“When we regulate our own emotions our children learn to regulate their emotions. That allows them to regulate their behavior, presuming they’re connected enough to us to want to.”
A few days later, one of my readers sent me this response:
“But… what if you were raised in a totally dysfunctional family where screaming & yelling were the norm? Where both parents were dealing with mental illness and addiction? How do you try to unlearn that behavior 30-something years later when you’re sleep-deprived & in the trenches with children totally challenging you on the best of days & absolutely reducing you to screams or tears during the uglier part of other days without feeling like a miserable failure of a parent causing lifelong damage & teaching your children a horrible example? For those who were raised in turbulent, loud, unpredictable, chaotic, sometimes scary, often unpleasant homes by parents who modeled really shitty behavior, it’s not impossible surely, but it’s probably a little harder….”
This question resonated with me deeply, because this reader was unknowingly describing my childhood, which was characterized by multiple divorces, mental illness, alcoholism, rage, and chaos. There is no question that parenting is challenging, and we all face unique struggles, such as financial issues, children with a range of special needs, single parenting, etc. A history of childhood trauma or being under-parented is another factor that undoubtedly makes parenting harder.
This question is so important that I am going to answer it in two posts: first, why and how does a chaotic childhood impact our parenting, and second, what can we do about it?
On a most basic and obvious level, the primary way we learn the skills and techniques of child rearing is from our parents. Of course, there is an abundance of information online about how to do everything from breastfeed to take a baby’s temperature to prepare for kindergarten, but those are the words of strangers—people who don’t know your family’s unique situation, culture, and preferences. There is something powerful and meaningful about continuing the practices, traditions, and rituals that our parents used to structure our childhoods—this is how my mother bathed me, or started me on solids, and I’m doing the same for my child. Those of us who want—or need—to do things in a drastically different way are often left feeling confused, disoriented, and doubtful.
On a deeper level, parenting when you yourself were under-parented can be triggering in surprising and frightening ways. I am a clinical social worker and therapist—I have spent years of my life studying and working in the field of human relationships—and I have done years of my own therapy, yet I was still knocked completely off my center by the ways in which parenting challenged me. Even though I was the adult in the situation, I was often responding to my daughters from the same emotional place I had been in when I was a child: scared, stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, and confused. Even relatively benign, age appropriate behavior by my children (my three-year old throwing a tantrum, for example) would trigger me, and I would end up yelling and then hating myself for it. I would beat myself up, get into an even worse headspace, and then yell again. It became a terrible cycle.
For many of us who grew up in chaotic childhoods, our negative reactions to our children (which can include yelling or even hitting) are not coming from a conscious place. I certainly never start the day thinking, “Why yes, yelling is an effective and useful parenting tool and I plan to yell at the girls as soon as I can.” Actually, I often wasn’t even aware that I was yelling until the words were already flying out of my mouth. That is because I was responding from what Dr. Dan Siegel calls “the low road,” which is when the grown-up part of my brain (the prefrontal cortex) basically shuts down and I am no longer capable of making thoughtful, empathic decisions. Essentially, I just lose my shit.
If you’re not sure what I mean by the “low road,” wait 10 minutes until your kid has her next tantrum. Is she being logical? Thoughtful? Responsive? Kind? Nope. She’s on the low road. Every parent ends up on the low road from time to time, but those of us from chaotic childhoods may be more likely to head there more often, precisely because we were taken down that particular path so many times in our childhoods (either by our parents or in response to our parents) that our brain heads right down that well-traveled path more quickly and more often than it might have otherwise.
The good news is that there are things we can do to start to reverse the trends of our childhood. I’ll go into more detail about them in my next post, but I’m sure you can predict what I’m going to say: it’s all about coming back to awareness and kindness, whenever we can.
Woman berating crying child image available from Shutterstock.