Parentfilter: past as prologue; or, managing unresolved childhood issues
November 18, 2019 7:17 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes parenthood brings with it the opportunity to revisit whatever badly-healed wounds your own childhood had. How do you manage these feelings?

E.g.: How do you separate past anxieties and shame from the current problem in front of you? How do you retain the presence of mind to remember that your child is not you and that your control is limited? How do you conceal or control the feelings to an acceptable degree in social settings, e.g. in interacting with third parties about your child? How do you talk yourself through the feelings when you are alone so that they do not eat you alive?

I'm posting this under a sockpuppet specifically to avoid connecting with other stuff I've written on the site, so I don't want to give too many details about my own struggle, but if this question makes you think of a story from your own parenting life that you're willing to share here, or an aphorism that has helped you, please assume that it might help me and that I'd love to read it. Bonus points for stories that are ripe enough for some wisdom to have accrued on the surface, but hell, I'd be grateful for raw commiseration, too.
posted by sockrilegious to Human Relations (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I had a kind of unhappy childhood, and so I was braced for replaying everything that made me unhappy with my own kids. As it happened, though, that wasn't much of an issue at all -- while they had rocky patches, their rocky patches were very very different from mine, and so I didn't end up feeling as if I was dealing with the same problems at all.

Part of that might have been just luck -- that they really were encountering different difficulties than I had. But if I did anything right, it was focusing on the particularities of what they were experiencing, so as to keep in the front of my mind that their lives were different from mine, and needed different ways of dealing.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:25 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's very complex. Here's a rambly brain dump, hope some of it helps.

When I was in therapy before having my first child (who died), I focused a lot on my fear of having the same rage as existed in my family. I did set some lines in the sand that I just don't cross. No hitting (I spanked once, like one swat on a diapered bum, classic 'ran into the road,' it was stupid) No name calling. No labelling ("you are so lazy.") Zero tolerance for myself helps here. Most of those zero-tolerance things, I have been able to maintain that line.

Sometimes this was actually like, crazy easy. For example, my mother used to have a lot of anxiety around illness which unfortunately came out as rage at me for "spreading germs"or failing to clean up behind myself (at very young ages.) Stomach flu was particularly bad. The first time my son had a stomach flu at daycare, they called me and I came to get him...I was carrying him into the house, it was winter, and he threw up - down my back, into my hair, down my shirt, and in the hood and down my back in my best winter coat. I just felt so bad for him, and then a few minutes after I got us together in the tub and my stuff off...I started laughing, because here was The Moment I Dreaded Where I Would Lose My Shit.
And it easy not to be mean to this poor little beautiful kid who just looked miserable.

(And yet, every time my kids are sick I am on The Goog and up until 2am disinfecting, which is nuts. I just try to keep my nuts out of their sphere.)

I have found "one neat trick" -- just keep a look on my children's faces. They don't need that kind of response. Even a firm correction, if I watch their eyes, has impact. Staying present to how they actually look, what they are actually doing, not getting into "they are going to end up in jail!!!!" helps a lot.

So that echoes LizardBreath above, it's partly about staying with what the actual issue is. (However, does that mean I am free of bad patterns? Absolutely fucking not.)

I have yelled (this is the one "no yelling" line I have had the most trouble with) and lost it from time to time, on the order of a couple of times a year - not name-calling but certain loud slamming bits. Lately as my son gets older, I have also found that sometimes my disappointment about things comes through and although he seems on the surface like he's skating it, his body language shows he cares. My kids are sensitive. I try to be sure if we do have a bad interaction or conflict that we reconnect about it a bit later. I share my actual feelings and thoughts where I can. "I have been thinking about what I said about your phone use and I think I was overly harsh. Overall you're really responsible. Let's make a plan together."

However, I have struggled a lot more with the "kid meets society" kind of thing where I end up feeling bad about myself. Not sure if you mean that?

I was bullied & experienced a lot of social isolation in elementary school, and I have been almost over compensatory setting up playdates, etc. There was one summer birthday party where one a couple of kids showed up and the next year I invited 25 and 26 showed!

When my oldest son went through a relatively minor stealing phase, I thought it was the living end and it was my fault for not having provided church-type moral instruction (he's 14, he's pretty ethical, it all worked out.) I haven't experienced too much direct criticism of my parents except from my own bio-family and so that kind of goes in the bio-family bucket...the biggest mantra there is that I say "hey, let me make my own mistakes, they have to be mine."

There have also been times when I should have been firmer, especially around things like homework, where I've backed down from "pressure" because of how I grew up and I kind of...figure that's the side I'm going to err on and I put some funds away for occupational counselling later. So that's my base mantra. If I am going to make mistakes as a parent I want them to be on the side of too gentle, too kind, too permissive, too open. Because I know I will.

I have a book recommendation for you, unfortunately the author is slightly problematic but it's still a great book - Kids are Worth It! by Barbara Coloroso. I also have heard Parenting from the Inside Out is still good.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:48 AM on November 18, 2019 [13 favorites]

I've recommended this book a ton on AskMe. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child talks about different styles of parenting and encourages parents to act as an "emotional coach" to their child. It helped me a lot with exactly this. You don't have to just coach your child on how to deal with emotions, you can coach yourself! Most of us did not get great coaching as kids but we can do it for ourselves as adults. The skills that our kids need are the same ones we need - identifying what you are feeling, for example, seems so basic but it is actually revolutionary.

Also, it helps to approach for a perspective of curiosity. When some strong emotion comes up you can stop and think, "oh, that is interesting. I wonder what happened to me when I was the age my kid is now to cause me to have this reaction?"

And you don't have to be perfect either. You just have to be willing to apologize to your kids. That is good for them, it teaches them that adults are just flawed humans doing their best. If you slip, you just apologize. Teenagers especially respect that.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:55 AM on November 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

This only applies if you're co-parenting with someone, so apologies if this isn't the case, please skim over.

Me and my partner find a lot of value in accountability. We've talked a lot already, and have committed to talking regularly for the rest of our kid's childhood, about what we want to emulate from our the way we were raised, and what we want to do differently (hopefully, better). Talking about this, setting boundaries and goals, and holding each other to them, has definitely really helped me, and I hope it's helped my partner too (I think they would agree).

Also: going to therapy for a while after my kid was born didn't just help me beat PND, it really set me up with a bunch of insights into ways I want to be not just a better parent but a happier person (and therefore a better parent again). Again, I talked to my partner about these too, so that they can help me to remember the things that are the most important to me to work towards.
posted by greenish at 8:06 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also I have one more trick that has worked for our family, both together and separately.

When things are getting tense, any one of us can call a "dance party!" where we put on something loud ("Life is a Highway" / "We Will Rock You" / etc.) and we basically jump up and down and yell. Examples of when this happens: bad mornings where everyone's about to be late (and yes, it makes us a little later), weekends at chore time. Expel the adrenaline before you communicate is kind of our motto.

(Actually our family motto is "Never give up, never surrender" from Galaxy Quest, but.)

It may be that us parents do that sometimes after school conferences too, in the car. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 8:16 AM on November 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

As much as I knew I wanted to be a parent, I was dreading it because I was convinced history would repeat itself, even if I was conscious of not wanting it to. Long story short, I had 18 months of therapy from deciding to have kids, through one miscarriage and then the pregnancy and birth of our first child and it was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s like going to school for your emotions. My therapist was really great and recommended lots of books too. It really helped me feel prepared and separate what happened to me from my own child’s upbringing.

Oh and what selfmedicating said: you can apologise to your child when you mess up. My parents have never and will never apologise to me, which I’ve had to make peace with. But if I ever lose it, which is rare and always linked to lack of sleep, I apologise immediately.
posted by atlantica at 9:38 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

One more thing I always remember: the phrase ‘the cycle ends with me’. I can’t change what happened but I sure as hell can stop it happening again.
posted by atlantica at 9:40 AM on November 18, 2019 [8 favorites]

I’m not sure if you have kids or are just thinking of kids. I’ve written about this a few times in comments on ask.mefi but I’ll write it again and maybe it will resonate with you. I have found having my daughter to be incredibly healing for many of my childhood traumas and issues. To be clear, I established a lot of strict lines in the sand for how I would parent but, as someone said above, it has not been too difficult to stay those lines. Being loud when I get really button-pushed is something that I have actively worked on and I absolutely do apologize to everyone if I have lost my shit.

But what’s great is realizing: “I am not my mother, I can make my own choices. My husband is not my father and will not fail in the ways that he did. My relationship with my spouse is not their marriage and has none of those pressures or characteristics.” An extension of that is, “my kid is not me.”

As my kid grows and changes and becomes her own person, I actively think about this extension of self. It’s so dumb how there’s a few things she doesn’t do well that I excelled at as a kid and I’m like...low-key concerned. And then I remember that it is my goal to support her in her journey of becoming the person she is most comfortable and happy being. And there’s loads of things she can do that are way better than I could do them at her age, if I even had that interest. I consider this emotion to be a common failure of the brain and do my best to be mindful of its trappings and laugh about it a bit. Silly brain, don’t do that.

But the biggest thing by far has been the healing. To see clearly how my trauma as a kid was not my failure as a child-person but so much was a failure of the adults who were charged to care for me failing to do so. And some of those failures are just like, “wow, this aspect of parenting is hard. I had no idea. Maybe I can let this bad thing go that I’ve been holding onto for all this time.” Or, “wow, wtf was my parent thinking? Unacceptable and won’t be happening to my kid.”
posted by amanda at 10:31 AM on November 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Two quotes:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

– Khalil Gibran, THE PROPHET
They are not extensions of you whom you may shape. They are separate people with distinctive personalities.

So you become curious. What is that personality? Who are your children? Your task is to watch them carefully, interact with them in the spirit of pure curiosity (not judgement), and provide the safety + validation + cheering for them to unfold their whole selves in your presence.
In individual emotional development the precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face.

– D. W. Winnicott, Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development
Your children should see themselves reflected in your eyes when they look at you, in your facial expressions when you respond to theirs, in your reactions to their actions. Your job is to be their best possible mirror, so that they may see ALL of themselves reflected back at them from you, and thus learn who they are.

An inadequate mirror is clouded with the parent's own wishes and grievances, murky with the parent's own agenda. SOLUTION: Get your needs met and grievances addressed elsewhere (therapy? partner? friend?) so that you are free to clearly reflect the child's image back at them

An inadequate mirror is also one that is too small and constricted, reflecting only certain parts of the child's personality and determinedly ignoring others, so that the child is at first unaware and later ashamed of the unreflected parts of their being. SOLUTION: Reflect every part of the child's being, even the ones you are uncomfortable with, even the parts you disapprove of. A calm and unruffled mirror who says things like, "Ah, you're angry and you feel like smashing things," or "Hmm, you just lied because you're ashamed of what you did," and then sits in uncomfortable silence with the child, is parenting much better than someone who solves the child's problems so that they aren't angry anymore or yells at the child for lying.
posted by MiraK at 10:53 AM on November 18, 2019 [8 favorites]

People above have talked about lines in the sand, and I have made some of those for myself, based on experiences that damaged me as a child. I have also crossed a few of them, which has led to the discovery that, in parenting, sincere apologies are incredibly powerful. I received very few of them as a child, and it's important to me for my kid to see that people can screw up, realize it, and make it right.
posted by missrachael at 10:56 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

You don't have to just coach your child on how to deal with emotions, you can coach yourself!

Echoing this. When I'm conscious enough about parenting and what's going on, sometimes I find myself saying to myself "it seems like you're really feeling frustrated. what would help you feel a little better so you could figure this out?" just like I would with my toddler. It's funny how helpful it is. I guess this is a way of saying that learning how to parent can give you tools you need to essentially parent the immature (hurt, etc) sides of yourself as well.
posted by slidell at 11:58 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

You might be interested in this book.

I was raised... Without a lot of the things that you're supposed to get. I was not planning on having kids precisely because I didn't want to inflict my unresolved childhood on an innocent being. (Life had other plans, for which I'm quite grateful.)

This book provides a mindfulness based framework for using your own reactions to the relationship to show you exactly where your stuff is and to mindfully process it so that you don't project it on your child.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:09 PM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Raw commiseration here. I have read all the books and they are all bullshit when your buttons are being pushed to the Nth degree.

I took myself back to therapy to deal with stuff that I thought had been worked through but that's been triggered by having kids the same ages I was when certain things happened to me. While it's been bewildering and devastating to fail at being a better parent than I am, I can at least demonstrate to my kids that mental health care is something we seek out just as we would physical health care. Feel free to memail me if you need more commiseration.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:11 PM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Susan Stiffleman's Parenting Without Power Struggles is excellent, btw (barring minute sections of clueless-white-lady pronouncements about African children).
posted by MiraK at 7:23 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would say what we think of as problems with our kids may not be actual problems. This is an obvious point but something to consider and remember. The "problem in front of you" is a child doing child things. What is the problem with your child? Are you creating a problem where there is none? If I could do things over I would not frame my child's normal behaviors as problems and would have reacted much less.

When communicating with third parties about your kids -- more information is needed. I can think of situations where communicating with third parties would come up. A hypothetical -- attempting to communicate to the school about your child. Trying to create situations that aren't realistic or possible. Expectations that things should be a certain way. Do you have an understanding of why you are clinging to these expectations and why they are so important in your mind? Are they in reality important or something you have created a story around?

This is something that could be discussed with a therapist. Forget your expectations for a minute -- what are your kid's expectations -- he or she wants to live life as a kid with parents who are mentally healthy. Communicating to third parties about your kid should be rare. Apart from talking with a pediatrician, physicians if there is a medical problem, or allied-health professional if they receive special services like speech therapy, or something similar, there is no need to be discussing our kids with people at length. Even teachers. If we are allowing our kids to be kids, there is not much to discuss with other adults about our kids. Trust that you kid is okay and will thrive even if things aren't perfect. If you don't like something change it, but discussing our kids with third parties in order to convince is madness. If you're discussing your kids with friends, be kind and preserve their privacy.

My story:

I was reliving trauma and it showed up in my parenting. I took things personally and put too much weight into things. I didn't mind my own business enough and I was still very wounded from childhood. I was trying so hard to be a good mother and was determined to not continue the cycle of dysfunction. Still, I was immature and flailing for a great chunk of child-rearing. Parenting is ideally suited for the mentally healthy but that's not how life works unfortunately.

When my kids were in elementary school, and sometimes in their older years, I worried too much if they were okay. Are they happy? Do they have friends? Are they functioning socially and academically? This wondering if they were okay stemmed from my guilt and anxiety and the fact that I was not okay. They were fine, mom was not. Because I did many things "wrong" when they were young, and I wasn't okay when then or when I was their age, I perceived their struggles as my fault. This made things worse. I thought I could create a better environment than I had but my struggles to create a better childhood for my kids mostly backfired because I was stuck in patterns of shame-based thinking.

I was mostly preoccupied with what my kids were doing and created unnecessary drama. I didn't leave them alone enough. An example is when my eldest son (who was probably 12-13 at the time) would habitually pick leaves off shrubs in the front yard. I would tell him to stop and he would still pick the leaves. I can see him picking these leaves off the shrubs while I was lecturing or yelling at him over something as he was exiting the house (like being "mean" to his brother or "mocking" or some other gripe that I had). And he would stand there and listen to me and he would pick these leaves (in a nervous way to relieve stress) and I would yell at him for picking the leaves. How immature of me. Why did I care? Why was this a problem and where was my understanding? I did the typical dysfunctional focusing on the behavior and lives of others instead of my own. My behavior was actually causing 99% of the strife that was happening in my household. My kids were innocent and "victims" of my mental state.

I could go on and on. My dysfunctions ran the gamut from being dismissive of my kids complaints to having a hard time with recognizing them as individuals because I wasn't recognized as a kid. It's amazing what we repeat as parents when we are not aware and haven't worked through our traumas and shame.

Adults create unnecessary struggles. It's never the child's fault. The child is always right if they are upset or protesting or "acting out". See Naomi Aldort's Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. This book opened my eyes on how I was creating problems where there were none.

I sought therapy when my kids were in elementary school and middle school. It was very helpful to my healing and helped me be a calmer person and parent who focused on myself instead of others. The catalyst to seeking therapy was that I was yelling too much when my kids were young. What plagued me was shame, guilt, and anger and those feelings were created by a story I was creating in my mind since childhood that I didn't know how to let go of.

I have some perspective since my kids are now 19 and 16. Thankfully, I mostly left them alone in their middle and high school years and and allowed them to be and recognized them as separate from me. I wish more than anything I could have been better when they were younger. More calm. More free. More fun. Less tense. I can think of some heartbreaking instances where my kids were trying to reach out, or I was unnecessarily harsh or immature.

The best advice is to take very good care of your mental health. See a therapist. Do things for you. Seek support from friends and your partner/spouse, have as much fun as possible, and relax. Your friends and adult activities are important, even if the kids are in tow --see your friends. Talk about adult things. You cannot heal yourself through hyperfocusing on your kid. Leave your kids alone and instead ask what's going on with you. It is important to allow your children to be without labels or problems. If they are intelligent, they will always be intelligent without your interference. Our kids are born loving, kind, curious, and creative. There is nothing to fix or enhance. This allowing is healing for the family. Sure, as parents we correct or "fix" when it comes to practical things like safety, but we don't have to worry so much over their "problems" if they are created by our anxieties or some mind-made story or label.

Good luck, health, and healing.
posted by loveandhappiness at 11:43 PM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

« Older Fish broth for cats   |   Deciding on fees for freelance design work Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments