When you’re parenting your child, do you sometimes feel like you’re reliving moments from your own childhood? Do you want to mirror—or reject—the way your parents raised you?
For good or for bad, how you were raised impacts your parenting. You’re likely to project and pass along emotions associated with your upbringing. Philippa Perry explains that it’s important for you to put emotions where they belong and break any harmful cycles in your family.
Read more to understand how your upbringing affects your parenting.
How You Were Raised Affects Your Parenting
Perry argues that how you were raised affects how you relate to your child. Emotions related to any harm your parents caused you will probably return in your experiences raising your child. This happens when your child’s actions remind you of something you did or experienced around the same age. You’ll likely relive the emotions you felt when your parents didn’t give you the attention, love, or support you needed when you exhibited the same behavior.
(Shortform note: You may not only feel emotionally triggered by your child’s behaviors that remind you of your own behavior as a child. You may also experience strong emotions when they exhibit behaviors that directly mirror how your parents acted when you were young. For example, if your parents often yelled at you growing up, you might respond with aversion, fear, or anger if your child raises their voice at you. Additionally, everyone involved in raising your child will be triggered by different things because you all had different experiences growing up. This can sometimes cause conflicts between parents, as the different ways you were raised lead you to respond to your child’s behavior differently.)
Often, instead of processing these emotions from past experiences—such as sadness that your parents didn’t give you what you needed—you’ll experience another strong, negative feeling toward your child. This might be anger, disgust, frustration, envy, resentment, or fear. You might not know why you’re reacting that way, but you can’t help it. For example, maybe your child becomes deeply interested in dinosaurs, and he wants to tell you facts about them around the clock. For reasons unknown to you, you find this annoying. It becomes so grating that you eventually snap at him, even though you know it’s unfair.
These negative emotions are defense mechanisms you’ve developed to avoid reliving what you went through at the same age. Your need to avoid the emotions you experienced in the past leaves you unable to empathize with your child, instead driving you to focus on an emotion that’s easier to feel (like anger).
(Shortform note: Why is anger so common as a defense mechanism against more difficult emotions? First, anger is by nature protective—it speeds up your heart rate, increases blood flow to your hands, and prompts the release of energy-fueling hormones like adrenaline, all of which prepare you to take action against danger. When you experience a more vulnerable, raw emotion such as sadness or fear, you might perceive that emotion as a danger to your well-being. Maybe it makes you vulnerable to another person in a way that’s uncomfortable, or it represents a truth you aren’t ready to face (such as a bad childhood experience). Once you perceive this danger, anger steps in to defend you.)
Putting It Into Practice: Decipher Where Emotions Belong
Perry states that your past doesn’t have to rule your relationship with your child—if you examine and reflect on your childhood and allow yourself to feel the accompanying emotions, you can avoid passing the same issues down the family line.
Every time you feel an unpleasant emotion resulting from your child’s behavior, take it as a cue to think about any other possible sources for that feeling. Pause instead of expressing the emotion, step away from the situation, and take some time to reflect. Ask yourself if the emotion fits the present situation or if it’s related to something that happened to you in the past. What’s preventing you from understanding and empathizing with your child’s perspective? This will help you avoid acting on the negative feelings and emotionally harming your child in the process.
For example, after snapping at your child to stop talking about dinosaurs, you feel bad, so you think about where your annoyance stems from. Upon reflecting, you remember that when you were the same age, your parents rarely took the time to listen to what you were interested in—they always brushed you off or shushed you so they could continue talking about their interests. Instead of snapping the next time, you engage your child in a conversation about dinosaurs so he knows you’re interested in what he cares about.
(Shortform note: This process that Perry describes reflects healthy emotional self-regulation—our ability to control emotions and impulses, rather than immediately acting on them. It’s important for our mental and social well-being. People who aren’t emotionally self-regulated may display emotional outbursts, frequently overreact, experience prolonged negative emotions, and have mood swings. Luckily, it’s a skill that anyone can practice. The basics of an emotionally regulated response follow the same pattern as Perry’s exercise: Notice the intensification of your emotions, pause to assess the consequences of responding in different ways, and choose a path forward that will lead toward a positive outcome.)
|How to Observe Feelings Mindfully
As you note down strong feelings you experience, consider using these three tips to observe them with curiosity. These techniques will help you understand the source of the emotions and help you pause so you don’t act on them rashly:
1) Observe the feeling as if you were an outsider looking in. Has the feeling intensified at any point? Are you having any physical sensations as you experience the emotion? This technique reminds you that your emotions don’t control you—you can act as a spectator.
2) Name what you’re experiencing out loud. For example, you might say something like, “I observe frustration. There’s tension in my forehead and I’m clenching my teeth.”
3) Remind yourself that the feeling isn’t inherently good or bad—it’s simply there.
In addition to identifying negative emotions related to your child’s behavior, look for automatic negative thoughts, which appear based on a stimulus and without conscious thought. These thought patterns may give you more insight into where the emotion is coming from and help you reframe it.
For instance, along with your annoyance as the parent of the dinosaur-loving child, you might experience the automatic thought, “He should know when to stop talking. He’s going to annoy other people, and it’ll be embarrassing.” Instead of accepting that thought as truth, recognize it and refute it. Remind yourself that he’s just excited about his interests, and his excitement indicates positive traits like curiosity and passion. Additionally, you can teach him to give space for others to talk, but other than that, it doesn’t matter what other people think.
Exercise: Reflect on a Past Parenting Experience
Reflect on how you could have applied Perry’s advice to a parenting experience from your past so you’ll feel ready to apply her insights to similar situations in the future.
- Describe a parenting challenge that you wish you’d handled differently, or describe a childhood experience of being parented that you wish your parents had handled differently. (For example, maybe your child cried because you wouldn’t buy a toy, and you snapped at them for being ungrateful. Or, maybe your parents never disagreed in front of you, so now you have no idea how to solve conflicts with your partner.)
- Which of Perry’s tips could you or your parent(s) have applied to handle this situation better? (For example, instead of snapping at your child for their tantrum, you might have soothed them by empathizing and acknowledging that they were feeling sad because they couldn’t have what they wanted. Instead of hiding their conflicts from you, your parents could have demonstrated healthy conflict resolution strategies like avoiding accusatory statements.)
- What’s another piece of advice from Perry you hope to implement in the future? Why? (For example, you plan to acknowledge your mistakes because you don’t want your child to feel like they have to be perfect or can’t trust you.)