“My mom is always yelling at me.”
“My parents never listen. Everything is about them.”
“I wish my mom and dad understood me.”
“I always felt abandoned by my mom whenever my dad was drinking and raging at us.”

These children were not getting their needs met, nor were they feeling safe or nurtured. Where were these parents when their children needed them to be accountable, responsible and protective? Although that’s our job, if our family-of-origin history isn’t closely examined, we might need to look at that history through a different lens. We begin realizing that our parenting problems may reflect some unhealed childhood wounds. When we believe our child is making our life difficult, especially when we’re engaged in power struggles with him, he is providing our mirror. He shines a light on us in ways no one else can. The most challenging times with our child usually tap into our own painful experiences, showing us the direction in which we can begin healing, where we need to focus our attention. We each must do our unique work, in which our own childhood trauma can be tenderly healed.

Shifting our assumptions, while facing our childhood compassionately, helps us begin disarming our emotional triggers. As much as we realize it’s not only our intimate partners, but also our children, who push our vulnerable “buttons,” we can see our parenting journey traverses the landscape of many generations, laden with lasting effects. We wear that legacy like a heavy cloak wrapped tightly around us. The love and acceptance, as well as any guilt, shame, abandonment and abuse, have sketched deep dynamic patterns.

Without being conscious of this childhood connection, we’ll remain tightly wrapped in our cloak, woven with our multi-generational tapestry, reacting to old “messages” and assumptions. Whenever our extended family is around, we may be navigating an emotional “minefield.” It’s helpful to examine whether our expectations are realistic, both for ourselves and for our children. Consider what short-term, beneficial boundaries we can apply to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed, possibly emotionally immobilized. It’s difficult to advocate for ourselves if we’re triggered by parents still using the same approach they did when raising us.

Healing our childhood is essential: whatever we learned from our parents, both internalizing how they treated us, and/or following what they modeled to us. Did they rage? Were they punitive, demoralizing, oppressive? It’s likely some part of this resonates. The challenge becomes tapping into our functional adult side, rather than reacting from the adaptive childhood part of us. If we were disempowered in our family of origin, believing our perspective doesn’t count, trying to assert ourselves now risks humiliation and criticism. It’s difficult to protect ourselves, yet most important is modeling different behavior to our children.

Our job as parents is keeping our children safe; however, we need to look closely at how we do that, and the emotions driving our position. Do we overprotect them, managing their play-date interactions, their homework, their choices? Are we fearful they won’t have friends, needing us to show them how to be socially “correct”? Do we micro-manage them, preventing our children from organizing themselves, packing their own backpack, choosing what they wear, teaching them important skills rather than doing everything for them? Do we make their success or embarrassment a reflection of us? We can allow their gratification to be delayed, letting them tap into their unique creativity when they’re bored. Our children have the resources to make their own entertainment. What we model teaches our children far more than what we say, just as our own parents showed us how to be in the world, for better or worse. Connection is valuable for building trust and teaching problem solving, yet can be challenging if we didn’t experience that in our family of origin. Pay attention to those cues, as they help identify the emotional triggers that need defusing.

We hold onto the generational “stories” that keep us stuck — with our children (and with our partners), focusing on what our child is doing, or not doing, to us. We’re powerless to positively influence our child’s behavior unless we can disengage, speaking objectively to the emotional root. That can’t happen if our family history is blocking our path. Grounded in turmoil, anger, chronic frustration, we maintain a fixed lens on our child, judging what she needs to do differently. This view reinforces a belief that we’re functioning as adults, free of childhood wounds and shame. We dig our heels in, even when we aren’t getting the results we want. We believe because we’re the parent, we have to be right, with our child needing to change his/her behavior.

Changing our “story” is powerful: “What I’m doing isn’t working. I’m expecting my child to change. I must recognize it’s not my child’s fault. He needs nurturing, understanding, guidance, affirmation, to feel safe and connected, all of which is my job as a parent. It takes determination and commitment to take the first steps to healing, so I can change my own behavior and attitude.” As long as we stay focused on trying to control or change our children’s behavior, we will remain stuck. It’s not our children’s job to fix or heal our problems. Whatever issues we have in life, we must get help to ensure we don’t ignore our children’s needs or pass on our generational legacy.

When the power struggle or conflict is with our child, we need to step away from how she is behaving in order to evaluate what’s triggering our negative perspective. What haunts us most is that which feels threatening. To liberate us from our family history, we must first attend to the reasons we’re invested in the conflict. We can learn and grow from this if we’re willing to replace our negative stories with honest examination of what’s causing our discomfort.

“Being able to show our imperfect selves to our children and owning up that we are work in progress is a beautiful way to connect with them.” — Annalise Kendall, psychotherapist