Read an Excerpt
The Ties That Bind
Parent traps are the negative feelings and experiences, often buried in our subconscious, that are reawakened in us by our own children. They are all of the pain and unanswered questions from our own childhoods. Parent traps are often the replay of experiences that we have never psychologically and emotionally worked out and extricated from the negative patterns of adult behavior.
Parent traps are often unseen until you have a child. When you are a single adult, you often use childhood traps to protect yourself from deep emotional feelings. Traps can become a shield against unwanted involvement. When you have a child, you may fall into a pattern of conditioned behavior from your own childhood. These behaviors become magnified when you are a parent because of the intimacy created with our children. Once the shield comes down, you allow for a new kind of intimacy, which sets the stage for a new role. With your child, you create an extension of yourselfa physical, mental, and emotional extension. This small life becomesyour mirror. Most of us begin the parenting process with positive and loving intentions. But it is very difficult to prevent your early pain from intruding into your life with your child.
The early development of a child is a complex interactive process that shapes your child by her environment and your personal interaction. The way you respond to your child is in part determined by how you were responded to. Were you held? Cuddled? Allowed to cry? Abused? Yelled at? Spanked? Left alone? Unless you completely understand and come to terms with early pain, you will repeat past emotional patterns. As your child grows and you have to deal with other issues of childhood, you will continue to get trapped in parental misgivingsfactors about values, physical attractiveness, intelligence, and athletic prowess. All these can be the catalysts for parent traps.
Awareness is the main step to avoiding a parent trap. You cannot change the past, but you can alter the future. You can bring up early pain, recall your feelings, and talk them out. By reliving past memories, you are able not only to remember what it felt like but also to think about your actions before you burden your child with any past negative pain.
Because the most emotional parent traps are the ones that we carry over from our own parents and grandparents, the generational and genetic bond is strong. What we were conditioned to believe usually continues from one generation to thenext. Although some of the parenting ideas from the past can be helpful and well-intentioned, others are old-fashioned and not applicable to raising a child in today's world.
How you were parentedand what you modeledcreates the framework for how you treat other people. Studies have shown that most children who were physically abused become adult abusers unless they have the opportunity to undergo therapy and receive help from outside sources such as friends, a spouse, or parent help groups. Children of alcoholics run a risk of becoming alcoholics if they don't consciously fight to break the alcoholic pattern. Depression can also be carried over from one generation to the next, as can eating disorders.
There are many things that your parents may have done to you as a child that you told yourself you would never do to your child. An example of this comes out of my own home. I swore that I would not withdraw love from my child because of my own internal anger.
When I was a child, my father, a strong-willed man, manipulated me into obeying his demands by withdrawing his love. If I did not comply with his requests, he would say, "I want nothing to do with you. I don't want to talk to you unless you do what I say."
By trying to assert my autonomy as an adolescent, I was given the message by my father that my opinions, thoughts, and feelings were not important. When I became a parent, I had to consciously make an effort to listen to my childto be cognizant of her feelings, and not reject her because she did not comply.
When Joan had a child, she became depressed and often experienced bursts of anger. She was unable to console her baby when she cried and often retreated to her room, leaving the baby to cry for lengthy periods of time. The more Joan withdrew from her baby, the more depressed she became. But she couldn't help herself. Finally, Joan's husband found her a therapist who was able to uncover some traumatic events that had happened early in Joan's life.
The therapist discovered that when Joan was three, her younger sibling, Ronnie, was born with Down syndrome. The family was devastated. Ronnie was constantly sick as a baby, and all of Joan's mother's attention was focused on her brother. She felt alone and discarded by her mother, who often had to spend days at the hospital with Ronnie, leaving Joan in the care of her older, inattentive aunt.
Joan used to go into her bedroom and break toys and tear up clothes. She was filled with unresolved anger at her mother for withdrawing attention andas Joan later perceived itlove.
As soon as Joan had her own child, these old angry feelings came back to haunt her. It took two years of therapy for Joan to come to terms with her anger at her mother. The more sheexorcised her feelings, the more Joan was able to draw closer to her own child and let some of her anger go.
Early pain becomes one of the springboards for how we parent in our adulthood. If issues are left unresolved, they can have an unforeseen effect on parenting. Because your child is a reminder of yourself as a child, you may subconsciously relive your own early experiences but replace the image of your child with your own image.
When I was a child, I didn't dare to yell or show any negative feelings around my parents. It simply wasn't acceptable. If I did express angry feelings, my father punished me. The fear of his loud, bellowing voice quickly silenced me. I often went into my room and pulled the heads off of my dolls and broke my toys. I was extremely frustrated that my parents gave me no room to express myself emotionally. My early pain was strongly imprinted. I feared my father's rejection, so I complied with his requests, but I did so with a feeling of anger.
Pulling away love and attention is perhaps the cruelest thing you can do to a child. The child feels unloved, worthless, and fearful.
This type of parental manipulation treads on dangerous ground. You can damage a child's trust in the parental bond. This bond is what gives your child a sense of security, trust, and confidence in the world. If he can't trust your love unconditionally, then whom can he trust?
When I had my own child, who is now eleven years old, I found myself pulling away from her when I was angry. I emotionallydisconnected because I couldn't let go of my internal anger and didn't have the psychological tools to work through it. When my intuitive child was six years old, she informed me of my actions. When she disobeyed and I got angry, she started to cry and asked me to hug her and forgive her. I was so conditioned from my own parents to feel disconnected that I had trouble putting my arms around her and letting my anger at her go. But she prevailed. My daughter pried my folded arms loose, put them around her, asked me for a kiss, and snuggled into me. "Let's make up, Mommy. Let it go!"
This moment was a revelation both in my internal life and in the way I treated my child. I relate this to you because incidents like these can change your entire relationship with your child, as well as shed light on what might be preventing you from parenting the way you really want to because of conditioned traps from your past.
If these stories sound like I am laying on blame and guilt, it is only partly true. The blame would have to go back hundreds of years, and I wouldn't know where to begin. In truth, my grandmother withheld her love from my father, and from what my grandmother told me, her mother was cold and withholding. You see the pattern. Can you trace a behavioral parental pattern in your own family?
Let me explain how the generational parenting bond works. I was a teenager when my grandmother died, old enough to witness the relationship that she had with her son, my father. In nineteen years, I never saw my grandmother kiss or hug my father. She was highly critical of him no matter how hard he tried to please her. I imagined that her mother, a sternRussian immigrant, parented my grandmother in the same way. So whom do I blame? Whom do any of us blame? Was it a sign of the times? Was life too difficult for my grandmother to think about cuddling her children?
What our psychologically enlightened world, this book, and the experiences of your own life offer you is a chance to changeto break negative parenting patterns that will continue to affect generation after generation unless you do something about them.
Is it easy to change? Absolutely not. Conditioning is strong. The patterns of behavior that we establish in our lives are deeply rooted. But I assure you that changing negative parenting patterns can be one of the most loving things you do for your child as well as for yourself.
The following is only a beginning. The roots of patterns and the more complex issues and how to resolve them are explored throughout the book.
Breaking Free of Patterns
1. Ask questions about how your parents were parented. Probe. Try to find out what influenced your own parents. How were they disciplined? Were their parents demonstrative? Withholding?
2. Be aware of your actions. For two weeks chart how many times you display positive and negative behavior toward your child. Awareness of negative patterns will allow you to break these same patterns by seeingwhat areas you want to change, and how often you repeat the behaviors. We are often not cognizant of how many times we repeat actions that create destructive interactions with our children.
3. Define what you want to change. As you work through this book you will be able to narrow down the areas that you want to alter in your parenting.
4. Let things go. Do not focus on every negative aspect of your behavior or your child's. Be willing to give up certain issues.
5. Don't be defensive.
6. Say you're sorry. This is a positive step toward change. If you are uptight and yell at your child, sit down and talk it over, apologize. Be honest.
7. Communicatehave family meetings. (See Chapter Twelve.)
8. Forgive your parents. (See Chapter Thirteen.) This probably is the most difficult step and the one that will take the longest. The aim of this book is to help you understand your parental relationships and to give you suggestions on how to forgive and redefine them.
9. Forgive yourself. You are trying to become a better parent. You cannot hold onto self-anger if you want to move on positively.
Parental patterns are, for the most part, conditioned in our personalities from our own upbringing. Modeling, the strongest of all personality imprinting, is how we copy our parents' behavior. Often one parent has a stronger impact on our behavior than the other. Imprinting starts from the time we are babies. Notice how young children copy their parents' behavior. It is not uncommon for little girls to emulate their mothers by putting on makeup, styling their hair, and playing dress-up. Some little boys model their fathers by acting gruff or loud. This is gender modeling, or gender identification. Children model what their parents do. They begin to see themselves as both separate from their parents and as male or female.
On a deeper level is the internal psychological modeling that has a more profound impact on you or your child. The way you behave determines how, in part, your child will behave. What happens in a parent trap is that you stop differentiating the positive and negative aspects of your personality. Your behavior is an integration of all aspects. You don't say, "I'll just select the best parts of myself to show my child." Your child is part of your day-to-day life. He sees you in all your moods.
Conversely, a child can model negative behavior as well. If a parent "hits," then a child might, in turn, "hit" as a means of modeling his parent. The child thinks it is okay because the parent has demonstrated that is okay to hit. An alcoholic parentwill often have children that become alcoholics. The negative patterns continue.
In today's society, parents are more open and forthcoming about discussing feelings with their children. In previous generations, the adage was, "Children should be seen but not heard." Most parents of the pre-baby boom generation never solicited their children's opinions. It was a more formal, proper societychildren were not seen as people with whom to converse or share feelings. Parents discussed problems behind closed doors. Because of this, a child held a lot of his feelings inside, and many of these repressed feelings erupted as anger at inappropriate times and in inappropriate situations. A societal, parental pattern was formed. Parents parented by previous parental modeling and societal norms because that is all they knew. That is, a pattern was based on society's notions of how a parent should discipline and how a child should act.
Very few children of the Depression era would challenge their parents' authority or openly express negative feelings. Not until the pop psychology boom of the 1960s did child rearing and open communication begin to appear in families.
Each family forms its own pattern or level. Think about your own family. Was the level loud, soft, intense, angry, abusive, fun? Did you feel warm, loved, and nurtured, or ignored and depressed? Did you feel protected? Were you often nervous or frightened? Do you see any of the same patterns emerging in your present family?
Parents take on their child's burdens as if they were theirown. The emotional lines between child and parent are often blurred. This is demonstrated by Nick and his mother, Leah. Leah had a controlling, nervous mother who thought everything that happened to Leah, whether it was positive or negative, was something to worry about. Leah's mother was patterned toward negative reaction. As a result, Leah followed this same pattern with her twelve-year-old son, Nick. When Nick decided to run for student council, Leah became worried. What would happen if Nick lost? Wouldn't he be terribly upset and hurt? If he won, he'd have to give up so much time, and he had a large school load. Leah transferred her worries and fears to Nick. He began to question his choice to run, and his ability to win. Leah boxed Nick in. He had nowhere to go with his feelings. He was trapped.
Leah was reflecting her own feelings of being boxed in and emotionally tied up. She was overidentifying with Nick and reflecting her own childhood insecurities. He needed to work through his decision and the consequences by himself. He needed to know it was okay, even if he lost. The important decision was to run for student council, to give this project his time and attention in order to reach a higher goal. As a result of Leah's prodding, Nick pulled out of the student council race. He never got the chance to experience his desires or disappointmentor successbecause of his mother's fears.
As Nick, now an adult, recounted this story, he thought about how he had much of the same fearful attitudes toward his son that his mother had toward him. He was cautious and most often took a "no don't" position on whatever his son, Brian, wanted to do. And even though the retelling of thestory about his mother and his childhood crystallized some of his own behavior, he couldn't automatically change the way he acted or parented. The imprinting from childhood was too strong.
Here were four generations of fearful, inhibited people. Four generations affected by negative parentingparental patterns that prevented them from moving forward positively. Unless Nick breaks the cycle with his son, Brian, the negative patterns could continue in Brian's children and beyond.
Childhood is where the parent traps begin. The imprinting molds our character in many ways and carries over from generation to generation, taking the same heavy baggage along the way.
The same negative patterns emerged for Jessica, whose mother, Pearl, was "all about her illnesses." Pearl complained constantly. She couldn't have a conversation without talking about her healthor lack of.
Jessica's grandmother was the same kind of person. She was a hypochondriac, always worried about what terrible disease would descend upon her. As a result of all this negativity, Jessica became overly concerned about her own health and ran to doctors constantly.
Jessica, who has two young children, followed the parental pattern of illness that her mother and grandmother did. She fretted and worried about her children all the time. If her six-year-old got the sniffles, she ran her to the doctor. She wouldn't allow the children to go outside if it was too cold, afraid they'd catch a chill and get sick. Jessica was trapped in her parental pattern.
But unlike Nick, Jessica decided to get out of her trap once she recognized its insidious effects. Recognition comes when you are willing to look at your parenting patterns, see what is and is not working, and then work to change those that are not.
In Jessica's case, her relationship with her mother was a classic example of negative role modeling. The pattern of generational behavior carried over until she finally decided to break the cycle through a long and painful process of therapy.
Parent traps can lead us on an unpleasant journey with our children, unless we stop the cycle of negative parenting. Awareness of our personal traps and parenting styles can begin the process of turning around negative parenting that often originates from our own childhood.
PARENT TRAPS. Copyright © 1997 by Donna G. Corwin. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.