“As our children move through different developmental stages, our own demons from similar periods in our lives can come back to haunt us in particular situations…such moments may be very difficult to capture in awareness at first, especially if our feelings as children weren’t accorded much value in our family. We may be used to sweeping them under the proverbial rug.”
I have noticed this particular truth in my own life and am now very challenged in dealing with it in a healthy manner. It took me some time to notice at first just how deeply my own childhood experiences have affected me until I had my son and I saw my wounds reflected in him as I behaved the same way my parents did to me during similar situations. It has been enlightening but also terrifying realising just how affected children are by their parent’s behaviour (like I have been).
One indication was my strong emotional reaction to distress crying which was usually met with anger and despair, emotions that made no sense to me and were hard to rein in in order to tend to my son’s needs. The feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness, panic and aversion were very strong and I had (and sometimes still do) have to remove myself from the situation in order to filter those feelings so that I do not repeat the negative quick-phrases from my own experiences. Initially I would let the rage build up until it would overspill and I would mutter those painful words that hurt me in the past like:
“What are you crying about?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you!”
“I’ll give you something to cry about!”
“Stop being a big baby!”
And I would then be flooded with shame because this is not the person I want to be. This is not how I want to address his very real, very valid negative feelings. I want to meet them with compassion and understanding, and love, but I don’t always know how. This is not my rational self, it is my hidden self, my childhood self, still hurt by the feelings that were never acknowledged because they were considered unseemly at the time.
In my family, unless you were sharing positive feelings like joy, excitement, wonder and gratefulness, you were expected to keep it to yourself. The saying of “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all” was often taken to the extreme, encompassing any kind of negative feedback to the point of having to repress them or be rejected. I remember becoming frustrated at how my parents would emphasize being positive to the point of completely ignoring negative feelings or situations because they simply had no idea how to process them appropriately. When I would express discomfort in any way (physical or emotional) I was told to quite complaining or stop making things up to get attention.
I remember a period when I would get splitting headaches at a very young age and my parents kept telling me that ‘children don’t get headaches’ and to go do whatever chore or activity I was supposed to be doing at the time. Repeated expression of the very real pain I was experiencing was met with disdain. Unless it was readily apparent like a cut or a scrape, it was usually dismissed, regardless whether it persisted or not. I learned to nurse my pains without seeking comfort outside myself because none was forthcoming. I essentially adapted and just ‘sucked it up’. It was not until my early teens that I realised that I had been suffering from recurring yeast infections throughout my childhood without treatment because I never sought help for the discomfort, along with persistent constipation and trouble breathing due to a birth defect in my nasal passage that restricted air flow. All these things I had kept to myself and never sought help for. No sense in learning how to communicate my thoughts and needs when they won’t be acknowledged anyways.
It made me more resilient perhaps, more independent, but it also made me stand-offish and secretive. I still have trouble sharing feelings and discomfort with those that care about me, like my husband, who has to constantly remind me that he’s here for me and needs to know how to support me. Re-learning to communicate is a bitch.
This same pattern repeated for emotional hurts as well. I learned from a young age that distress would not be met with compassion but with dismissal and punishment. Any kind of outburst would be met with physical discipline, isolation, or a removal of a privilege. It was simply the parenting approach most popular at the time. I do not blame my parents for parenting this way, as it was simply the norm. My experience is not unique. It still does not make it ‘okay’ just because it is popular either. My parents did not have the right tools themselves to deal with a more positive and effective way to handle conflict or create healthier relationships with their children. It is a learning process, one than I am currently working on myself with my own child and it is HARD.
Many people do not realise just how affected they are by their early experiences perhaps because they simply not aware of their own behavioural patterns, otherwise they would not repeat the harmful things they experienced personally with their own children. To acknowledge our own psychological issues even to just ourselves allows us the space to possibly finally heal from it and grow, giving our children the chance to do the same. It also means admitting to ourselves that we are not ‘fine’, despite how much our parents might have loved us, and that we need to address those issues consciously, which is not easy. Coming to grips with what I experienced myself as a child as not being my fault for being overly needy or melodramatic is difficult, especially since I am still as an adult being given this message by them which is still hurtful. However it isn’t my responsibility to make them understand how they are affecting me, I am only responsible for how I choose to relate to my own family now.
I would like to clarify that I did not experience an abusive childhood in the way some might perceive, as I can recall the majority of it as being rather happy but it is the emotional undercurrent that has gone mostly unnoticed because it was simply the parenting approach of the time coupled with my parents own stage of personal growth that contributed to my emotional issues. Although I would like to say that our relationship is different today, sadly the same patterns are still prevalent and have repeated during the few interactions we’ve had since my son was born. Relationships are not one sided and if one party is not interested in healing, there is nothing to be done but move on and wish them the best. And so I have been sifting through my murky but insightful childhood memories to unearth the roots of some of my unhealthy behaviours so that I can address them directly and hopefully not repeat them with my son. I am hoping that this effort on my part will make it that much easier for my son to have authentic relationships in his life as well.
This means that I have to be very careful about the negative reactions that pop up when I am distressed because they are almost exclusively related to past situations and not what is actually happening with my son. I have noticed that the majority of the negative feelings that flood me are those that were never properly processed from other frustrating experiences and so I have to train myself to deal with them in the moment and not repress them anymore. My son does not deserve to deal with my baggage, I’m supposed to help him deal with his. So day by day, moment by moment, I try to create positive childhood memories for him where he’ll remember how we stayed connected even when processing difficult feelings. At the same time, I am learning to do so as well.