A Fresh Start
Anticipating the birth of your child is an exciting time. There are many things to think about and prepare. New parents have events and experiences from their own childhood they want to repeat for their children—and often some they want to avoid. For those who experienced a difficult childhood, the list of what to avoid far outweighs what to replicate. As we talk with these parents in our practices, we hear their determination to provide a better environment for their children, along with a strong fear: “What if I can’t pull it off?”
While many parents are aware of the path they do not want to take, they lack a good blueprint for a replacement. Ironically, having no parenting philosophy other than “do it different” is likely to lead to the exact behaviors you are trying to avoid.
For example, parents who experienced a harsh, restrictive or punitive household as children are at risk for parenting too far at the other end of the spectrum—too loose and permissive. They allow their children to push the boundary until the parent is fed up, loses his cool and strikes out verbally or physically. The parental guilt is tremendous; they say to themselves, “How could I do that?” or “That’s something my father would do!” They promise themselves to never, ever behave that way again and try to “make it up” to their children by being overly permissive. The cycle begins again.
Living through a difficult childhood does not mean you are fated to repeat those patterns, but it does mean you need to be methodical in your preparation to avoid them. The first step is to educate yourself about childhood development and what is typical of different ages.
Libraries and bookstores as well as the Internet are filled with information about childhood development, both physical and emotional. Parents’ unrealistic expectations of children can contribute to abusive situations. Understanding that your toddler’s use of the words “no” and “why” is characteristic of the stage is helpful. Your 2-year-old is not trying to drive you insane, she is attempting to assert some control and understanding over her world—very normal.
It’s also important to develop a strong support system. While this is helpful to all parents, it can be a life-saver for those with a difficult childhood. Raising children is a stressful job. When a parent is stressed and isolated, she is more likely to feel overwhelmed, depressed and anxious, or to lose her temper. Asking for help from friends and family is nothing to be ashamed of.
Neither is the desire to spend time away from your child. Sometimes an “adults only” outing with a friend (perhaps even one who doesn’t have children) is just what the doctor ordered.
Developing relationships with other parents is a good way to compare notes, get reassurance and an empathetic ear. Talking with someone who is going through the same experience as you can be a great stress reliever. Most communities have gatherings or activities designed for children of all ages. It’s a great way to get out of the house and socialize with other parents.
Communication between parents also helps construct a parenting blueprint. Discussions about your child should include concerns as well as what might be contributing to the behaviors. Having an idea about why a child is behaving in a certain manner will help you decide how to handle the situation.
Many parents with a difficult childhood in their past go on to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted children of their own. That fear of “what if I can’t pull it off” can be replaced with a new parenting blueprint built on educating yourself, a good support system and parents working in cooperation. ■
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.