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You are becoming like your parents and here's what you can do about it

“You’re acting like your mother!”

 How do you feel when you say that to yourself? For some of us, despite early and frequent admonitions it would never happen, that might not be such a bad thing. However, regardless of how positive or negative we have evaluated our experience of being parented; there will be places where we want to do things a little differently. And yet- there we stand- same corny joke, same lecture on making better eating choices, same blurted response as you watch your children fight like little Mixed Martial Arts raccoons re-enacting every violent scene from BBC Planet Earth.

Whether we are aware of it or not, how we were cared for dramatically influences how we will care for our children and manage relationships in our lives. Early relationships shape our emotional forms and often do so below the surface. Many of these influences remain dormant, or less visible, until we are in a caregiving role. Children have a wonderful capacity for stripping our emotional architecture bare; exposing unseen sides of our emotional selves as our arousal systems rev in complex new patterns.

Much like being too tired, being hungry or bringing home stress from work, how we were parented inevitably spills into our emotional reactions in the home. Take a quick look at your emotional responses to your children over the last few days. Are there times where you believe your emotional response to their behaviour was more intense than you were expecting? What was it that triggered the response?

I wouldn’t go as far as Plato to suggest that an unexamined life is not worth living; but I would confidently state that some examination can make life better. Through examining how we interact with the world we can do a better job of changing aspects of ourselves that aren't producing advantageous outcomes. Take a moment to reflect on some of the places where you have had a strong reaction to your child’s behaviour. Perhaps you reacted strongly to whining about being bored, or doing homework, dishonesty or even simple things like how they sit on a couch or the sounds they make while eating.

Try to unpack that response for a moment. Consider the experiences you have had that may influence that response. How did you feel about yourself growing up that was similar or dissimilar? What messages did you receive as a child that might be related? Try to bring forward some of the stories from your childhood of how you were parented. Every emotional response is a push or a pull. What outcome might that emotional response be pulling towards or pushing away from?

The more we understand our responses, the less power they have over us. Our childhoods can be much like a cluttered cabinet where all of the memories- good or bad- were crammed in and the doors closed. As items from that cupboard are called for in our current lives, they come with the risk of bringing out other unintended items. The better we can pull items out of that cupboard in a controlled way, clean them and place them back in neatly- the less likely we are to be surprised by uncomfortable, or at worse dangerous, surprises.

 Examining our lives is the process of cleaning the items previously jammed into the cupboards.  It allows us to disentangle them from things that we didn’t know were connected. If we need to dig into that cabinet in a hurry, or draw on emotions with limited resources, we have reduced the risk of things spilling over if we have taken the time to sort through them when calm.

If opening that cupboard is too overwhelming, that might be evidence that talking to a professional could be helpful. This can be a vulnerable place to acknowledge. It could also be an opportunity to approach that weakness and build strength.

More than anything else in the world, I want my children to develop in a way that promotes happiness and safety for them. I want them to live lives rich with reward. Much like we inevitably become like our own parents in some regards- so too our children will become like us. There will always be blind spots but by shining a light on as many corners of our emotional selves as possible we can have a more rewarding experience and become the people we want our children to swear they won’t become and then reluctantly acknowledge they have.

(Painting at top is Grant Wood's 1930 classic American Gothic)


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