Parental Mistakes: Trying too Hard to be Unlike Your Parents

Conrad,_Giorgio_(1827-1889)_-_n._202a

Many people come to therapy with grievances about their upbringing. Not surprisingly, they vow, “I won’t do that to my kids.” Therein lies a potential problem.

Let’s assume the parents in question deserve some blame. No mom or dad has ever done the job to perfection, but I’m talking about those actions generating lasting injury: neglect, a lack of affection, or abusive criticism. One might name other failures, but let’s limit ourselves to these.

I remember a female patient (I’ll call her Jean) whose mother made all three of those mistakes according to her adult daughter. Jean’s mom had little time for her pretty and bright child, rarely praised her, but disapproved and punished severely.

The vow not to repeat mother’s errors, however, produced its own set of difficulties. Jean’s headstrong child, Karen, almost always tested the limits mom tried to set up. Jean crumbled. Moreover, not only was she fearful of duplicating her own upbringing, but the mistreatment at her mom’s hands caused insecurity, stripping her of the confidence to stand up to her powerhouse 10-year-old.

Karen (not her real name) needed good limit-setting and reasonable discipline. Jean’s lack of self-assuredness made this impossible to provide. She also believed if she were “too hard” on her daughter, the little girl would lose affection for her. Jean feared, once again (as in her own childhood), losing the fondness of someone she loved. Karen had come to substitute for Jean’s mother in the role of the person whose affection was sought. Indeed, Karen was in charge of things, much as Jean’s mother had been.

My client required the self-confidence to draw and hold the line with her offspring despite the youngster’s relentless begging, pleading, and occasional tantrums. Therapy focused on building up Jean’s self-esteem in order to become the kind of mom her feisty child required. She learned that overindulgence is not the same as good parenting, and that discipline and appropriate criticism need to be a part of any upbringing. Indeed, if you don’t deliver the rigor your child needs, you fail to provide something essential to her psychological health. This is ironic.  Jean was neglectful of Karen in a different fashion than she experienced growing up, because she was trying to avoid the neglect she suffered herself.

This young mother came to realize no amount of affection is, by itself, sufficient to be a good parent. Rather, Karen wouldn’t prosper until she learned Jean would prevent her from doing whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it. Once Jean became aware that being a doormat helped neither herself nor her child, things began to get better for both of them.

Another example makes a similar point. This 15-year-old slender, physically unremarkable male (I’ll call him Joe, the minor league juvenile delinquent) possessed major league talents including shoplifting, breaking curfew, school failure (when he attended), and theft from his parents. His ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) didn’t help. Joe was a short-term thinker, rarely considering the more distant consequences of actions if they appeared momentarily attractive.

Joe — hardly a physical or intellectual giant — overpowered his guardians. Not due to cleverness, but because they too didn’t want to be as tough on him as their own parents had been on them. The teen was out of control, but his folks had no good models to rely upon in figuring out what to do. Mom and dad only understood they didn’t want to repeat their parents’ mistakes: punish and criticize too much.

During Joe’s psychiatric hospitalization I realized Joe was the strongest personality in the house. An interesting conversation with him ensued:

GS: What is it like having your parents in your hip pocket? How does it feel to be able to get away with anything you want?

Joe: Great!

He exclaimed this with much enthusiasm and no hesitation, after which time I remained silent for perhaps 30 seconds. Then Joe said something pretty amazing.

Joe: And scary.

Even Joe realized if he was the driver of the train of his life, a crash was inevitable. No genius, Joe nonetheless grasped this, at least when he reflected on it. Of course, he rarely did out in the world. Joe was a slave to his hair-trigger impulsivity. The insight didn’t change his behavior, but his comment demonstrates children expect someone bigger, stronger, and smarter to protect them. For a few seconds at least, Joe had his own epiphany.

Kids want and need things from their guardians: love, affection, consistency, discipline, good parental models, and so forth. Our guide to doing our job as parents can’t only be the opposite of what our own inadequate caretakers did.

If you had parents who didn’t get a passing grade at the job, I would urge neither to repeat their mistakes, nor to be so scared of doing so that you fail your young ones at the other extreme, which can be just as bad.

Parenting is never easy, for all its joys and rewards. Whether you become the thing you hated growing up or vow to be the polar opposite, parents fail their children whenever they fail to heal themselves. Your disadvantaged life now touches the lives of others. However much one has been injured, the domino game of inherited injury must stop.

The Street Scene at the top is the work of Georgio Conrad and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

8 thoughts on “Parental Mistakes: Trying too Hard to be Unlike Your Parents

  1. This struck a real chord with me, thank you. I struggle greatly with knowing where to draw the line between invalidation and discipline, and I know that that causes a great deal of inconsistency in my behaviour. I am so scared of invalidating my children’s emotions, that I am wary of ‘being tough on them’ or telling to ‘stop being dramatic’. I think that I probably need to get a better sense of the difference between feeling the emotion (and it being okay to do so) and expressing it in age-appropriate ways, but I find that hard to do, and to get that across to my children, as well. I am so adamant I won’t invalidate them as I was invalidated, that I’m in danger of letting them think that any type of emotion expression is acceptable. I tell them that physical manifestations of their emotions are not acceptable (e.g. hitting), but I cannot deal effectively with the tantrums and screaming and seeming ‘over-reactions’ (even writing that makes me feel invalidating!)…Your post is really thought-provoking, and I definitely need to think more about this….

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    • I’m always glad to hear when my words provoke self-reflection. That said, you sound enormously thoughtful in your approach to child-rearing, which is usually a good thing. Too many parents don’t give it the time it requires and react instinctively. You may well be closer to a solution to this than you think. Best of luck. As parents we always need all the luck when can get!

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  2. It’s tough being a parent, more so when one is a single parent. I did not focus on avoiding the mistakes my parents had made. Separated from my parents for many years, I faced different circumstances.

    As a single parent, I did the best I could, within in my own limitations, to protect, defend, and provide for their needs. I could not be lenient like their friends’ mothers. Our survival in a foreign country (Brazil) depended on my ability to perform well at work and on their cooperation in doing their part at home and at school.

    Today they are responsible and reliable young men who work well with others and are making their mark in their given professions.

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  3. Thank you for this post. Parenting is an extremely difficult job with no manual. The best thing I’ve learned is the difference between punishment and discipline. One derives from anger and the other from love. Love, even the tough kind, yields greater cooperation and respect than punishment.

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  4. I’m years off my own kids yet, but the ‘will I be a good mother’ question comes up all the time in therapy at the moment. How can I possibly be a good parent after the modelling I received? I am reassured by my therapist that I will be because of all the work I am doing on myself first.

    This is an interesting perspective, particularly if, like my mother, your abusers were not intending to act maliciously. My mother’s actions mostly came from a good place, but she just got it so wrong sometimes. I will need the same good intentions, but then good skills too. She certainly didn’t have the skills.

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    • I don’t think one needs good models to get it right, or as close to right as we mortals can. I know countless people who have learned from their parents mistakes and don’t swing to the opposite extreme. Part of the challenge of parenting is that one’s own issues emerge as our child passes through some of the difficult moments in our own upbringing. It is hard to prepare for this other than to be open to recognizing what is going on in oneself as it happens and then making any needed course corrections as they are required. Your awareness and concern actually puts you in a good place to do this when the time comes, not to mention your current therapeutic work. Most of the people I have seen who were overmatched by their children tended to act without thought and blamed their kids or were the kind of parents I described in the essay. It also depends on who the children are — their basic nature and needs. Not all kids awaken our own issues equally. Don’t forget, also, that kids are not made of Dresden china: they don’t break so easily!

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