The fact that you want to step away from the negative parenting patterns of your parents is amazing — you’ve already taken a huge leap away from those patterns. Many people grow up in dysfunctional households and never identify what they should try to do differently with their children. You’re in an eyes-wide-open position that’s filled with possibility.
I also invite you to consider that your horrible childhood can be a blessing as well as a curse when it comes to parenting your child. It’s a blessing because you get to start from scratch, and a curse because you have to start from scratch. Regarding the blessing, you have a clean slate you get to fill with your own way of parenting. You get to seek out parenting philosophies that resonate with you, then use pieces of these philosophies to craft your own. It can be an exciting, enlightening process. Regarding the curse, the idea of starting from square one can feel overwhelming. You don’t have positive parenting presets. You don’t have memories filled with happy parenting moments to lean on. You — and your partner, if you have one — are tasked with starting from the beginning. Again, a blessing and a curse.
What to do
Stand firm in the knowing that you’re in no way destined to be a bad parent. You are a wholly unique human who gets to make her own decisions. The dated belief that all women turn into their mothers is ridiculous — you get to choose who you become. You get to choose how you want to parent. The following ideas will help you get on the path that will shape you into the amazing parent you’re destined to be:
Get specific about parenting traits you don’t want to repeat. While you realize you don’t want to parent like your parents, it can be helpful to break down exactly what it is they did or didn’t do that you found damaging. For example, did they ignore you, talk down to you, use corporal punishment, withhold affection, leave you home alone before you were old enough to care for yourself, shame you?
As painful as it might be to dredge this all up, it can be liberating to explore what your parents did and how it impacted you, so you develop a clear picture of how you want to parent. And if you find this difficult to do on your own, seek out the support of a mental health specialist, especially if you experienced abuse.
Determine the type of parent you want to be. Once you pinpoint the parenting methods you don’t want to use, it’ll be easier to determine what methods you want to try. A good place to start is figuring out what the opposite of the negative parenting methods you listed would be. For example, you might list, “actively listening, building up the child’s confidence, using communication instead of physical force to discipline, being openly affectionate, never leaving the child alone (until they’re old enough) or with iffy childcare, supporting the child in navigating failure without shame,” and so on.
Research. The parenting methods you list in the previous step will probably reveal parenting topics you want to learn more about. For example, maybe you’re unsure what nonviolent communication is, are at a loss about compassionate ways to discipline, and want to discover how to be more comfortable with physical affection. Start researching the topics you’re drawn to, and take note of all the ideas and methods you want to try. This will be an ongoing activity, as what works for your family will shift over the years. But every minute of research adds to your base of knowledge and enhances your dedication to being a loving parent. There’s a list of helpful parenting classes and books in the “Recommended Resources” section on page xx to get you started.
In addition to this traditional research, you can research parents you respect. For example, if you appreciate the way your partner’s sister parents, you can spend time observing what she does and doesn’t do, and ask questions about her parenting philosophy. The more you’re around parents who show there’s a better way, the more you’ll develop confidence that you can also choose a better way.
Don’t forget about your intuition. While I’m all about that research, I’m also a big believer in your intuition. The fact that you recognize the damaging aspects of your childhood probably means you’re in tune with your emotions and gut instincts about what feels right and wrong to you. Lean on these instincts as you navigate parenting.
For example, when your child is a toddler and they become upset for no apparent reason, you’ll likely have an instinct about how you can support them. And sure, this instinct might be informed by the parenting research you’ve done, but it’s mainly coming from your inner knowing — your ability to tune into your child and support them in the way that works best for both of you. In some ways, the most important thing you can do as a parent is learn to trust your intuition, and take the time to listen to it when parenting decisions arise.
Stay aware of any impulses to emulate unwanted parenting habits passed on by your parents. As strong as your loving intuition is, it’s not perfect and will sometimes give way to subconscious habits learned from your parents. But all is not lost if that happens. It simply means you’re a human who — like every other human — inherited a few of your parent’s habits. The cool thing is, habits can be changed when they’re noticed. So whenever you have a parenting moment that makes you feel icky, analyze it. For example, if your child is being very persistent about their need for attention, and you snap at them in the way your mother used to snap at you, clock that. You might think, “Hmm, it’s interesting that I responded in that way. How can I stay more calm next time, and respond in a way I feel good about?”
The tricky thing is, it can be hard to have this insight when we’re stressed, as stress can automatically push us into ways of being and thinking we learned as a child. However, developing the habit of using stress-relieving tools like breathing or walking away from a situation until you’ve calmed down helps you step out of the responses your parents ingrained in you, and choose something else.
Essentially, managing stress and keeping your eyes open to the negative influences of your parents’ parenting are two of the best ways to prevent your parents’ unwanted influence from bleeding into your parenting experience.
Be wary of your parents’ current influence. If your parents are a regular fixture in your life, stay attuned to whether your parenting habits change when they’re around. For instance, I have a friend who had a painful childhood and spent years working through her issues with her parents. She eventually got to a place where she could have them in her home for visits — her children were four and eight when these visits began.
What she realized was that she changed the way she treated her children when her parents were around. She either reverted to parenting methods they had used, or went overboard with the new methods she’d learned. “It was like I left my rational mind and based my parenting on their reactions to my children,” she said. “I either wanted to please them, or show them I was a better parent than they were. My kids and husband started dreading visits from them because it changed me so much.”
It got so bad she had a sit-down with her parents. She told them how she felt when they were around and explained that if the visits were to continue, they had to hold their judgments and let her parent the way her children were used to. This didn’t immediately solve all the issues, but it set guidelines that helped prevent her parents’ influence from derailing her thoughtful parenting choices.
Know that you won’t be a perfect parent, and that’s okay. No matter how much effort you put into being an amazing parent, you will make mistakes. Your kids will yell at you, you might yell back, some doors will be slammed, and tears will be shed. This is an inevitable part of parenting, and something no one escapes. When this happens, I encourage you to not punish yourself with guilt and shame, but instead to chalk it up to one of those good ole learning moments and move on. The less time you spend lamenting your parenting mistakes, the more time you can spend loving on your children and yourself.