Wholeness Healing Today

Raising Children When Our Past Gets in the Way

Generally speaking, most people take on the task of parenting children with the best of intentions. They may decide early on that they want to do their “parenting role” in a good way — hoping to have learned from their own past what works and what doesn’t work. And often they are determined that they are going to change how parenting is done in their family with a mission to eliminate any of the negative patterns that they grew up with. And while having understanding and insight into the generational patterns that play out is a very good starting point at preventing carrying a negative pattern down to the next generation, it may not be enough. In spite of your good intentions, negative patterns can still sneak up in your interactions with your child. I have often said that I felt parenting was my most important role and my most humbling. We may have the best of intentions and yet when we least expect it, we can find ourselves reacting in ways that we recall well, from our past, and not the positive interactions we vowed to have with our children. And so while it may be humbling to find ourselves being so human, we can look at this as an opportunity to heal past unresolved issues that raising our children may trigger.

As a parent, it is a good idea to know the red flags that indicate the “ghost from the past” has come to join you and your child in your parent/child interaction. Each of us has our own experience of childhood in how we were parented. Some of the particulars we remember, but often there are those events or difficulties that we don’t recall. These experiences, whether we remember them or not, shape us as we develop. We may or may not be happy with how we developed. But we do the best we can to get through our experiences, grow and move on. But moving on doesn’t mean that you resolved those issues. It can mean that you merely put them away. So pay attention when you are parenting as your own children may, in fact, be precisely the catapult to bring the patterns alive. You may be feeling very good about how you and your children are interacting and how you are handling your parenting role when suddenly things shift. Your child may be moving into a new developmental stage and doing new things, whether it is the three-year-old stage of “I will do it” or the teenage stage of “stay out of my life”. Suddenly you may find yourself handling your role as a parent differently than you ever intended. Regardless, something sets you off. You may find, as the parent, that you are more reactive, not thinking clearly, and/or feeling very emotionally out of control. You may find yourself looking in the mirror and seeing your parent.

Hence, the ghosts from the past may have come to join you. It may be time to look at your child’s age and ask yourself, “What was going on in my life at this age?” If this is the same age as the difficult moments you encountered in growing up, take heed. The difficulty may be that your unresolved issues are getting in the way of raising your child in the way you want to.

You can monitor your interactions with your children by noting if red flags are being raised. Some of these warning signs might include pushing your children towards premature autonomous functioning (doing more things on his own rather than depending on you) or feeling annoyed when your child shows dependency needs towards you. Parental ambivalence such as this comes in many forms. Normal responses from our child such as moments of emotionality, helplessness and vulnerability may feel threatening and become intolerable to us as the parents. Other responses to be concerned about might be inflexibility with our children and being unable to choose responses that would be helpful to their development. We may try to control our children’s feelings and behaviors when it is really our own internal experience that is triggering our upset feelings about the behavior. Being over-reactive to something our child does may indicate a need to look within ourself. (Daniel J. Siegel, 2003)

The ghosts of the past do not need to stay in your life if you can notice them and allow them to be seen within yourself. Exercises you can do include writing in a journal when you note you’re being over-reactive or are noting patterns of interaction with your child that trigger emotional memories. Bringing the ghosts of the past into the present will help you be much more aware and sometimes just noting it will be enough to set you on the right track with your child. It is also important that you understand what is going on with you as the parent – what are your fears or intense feelings really about? Journaling without thinking about what you write (stream of consciousness) may help bring it out so you do understand before you negatively affect your child’s development. Another exercise is to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Try to develop empathy regarding how your child must feel in response to your reactions towards him. This can help you shift into the place you really want to be with influencing his development. (Daniel J. Siegel, 2003)

And last, be conscientious about doing a good job with raising your children, but also understand that parenting is a very “human” experience. No matter how much you set out to do it right, there will be times when your responses are not up to what you want them to be. Have a good line handy giving yourself permission to be human, such as, “Oh my gosh, this is such a good example of poor parenting, let me try this again”. Do what you need to do to make changes, using it as an opportunity to heal, and then let it go as we can only do the best we know how in that moment.

Daniel J. Siegel, M. a. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Tags: , ,


  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


Subscribe today

Sign up to receive the latest mental health tips and inspiration

If you have a question, click below and receive prompt confidential help

Ask A Question