As a psychotherapist and mother of four, I understand the desire, expressed by many of my clients, to be the best parent you can be, to raise children who are resilient and compassionate. Of course, I also understand the flipside of that hope — the fear that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes our parents made with us.
Becoming a parent puts you back into the intimate parent-child relationship, only this time in a different role. It’s natural to worry that your own early experiences as children might seal your fate as a parent. But what if you were to look at this new role as an opportunity to grow as an individual? Even if you had a difficult childhood, as long as you can come to make sense of those experiences, you need not be stuck re-creating the same negative interactions with your own children.
As a therapist, I draw upon attachment theory and the latest findings in neuroscience. Research into child development has revealed that a child’s security of attachment to parents is very strongly connected to the parent’s understanding of their own early history. How you make sense of your childhood experiences, positive and negative, has a profound effect on how you parent your own children.
We are also learning more about the importance of emotional intelligence as an essential part of a healthy, well balanced life. As parents we have the opportunity to model self-reflection, empathic responses, flexibility, being present, and honest communication about feelings. This is known as “mindful parenting.”
Committing ourselves to mindful parenting, perhaps with the support of a therapist, can free us from the patterns of the past. Think of it as a gift to our children.
Getting Rid of ‘Leftover’ issues
An important first step is for parents to examine issues that are left over from their own childhood. For instance, one therapy client, a middle aged woman and mother who I will call Rebecca, experienced two significant losses in early childhood, her parent’s divorce and moving from the family home. Rebecca’s parents, young and inexperienced, and probably overwhelmed with their own emotions, failed to explain the changes that were occurring. Instead, the parents told Rebecca that the father was going away for the weekend. When the father didn’t return for weeks, she was confused and sad, but eventually understood the father wasn’t coming home. Not long after, Rebecca was walking home from school one day, and saw strange men moving furniture out of their house. She thought they were being robbed. Her mother had not explained they were moving.
She felt insecure, uncertain, and abandoned. These life stressors, divorce and moving, are common, but Rebecca experienced them as a significant emotional trauma because the adults in her life were emotionally unavailable. She needed her parents to provide reassurance and comfort, to explain what changes were happening and why. In order to process emotional distress, children need their primary caregivers to communicate clearly with them and to listen with empathy, giving them a sense of being connected and heard.
Imagine these events were a part of your history. After becoming a parent yourself, separation experiences might trigger your own sense of abandonment and lead you to assume that every change or stressor is traumatic for your child. Your discomfort, in turn, would be perceived by your child and create insecurity in them, increasing their distress, which would heightening further your own sense of discomfort. Leftover issues can affect your parenting on an unconscious level, setting off a vicious circle of responses in which your history overwhelms your child’s own experience. This causes everyone needless frustration and conflict.
Clients often experience this kind of emotional reactivity when their child is entering a developmental stage that was particularly difficult for them. Their child is developing in a healthy, normal way, but the parent is inaccurately perceiving difficulties. I will ask my client questions about what life was like for them at that particular age. We typically uncover painful memories or experiences that haven’t been fully understood. Once these issues are exposed and explored, the client can then separate what belongs to them from what their child is experiencing.
How well we connect with our children has a profound impact on their development. Communication that is sensitive and reciprocal nurtures a child’s sense of security, which helps them thrive in many areas of their lives. If home is a safe landing spot, they will feel confident to move around in the world.
Mindful parenting means interacting with our children in a way that isn’t contaminated by our own negative childhood experiences. Even if your family may have expressed shame around negative emotions, you should consciously encourage your child to talk freely about their feelings. Because sharing builds connections with others, emotions shape our internal and interpersonal experiences, and give our life meaning.
The higher your emotional IQ, the more connected you will be to your children. Nurturing relationships involve the sharing and amplification of positive emotions, as well as soothing and reduction of negative ones. This emotional attunement involves awareness of non-verbal cues, like tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, timing and intensity of responses.
When a parent resonates with a child’s emotions, the child experiences himself as good, which is crucial for healthy development. If we are unmindful of our own emotions, or paralyzed by leftover issues and the reactions that come from them, emotional attunement can be very hard to create. Of course no one is perfect; we are all beautifully flawed human beings doing the best we can. It’s completely acceptable to be a work in progress. And accordingly, we should made a habit of apologizing to our children when we make mistakes.
Building Emotional IQ
To be present and aware of our children’s emotional state, it’s important to stay in touch with our own. Here are 5 mindfulness strategies for cultivating emotional intelligence and attuning to your children:
- Be Self-Aware. Pay attention to your own internal experiences when you are feeling upset by your children’s behavior. With resolution of our own bad emotional habits comes flexibility in how we respond to our children.
- Journal. When your emotions do heat up, write it down. What are your triggers? Do you notice any patterns? Reflect on your memories. Focus on the past, present, and future aspects of the issue. Think of 3 words that describe your relationship with your son or daughter. Does it resemble your own childhood experience, or is it different? How?
- Repair. Learn how to reconnect with your child after there’s been a rupture or conflict. Be willing to say you’re sorry, and to share what thoughts and feelings were driving your behavior. This is beneficial on many levels and models an important interpersonal skill.
- Network. You’d be surprised how many struggle with the same issues. Reach out to other parents and friends for support. Friends have a multitude of valuable experiences different from our own, and they keep us accountable and lift our spirits when we take ourselves too seriously.
- Psychotherapy. Of course, sometimes an experienced and objective counselor can best help us see the way forward. Talking to a trusted, skilled professional can support your growth.
We are not destined to repeat the patterns of the past. With some focused thought and effort, any parent can learn ways of being with their children that promote empathy and compassionate understanding. As we strive to know ourselves, we will encourage our children to know themselves. It all boils down to connection. Making sense of our life stories enables us to have deeper connections with our children and to live a more joyful life together.