The Self-Aware Parent

Do you remember being a teenager and getting into arguments with your parents?
There would be yelling, and it would escalate and you would throw out the “I can’t wait until I’m 18 and out of this house.”
Then, they would one-up you by firing back with “Yeah? Well, when you’re a parent, I hope your kid is just. like. you.”

One thing I’ve noticed about being a Millennial parent is that our generation strives to be the caregivers we wanted to have growing up. It might be a by-product of social media or more access to information, but it’s like we can see in real-time exactly how our parenting is affected by how we were parented. There is a lot of call and desire to break the generational traumas by healing our personal childhood wounds and investing the time and effort to make our children feel loved, whole, and understood.

That task we place upon ourselves is no easy feat. Much of how we parent has been laid out by our parents and their parents before them (and so on) and we don’t really recognize that stuck cycle until we catch ourselves saying the same lines or doing the same harmful actions. So, are we any different from our parents and how can we break the negative cycle?

Millennials Do It Different

Our parents try to give us a lot critique on how we should raise our kids. But to be honest, it’s kind of unnecessary. Not only can we just Google answers about child care, but we have more accessible information about child development, especially neurodevelopment. With that efficiency, data, and our own personal experiences, we are perfect candidates to change the parenting norm as it’s happening. Here are some blanket examples:

Work-Life Balance. Although we’re busier compared to our parents (statistically and anecdotally), we prioritize spending more time with our kids than the Boomers did. A 2016 study found that Millennial mothers spend an additional hour caring for their children compared to moms in 1965. Fathers are more present and active than they were before, devoting almost an hour to their kiddos compared to 16 minutes in the 1960s. We also try to balance co-parenting, instead of having “yours and mine” domains.

More Flow, Less Force. We value positive respectful parenting, giving our children opportunities to voice their needs/wants/concerns as well as validating their feelings. We prefer to applaud trying and personal success, rather than berate failures. We also want our kids to feel like they can be themselves, to feel accepted and seen for who they are, and to not be met with shame or guilt if their path is different from the one we envisioned for them.  

Fun, but Safe. We want our kids to explore, attempt new things, and become independent. But we also care about their safety and try our hardest to ensure they are physically, emotionally, and mentally equipped for the challenges they may face as they get older. Have you ever had to explain to your parents exactly how long your kid is REQUIRED to be in a booster seat?

Another major difference is the immediate acknowledgement that our upbringing can affect how we parent, so we try to nip it in the bud and take accountability before it negatively impacts our kids.

Emotional Baggage

A lot of our triggers and internal anguish stem from the core memories of how we were raised. Some of us came from a strict authoritarian household where our wants/needs were trumped by our parents’ desire to see us succeed academically/financially. Some of us were raised in a permissive home, hoping our parents would step in and give us direction.

From Good Inside, Dr. Becky says that in times of dysregulation, people will default and parent the same way they themselves were parented unless they actively intervene. Think of it like factory-resetting your phone back to the 80s.

Here’s how:

  • Imitation. Recall that children learn through observation and doing. As kids, we learned how to handle situations from our parents. You might scream, “Look what you did! Clean it up! NOW!” when your child spills something because you were shamed in the same manner. You don’t mean to do it (or even realize you do), but it’s part of your parental default.

  • Overcorrection. Because we fear being just like our parents (at least the negative parts anyway), we may troubleshoot to do the opposite, so our children don’t experience what we went through. If our parents were too overbearing, we might overcorrect by being too hands-off with our kids which can read as neglectful. Although we assume we are doing them a favor, we may be causing more harm than good.

  • Projecting. We may view our children as an extension of ourselves, putting demands on them to either be like us or excel where we couldn’t. We expect them to fulfill our dreams, not theirs. We indirectly try to meet our childhood needs rather than their own.

  • Recreating. As much as we try to rid ourselves of toxic traits our parents carried, there can be a familiarity to it which brings comfort. We may pick fights with our spouse or kids to get a rise out of them because that happened during our childhood. Just because it was the norm then, doesn’t make it okay or safe for our children now.

  • Defense Mechanisms. You may have learned how to defend yourself emotionally/mentally as a child. Perhaps you found it best to shove your feelings deep down into your gullet or beat your family to the punch with a self-deprecating joke. The problem may arise when you try to be emotionally available for your kid or try to model positive self-esteem and self-love to them. Another side effect would be that you want them to also have a strong defense, so you are unnecessarily harsh, hoping they will adapt.

  • Triggers. Triggers can transport us back to times where we didn’t feel safe, acting out as our parents once did or retreating into the same emotions felt during childhood. For instance, loud bangs and yelling from the kids playing could trigger uneasy sensations, resulting in you yelling disproportionately at them to calm down.

  • Negative Talk. If you grew up in a negative-talking household, the inner dialogue you had during challenging situations was probably negative (“You can’t do it. Why are you trying? You’re never going to be good enough.”) Unfortunately, that same talk can carry into parenting, causing self-doubt in your ability to care for your kid.

To give our parents all the blame for our flawed nature would be inaccurate (and what would that say about us when our kids grow up and deal with their demons?). Factors like biology, peers, social inequality, and environment can also alter our views of the world.

Cycle Breaker

In truth, our parents most likely tried the best they could with the cards they were dealt. They may have attempted to provide support, love, and guidance, but didn’t know how to show it or were too focused on their own trauma to give it. There also probably wasn’t the lens of parenting as a conscientious role; having kids was just what you did after you get married. For us, becoming a parent seems much more planned and deliberate. Again, this might also be anecdotally.

Now that we are responsible for little human beings, us Millennials seek to actively break the cycle. So, what can we do?

  • Become aware of your wounds and triggers. Unhealed wounds can hinder our relationships, especially the ones we have with our spouse and kids. Identify what you are sensitive to that elicits big emotions and figure out why to start the healing process and getting closure.

  • Recognizing unwanted behaviors and doing something about it. If you realize that you “lose it” in stressful situations because you’ve witnessed your parents lose it on a regular basis, then you would make active efforts to eliminate that behavior. You would find ways to calm yourself down, either by taking deep breaths or learning to step away to center yourself. By practicing different methods consistently, you create new neural pathways to change the behavior and thus, breaking the parenting cycle in the moment.

  • Searching for inspo. Our parents’ blueprint to child-rearing isn’t the only one out there. We may refer to our friends’ parents and appreciate how honest they were with their kids. We might also value the connections we’ve had with teachers, coaches, and other mentors and why they were important to us. We can deep dive into that influence and add that into how we parent.

  • Talk to someone. Yes, this is hard work and it can be overwhelming to take on solo. Find a professional that can help support and guide you as your unpack your thoughts and feelings.

For Thursday, we will go deeper into these points and share some actual Parent Homework to prevent the dreaded defaulting.

Just because our childhood trauma can carry over into our parenting doesn’t mean we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents. As long as we detect and process our experiences, we can be the parents we want to be for our kids.

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Millennial Parents: 6 Surprising Ways They’re Raising Kids Differently
7 Ways Your Childhood Affects How You Parent – PsychAlive
Afraid of Being Like Your Parents? How to Counter Your Fears | Psychology Today
Dotti Sani, G. M., & Treas, J. (2016). Educational Gradients in Parents’ Child-Care Time Across Countries, 1965-2012. Journal of Marriage and Family78(4), 1083–1096.

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