When Your Parent Was Not A Healthy Role Model

Photo: Ground Picture / Shutterstock
parents with their 2 kids

Many people feel anxious and insecure about parenting because of their own upbringing. While some lucky people are happy with the way that they were parented, others, raised in more dysfunctional families, are highly committed to raising their own kids very differently than they themselves were brought up.

This is commendable but difficult. How can you raise your own child confidently when you have no role model to channel in times of parenting stress or ambiguity?

RELATED: To My Father's Mistress Who Broke My Family

In my practice, I see many people who struggle with this internal conflict.

They know that they want to raise healthy, confident, secure children, but the only type of parenting that comes naturally to them is the dysfunctional parenting that they experienced themselves.

Here are some examples:

  • A new mom is very confident that she will never scream at her kids the way her own mother screamed daily at her. She sticks to this resolution easily until her daughter turns 3 and becomes more defiant. The first time she sees her daughter’s face freeze in fear after she screams at her to be quiet and listen, she bursts into tears and feels like a failure as a mom, realizing that all of the gentle parenting books she has read are no match for her innate instinct to scream.
  • A man wanted to be close to his son, especially because he was so sad as a child when his alcoholic dad didn’t care to spend much time with him. However, spending alone time with his own eight-year-old son feels awkward, and has felt that way since the child was born. He tries to push this thought out of consciousness, and when his wife brings up the idea of father and son activities, he snaps that maybe if she worked outside the home, he would have time to go fishing and play ball with his kid, but being the primary breadwinner affords him no such luxury. In his heart, though, he knows he has no clue how to bond with his son, and this pains him deeply.
  • A woman whose mother favored her brother has promised herself that she will treat her children completely equally. However, she can’t help enjoying the time she spends with her son more than the time she spends with her daughter. She tells herself that this is because her daughter is a more difficult personality, but she wonders how things would be if she herself had any positive memories of family time where it wasn’t obvious that her mother loved her brother more than her.

RELATED: 'My Child Has Broken Me' — Mom Says Daughter Has Turned On Her After Meeting Estranged Father

In all of these examples, which aren’t about actual clients but are very common, it is obvious that these people are struggling a great deal.

They are aware that their parenting isn’t living up to their expectations for themselves, and they are even aware that this is likely due to their own upbringing. This awareness in and of itself is very useful, and people who have not yet made the link between their own parenting difficulties and their upbringing are even further from stopping this pattern.

(If you are a person struggling with parenting who has never considered the role of your own childhood experiences in your current issues, read Parenting From The Inside Out, most of the books I list here… and basically my whole blog.)

But what are the next steps to take when you recognize that your automatic parenting default is tuned to a setting that you don’t like? Therapy can help greatly when figuring out how to respond differently to your own children than you yourself were responded to.

Additionally, reading books, reaching out to friends or even online support groups (many people who were raised in dysfunctional homes love Facebook parenting groups, which reassure them that other people struggle the same way that they do), and finding mentors in their community (such as watching and trying to emulate a mom friend, aunt, in-law, or teacher who disciplines or bonds with kids in a way that you respect) all very useful and viable options.

RELATED: Woman Uncovers Her Father's Secret Second Family After He Stole Her Wedding Gift To Give To His Daughter

Additionally, working with a therapist or introspecting deeply on your own can help you recognize what your most sensitive triggers are and how to overcome them. A great idea is to use a calendar/journal in which you record your parenting difficulties day to day and reflect on possible reasons that things went well or poorly.

For example, the screaming mother in the example above may, after observing her own behavior for a month, realize that she finds it hardest to refrain from screaming when she feels overwhelmed in the afternoons, and also when it is the week leading up to her period. 

Knowing these triggers may make her tell her husband that they need a babysitter to give her a break a few times a month in the afternoon (or maybe he can even arrange his schedule to come home earlier, or she could take her child to a class at that time), and she may even consult her provider about the possibility that she suffers from PMDD.

On that note, if you suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other disorder, treatment will make it immeasurably easier for you to parent in the way that you want to.

Therapy and/or medication have changed many people’s lives. Read this account of a woman who had a depressed mother, and think about how her childhood may have been transformed had her mother’s depression been treated successfully.

It is not easy to dial your automatic parenting default to another station, but it can be done, and it is one of the most worthwhile accomplishments, if not the most worthwhile, that you can achieve in your lifetime. Introspection, research, writing, therapy, and medication can all help.

But the first and most essential step is being able to objectively look in at your own parenting behavior and recognize that you’re parenting more like your own parents than you ever thought you would.

Although this is a sad realization, just by having it, you are on the path to positive behavior change and to being the parent that your children deserve. 

RELATED: Father Shares The Moment He Had To Choose Between Fiancee And His Unborn Child

Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.