Rewriting your family script

Amy held her first-born child in her hands and she felt a deep rush of warmth across her body. As she caressed her baby, she made a promise to her baby and herself that she will be the best mother in the world, not following in her parents’ footsteps in parenting.

Time flies and with three young energetic children, Amy took a little time off one day to regroup. As she reviewed her parenting trajectory, she noticed to her utter dismay that she might have repeated some of her parent’s mistakes or resisted practices that they’d adopted.

Amy wondered if the following are tell-tale signs that her childhood experiences might be negatively affecting her own parenting.

1. Doing the opposite of what her parents did

Amy’s parents were very critical of her when she was growing up. When she did well in school, instead of praising her for her good academic results, her father would say, “If only you had studied a bit more, you would have gotten an A, now you have to settle for a B+.”

When she told her mother that she had put in much effort in her class project and won praise from her school teacher, her mother would say, “Putting in the effort to achieve that good result is expected, nothing to shout about.”

In Amy’s earliest memories, her parents were stingy with praise and words of encouragement. She felt she had to constantly strive to be the best to get their approval and affirmation. Amy knew the sting of rejection, so she overcompensated and took excessive measures by praising her children for every little thing they did well. Her praises soon lost their impact as her older children perceived these praises as mere platitudes instead of achieving her intent to motivate or uplift them.

2. Living life vicariously through her child

Amy had a secret desire as a young child. She loved dancing, especially ballet. She wanted to join ballet classes and had on several occasions expressed her desire to her parents only to have her dream squashed.

When her eldest child was four years old, Amy enrolled her in ballet school, much to her daughter’s chagrin. Every trip to the dance studio is like a battle that mother and daughter had to engage in. When the perceptive dance teacher suggested to Amy that her four-year-old might be more suited for speech and drama instead of ballet, Amy insisted that given more time and practice, the girl would shine in ballet dancing.

There is nothing wrong when parents encourage their child to be involved in activities that they enjoy – provided they follow their child’s lead. Unfortunately, even with the most loving parents, unresolved childhood issues can cause one to project unfulfilled or broken dreams onto their children.

3. Getting emotionally triggered

Amy noticed that she often displayed exaggerated reactions toward her children’s behaviour. There were also instances where the children’s seemingly harmless remarks triggered intense emotional outbursts from her. She usually attributed such outbursts of anger or disappointment to her “running on empty”.

4. Imitating her own parents

“You are just like your mother/father!”

Amy would receive such feedback from her significant other when she was disciplining or interacting with her children.

Even though Amy baulked at the comment, she realised there was a grain of truth in it. When she was stretched to the end of her capacity trying to cope with her 4-year-old’s separation anxiety, Amy would lash out “You are such a cry-baby!”

As soon as she used that phrase on her child, she got a sense of déjà vu, as if transported back to those times when that phrase was used on her as a child whenever she felt insecure and started crying.

Can you relate to Amy in any one or all the tell-tale signs? Is stress triggering Amy’s outbursts, or is there something deeper?

While it is true that Amy’s overreaction or emotional outbursts can be triggered by high levels of stress due to the competing demands of caregiving, work and life, an ongoing pattern of overreactions signals that something deeper is informing Amy’s reality.

How can we break the cycle of negativity? How can we do it right when we’ve learned it wrong?

How your childhood experiences impact how you parent

Attachment research posits that the quality of our early attachment bonds with our primary caregivers profoundly influences how we behave as adults. As children, our parents or adopted parents (or whoever your primary caregivers are) are our first role models of adulthood and the world we live in. Thus, consciously, or unconsciously, we adopt our parents’ worldview, beliefs and repeat our parents’ behaviour with our own children.

History is not destiny. Like Amy, parenting gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own early experiences. If we do not want to re-create the same experiences with our children, we can re-write our family script.

How can we break the cycle of negativity? How can we do it right when we’ve learned it wrong?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Be curious of how the past is influencing your parenting
    Awareness is an important first step towards change.

Knowing how your childhood experiences is affecting your parenting is half the battle won. You can make the desired changes by holding on to what you think is helpful, right, and effective, and letting go of beliefs or practices that do not serve your children well.

Let your pain be the catalyst and precursor to change.

  • Embrace past experiences and find healing
    Recognising painful experiences from the past is a difficult but needful start to re-writing a new narrative. If you were distressed or traumatised growing up, embracing the childhood pain, and finding healing can help you move toward emotional growth and maturity.

It has been said: “You cannot be free of your early experiences by denying their significance or ignoring them.”

The process of “going home again” or revisiting family-of-origin issues is not about blaming your own parents. They probably did not have a parenting manual to guide them during that time, unlike what you have now, and they raised you the best they knew how, given what they had learned from their own parents.

By choosing to process your past, whether it is on your own, with someone you trust and or with the help of a counsellor, you will be better able to deal with current relationship challenges in a flexible and appropriate way.

Let your pain be the catalyst and precursor to change.

Unlearn, learn, relearn information

If you did not have very good parental role models, you can acquire new knowledge to help you be a better parent, but also to understand the gaps in your personality development as you were growing up. Attend parenting talks, seminars, or simply invest in some good books. Additionally, you can join support groups that focus on family-of-origin issues and find solace and encouragement among people who are on a similar journey.

Growing up in one’s family of origin is a powerful experience and its impact on your parenting trajectory cannot be overstated. Developing an awareness of how the past is present and informing the way you raise your children is half the battle won.

Remember – You always have the choice to make changes, be it holding on to beliefs and practices that serve your children well or ditching those that are counterproductive in raising happy and healthy children.

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Chan Swee Fen

Chan Swee Fen is an ordinary woman who desires to inspire others to make an extra-ordinary impact through her family life and life skills workshops, counselling training sessions and writing.

Tell your friends