Any parent will testify the range of emotions associated with bringing up a child. Joy, heartache, worry among others are part and parcel of the package. What parents do while bringing up their child(ren), will have a marked effect on how the child develops a sense of his/herself and how they relate to the world and the people around them. Many studies suggest that our adult personality is largely formed in our early formative years and is thought to be set at a certain point in infancy. While such studies are sometimes disputed, it can be observed in therapeutic situations that behaviour learnt early in life is also exhibited later (this is not always negative either). It makes sense that we would carry certain aspects of our early selves forward.
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There is no perfect parent and everyone will make mistakes along the way. Parents who are in tune with the accepted developmental stages of cognitive growth their children might go through, might be best placed to coach them through. Even so, parenting is fraught with frustrations and at times, things can go awry. Think of the “terrible twos” and the “sulky teen” phases. Much of the behaviour exhibited during the aforementioned stages is natural and a normal part of growing up. Parents sometimes see normal behaviour as rebellious or wrong and do their best to subdue or change it through punitive discipline (or medication) rather than understanding and building effective connection, and connection is the key word in this context. If children are not taught to effectively regulate their emotions and are not shown boundaries, it is a concept that might escape them for the rest of their lives, causing havoc and dysfunction in future relationships. Much adult behaviour can be attributed to the childhood influence of good, bad or mediocre parenting. That said, while we are not responsible for our conditioning, we are 100% responsible for changing it as adults if the need is there.
In my experience of providing therapy, I could make a case for child-like, boundary-less behaviour in many cases of cheating, addiction, non-commitment, lack of communication, promiscuous behaviour, codependency and narcissism, etc, amongst my client group but mostly it is in conflict situations that we revert to familiar behaviour learnt early on. Think of that three year-old who starts crying uncontrollably when the right amount of attention is not there, when his or her parents are busy or choose to ignore her cries. Think also how much of that behaviour can be stopped by offering calm, non-judgmental connection. Think of the child who is never allowed to express himself or is sent to his room “to think things over” when he does it. Even worse, where children are abused physically and emotionally for normal child-like behaviour. What does this do to a child’s view of how to handle emotional upset?
How we handle conflict as adults can (without consciously changing it), be a mirror of our interaction with our parents. Conflict is usually highly emotionally charged and is hard to manage without the right tools (and sometimes with them). It triggers us into insecurity and old defence mechanisms appear such as shouting, raging, nagging or emotionally withdrawing and staying silent. We sometimes use these consciously in power battles to gain attention, dominate or placate in the same way we did as children. Witnessing couples in conflict, I have been able to draw a direct link between the way they deal with conflict and the connection they had as children with their caregivers. It is at this time that the “inner child” is at its strongest and loudest but what to do? Sometimes, these methods have worked so often, we are reluctant to change them. Sometimes, the ideas are so rigidly set that it is very difficult to change them and there always needs to be a will to change them.
Many therapeutic methods give one the chance to “return” to the scenes and experiences that defined this behaviour and reframe them. The insecurity attached to the emotions is often driven by guilt, shame and trauma and these especially need to be processed effectively and new thinking and tools learnt. It is often a hard road but a worthwhile journey of self development and awareness. In an ideal world, we would not need to rectify our parent’s mistakes but this is anything but an ideal world we live in.