You probably have thought about this: how come that a person who has been mistreated while growing up, ends up mistreating his/her own children in much the same way? It can seem very hard to understand. But when you take out the MIS in the sentence above, you end up with a much more common question including a part of the answer.
Although there are many factors involved, there's definitely a dynamic going on we call reaction-parenting.
The word has developed from our experience as parents and as professionals working with families.
"Unless you consciously add something new to it,
the way you bring up your children will always be a
reaction to the upbringing you have had."
The more you grow up, the more you are able to look back upon your childhood and your relationship with your parents/caretakers (from here on - parents - for practical reasons).
Surely looking back, you will see pros and cons, the good and the bad, the fun and the sadness. But for many of us our childhood and upbringing memories have a predominant tone/feel/color to them, relating to overall negative or positive feelings.
Then, when you become a parent, a new perspective comes into play. Before you looked back on your life from a child's perspective, but now you are able to look at the same thing from a parent's perspective. This is where it becomes very interesting, because now your thoughts about your upbringing start to relate to your developing ideas about parenting.
What will reflecting on your upbringing result in? To mention the extremes:
A will you conclude you are happy with how your parents handled you?
B would you like something different for your children?
Either way, the question is not whether you think your parents did a good or a bad job. It is really about what's next! What kind of parent will you be for your children and what is it based on?
To illustrate the extreme cases mentioned just above:
We all know someone who, at some point, turned his back on his parents because of how things went during childhood. For this person, it has been necessary to break away from an unhealthy relationship.
You also know someone who's very close with his parents. Maybe too close from your point of view because you see signs of over-dependency and smothering. Both persons might look back upon childhood in a very different way, have contradicting thoughts about what they wish for their kids and how they will achieve this. For both persons however, there's an equal chance they continue the deep-ingrained family traditions.
John Mayer sings in one of his latest songs:
"Will it wash out with the water,
or is it always in the blood"
(In the blood, John Mayer, 2017).
Whether you decide you are happy or unhappy with the way your parents raised you, and despite your reaction, what you will do as a parent eventually remains a continuation of the same thing.
Not because it's 'in the blood'. Let me explain:
To begin with, you will act like you were modeled. For the image you have of parenting, you have had (in general) two very close models: mum and dad (or any figure representing those roles). What they did, or even more so, who they were to you as a child, has a very, very big and deep impact on you that shouldn't be underestimated.
On a conscious level you try to understand the world and the way it works (what is 'normal' and expected) through them, first and foremost. On a subconscious level, you integrate a lot of who they are into your own system, like their beliefs, their relationships, their patterns, their behavior.
Normally, while your world gets bigger, other people have a growing significance in your life. These people all contribute to your personal development in a similar way your parents do. This will help you to grow more and more differentiated all through your life.
Nonetheless, there's not many people with a "natural" impact like your parents when it concerns your development as a parent.
It will not just 'wash out with the water'.
It's all about the tools.
Personally I like to use the image of a toolbox:
all through your life, you develop skills to cope with life. These skills are your tools.
For example, it includes ways of dealing with emotions, changes, challenges, differences, roles, intimacy etc.
The tools that are most familiar to you and most practiced, are easiest to grab and use.
Growing up, you expand your collection of tools. Even though new tools come in and the toolbox becomes rearranged, familiar tools will remain on top in your toolbox.
While you develop you also change your opinion about some of your available tools. When you find a new tool and add it to your collection it will not directly be the easiest one to use. You need practice even if you are really enthusiastic about this one.
Likewise, some tools you do not like to use anymore can be really hard to leave hold of.
In the heat of the moment,
when emotions take over,
we are most likely to just grab
any tool that is available to us.
Exactly, these are the tools that are easiest to grab, most familiar, most handy.
This is the ingrained, our patterns. In some cases that's fine, that's really handy because it is exactly, or at least comes close to, what you wish you would do in this particular situation. You fall back on your reflex, your unconscious takes over and it can be a satisfying experience.
Imagine a multitasking mother under pressure who snaps and releases tensions through crying while her kids and friends are present. She might not feel good about it at first as it wasn't her plan, but it clears the air for at least a moment.
In other cases, when the pattern, the reflex, is not the way you would prefer it to be, it is a really frustrating experience. It might be causing problems to you or others close to you.
In these cases the tools are often very old and unwanted but so easy to grab and use.
Imagine the same mother under pressure who snaps and becomes angry at her kids, shouting just enough to feel really guilty about what she did. She risks getting stuck in the guilt-shame cycle creating the conditions needed to start over-stretching herself again soon.
Out of your comfort zone.
This is one of the many reasons why we advise parents (to-be) to explore what there is to explore about parenting outside of their own experience and familiar circle of friends and family.
Getting new things into your frame of reference reduces the chance of falling into the trap of just reacting on your own upbringing. Even when your upbringing was everything you wish for your children, exploring new ideas and beliefs can yield eye-opening experiences.
When you intend to be a different kind of parent than what you know off, then certainly exploring outside your comfort zone is essential.
"Get new tools into your collection
and practice them."
Develop your personal parenting style, based on:
Eventually you will find, that you become the owner and arranger of your toolbox. Then, even when times are hard, your preferred tools will be easily accessible.
About the Author
Jesse Verboom is a parent, psychologist and inspirational parent coach who works both locally and internationally with mothers, fathers, couples and families. He is the co-founder of Baby Boom Spain that provides unique educational luxury holidays for parents-to-be (and those who are already parents) in a relaxing and beautiful environment where they are taught an holistic approach to parenting, gaining valuable knowledge and vital tools for raising and caring for their child(ren).