Can our own childhood memories affect our children?

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find. Online Therapy details : Here

We all have unresolved issues from our past, some conscious and some that we are not aware of. These issues, if not dealt with can have a huge effect on our relationship with our own children and subsequently moves the issue from one generation to the next.

There are many cases of parents who in normal everyday interaction with their children are triggered back to their own past, affecting their judgement and behavior. By leaving these issues unresolved, parents are not only missing the chance to become better parents, stopping the issues from affecting their children but also developing themselves. When we become parents, we bring emotional baggage into the relationship with our child. This baggage comes from our early significant experiences that formed the way we see and look at the world. A good example would be if a mother left the house without announcement to stop a child crying due to her leaving, a feeling of loss, insecurity and a loss of trust could occur. This would be consolidated by the child`s fruitless search for the mother leading to a sense of abandonment. As an adult, this child could have abandonment issues that would prevent a healthy relationship with his or her own offspring.

One may rightly ask how our past affects our present in such a way, leaving us with these unresolved issues. Here the answer lies in the study of memory and how our brain`s functions and structure affect our mind and consequently shapes who we are. From early on, we are able to alter the connection amongst neurons, the basic building blocks of the brain, seen as a key process in remembering experiences as these connections constitute the structure of our brain. This process goes onto affect the structure of the brain, brain structure affects brain function and goes a long way to creating the mind. Although genetics play a role, it is thought that it is experience had that more directly alters our brain structure. Memory is the way that the brain responds to experience and creates new neuron connections. This is done in two ways: implicit memory creates connections that develop before our second birthday, responsible for feelings, non-verbal behavior, behavioral and instinctive responses and bodily sensations. This is often associated with childhood amnesia meaning that we usually have no memory of life before two due to the brain not being fully developed. Implicit memory takes the form of the formation of mental models which create generalizations. For example, if a mother comforts a baby every time it cries, it will come to generalize that security can be found around its mother and vice versa. We are generally not aware of what we are absorbing at this time and even though, these feelings are often recalled in the present, we have no knowledge of their source. This often leads us to giving automatic responses to events that trigger us back to these times and especially with our own children.

The second form of memory, explicit, develops after two and includes our autobiographical recollections including a sense of time and self. At this time, our pre frontal cortex is being formed which regulates self-awareness, judgement, flexibility, mindfulness and the regulation of emotions. This development is hugely affected by attachment and interpersonal interaction making the early experiences we have critical in forming our mind. When issues from our early childhood are left unresolved, it can lead to what is known as parental ambivalence. This means that situations that we find ourselves in with our children become overwhelming due to our internal noises being extremely loud. We then tend to look at our children through our own autobiography and it becomes more about us as a parent than the child. Often we feel controlled by these automatic thoughts and responses and have no clue where they come from. We try to control our children`s behavior, not realizing that it down to our own internal experiences. We seem to forfeit our own self direction and allow situations to drift on, not aware that our behavior is affecting our children. If we pay attention to our own internal sensations when we are upset with our children, we can start to develop an awareness of how these are interfering with the loving relationship we wish to have with our young ones.

One way to do this is to keep a journal of feelings and emotions felt when interacting with the children and then trying to expand this by thinking of how this behavior could have been developed via implicit and explicit memory. Are there elements of your past that could be contributing? Can you remember a time when a time when you experienced the same feelings. This calls for much self-exploration but surely our children are worth it.

  8 comments for “Can our own childhood memories affect our children?

  1. September 23, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    I found your post interesting and would enjoy chatting to you about it. I agree that we all are carting around a lot of historical perceptions that either improve or tarnish our current moments. I however found that self-evaluation, especially when it comes to feelings can dislodge a whole series of potential problems. I came to the conclusion that it is much more effective to address our current moments (children, relationships etc.) in a manner that would be most beneficial to both parties. To search for the source of misconceptions and defective perceptions fail to modify current behavior. It might now and then produce a win, but in general leave a person with an already less acceptable self-image and self-esteem with even more guilt feelings.

    • September 23, 2012 at 10:53 pm

      I take your point, however, in my opinion, leaving these problems unresolved can lead to even bigger problems later on.Given that most of these issues go unresolved due to being absorbed and formed before we are old enough to realise it, it is essential to have at least an awareness of how they affect and interfere relationships.

      • September 24, 2012 at 7:25 am

        I have no problem making a person aware of potential problems that might cause problems in for example a relationship etc. I however believe that the discomfort experienced because of poor choices is in a way a direction finder and “alarm”. What many support systems fail to achieve to supply a set of tools that can be used to adjust current defective/poor choices. It is of little use to understand why and how something became defective, but vital to know how to make things better in the moment. Most people are a victim of their historical perceptions. I think resolving an issue as it cross your path is much more practical than digging into history to “uncover” the source of the problem. The only way to achieve this will have to be digging several generation deep. Please note I am not opposing you in any way. I love your work and I am sure that you do not mind looking at other points of view.

      • September 24, 2012 at 8:32 am

        I do not feel opposed and yes, I enjoy mature conversation on a range of issues…this included. As a CBT therapist, I have dealt with and continue to deal with these issues on a daily basis. Of course, you are right, it makes no sense to dig around in the past, bringing issues to the surface that weren’t there before with the potential of the person being overwhelmed by this emotional traffic. One thing that CBT offers is a set of tools and methods that can be used to make sure these issues do not flood the present. In this case, the past is only important in order to understand the forces that drive underlying belief systems. However, for this to work, an awareness of how these issues interfere is a prerequisite.

      • September 24, 2012 at 12:51 pm

        I think you mentioned the key to a successful final outcome in this letter … being a set of tools and methods. It however surprised me when I read that they are applied to prevent the past contaminating the present. Where I have a problem is that most of us are constantly under the “attack” of historical reaction patterns that kick in automatically” when triggered. The collective perception data base that we go around with ultimately combine to form our ego who we end up believing that it is a reflection of who we are. I personally use a method that I call a “virus checker” of the mind that simply force the person to not “automatically” take action when a stimulus arrive from the historical data base and avoid saying or doing the first thing that comes to mind. The damage is not done by historical experiences, but defective coping (often outdated) “feelings that might be totally out of place under current circumstances. This is how we reshuffle yesterday’s garbage. I think improving decision making and treating each event on merit ensure rapid understanding and prevent old mindsets from contaminating current moments. I think we might achieve the same type of outcome. Do your system demand ongoing person to person consultations? My system do not require such consultations and can thus be introduced to a wide range of individuals with totally different backgrounds and current circumstances. Love your open mind and it is pleasant talking to you about something that remain a serious problem to millions worldwide.

  2. September 27, 2012 at 3:29 am

    Reblogged this on The Highly Sensitive Family.

  3. October 12, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    I have nominated your blog for the “One Lovely Blog Award”. Please see my post at:

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