We often hear the cornerstone of healthy parenting quoted as consistently “responding with sensitivity” to our infants’ and children’s emotional and physical needs in relation to their biological-developmental stage. And while I agree this overarching idea is at the core of healthy parenting, I do not feel that it is necessarily as instinctual as many authors and parenting experts claim.
Before parents can even fathom relying on their gut feelings in how to approach their parent-child relationships in a healthy, sensitive way, it is my firm belief that they must first address and heal from any childhood emotional wounds they may be carrying around, often without their realization until they bring a new child into the world, and even sometimes not even then.
Depending on life circumstances, our individual attachment quality, the patterns of our relationships from childhood on, communication style, coping skills picked up along the way and other factors, even the most balanced people among us can still have areas in their emotional life needing attention. And every one of us always has room to improve, just because we humans are like that—if we’re not intentionally moving forward, we’ll slide backwards.
No matter what parenting style or approach we are planning or are trying to implement with our children, it is imperative for each of us to identify and study what makes us tick as individuals, what we want to keep and change, and what we want to pass down to our children or not.
While some parents are affected in such a way by their childhood wounds that they naturally go the very opposite way, most parents who are not actively choosing to do things differently will raise their children the same way they were raised, whether they want to or not. Parenting has a way of opening old wounds, and those old wounds can even re-traumatize parents if they’re not careful.
Without addressing what unhealthy coping skills, relationship tendencies or other emotional issues we may be carrying around, we have a definite possibility of passing these same traits down to our children. Our kids are learning from us whether we’re actively trying to teach them or not. A father who cannot handle his temper should not be surprised at all if his son does the same. Even if that same father was careful to go to another room or outside to try to hide his behavior from his child, that father is still impressing upon his son an unhealthy coping skill and his son will pick up something similar, maybe avoidance or addiction.
Perhaps you feel that while there may be better ways of coping with stress, you don’t see your coping skills as bad as some. Maybe you tend to overwork or eat too much ice cream or chew on your fingernails. And your child may pick up these same habits, but not always—depending on your child’s individual temperament, she may internalize how you cope but choose other behaviors that may be far less benign. And who’s to say that these anxious behaviors are any worse than another’s habit if any of them are unhealthy and there are better skills to learn to cope with stress?
Even parents who somehow go the very opposite way of how they were parented can go too far. Without addressing their childhood wounds, their internal compass can’t orient itself accurately and parents may respond to their children not because they want something better for their child, though they do, but rather out of fear of whatever they are trying to avoid. For example, consider a mother who was abused as a child and who then becomes a parent who refuses to put any limits on her son’s behavior. The lessons a child learns may not be any healthier than those that the parent grew up with and wanted to avoid.
While some people are able to work through their childhood emotional wounds on their own, and I do applaud you if so, sometimes a mental health counselor is needed—and we shouldn’t be ashamed of this. In fact, just as preventative visits to a medical doctor or dentist are recommended throughout a person’s life, perhaps all of us—whether or not we have a clinically diagnosable condition like anxiety or depression—should be seeing a therapist on an annual basis for a mental well-being check-up.