of what your feelings/instincts are telling you so you have the chance to choose to listen to them or not. Kids will push your buttons. Making your buttons harder to push will help."

Absolutely. I think a common thread amongst adult survivors of messed up parenting is that their parents were often extremely reactive people, with way inappropriate boundaries. Mismanaged anger and frustration were often an issue. So, "make your buttons harder to push" is indeed some really excellent advice.
posted by hush at 2:07 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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