Even the best parents have made their share of mistakes and could have handled situations differently. It's part of being human. And while we may not hold resentment towards our parents for how they parented, it doesn't mean we want to carry on all of their tactics or behavior.
You may have professed at some point in your life, “I will never do, or say_____, that my parents used to say or do?” only to be reminded, numerous times, of just how similar some of your behaviors are to theirs.
How does it make you feel when you hear from another that you exhibit the same patterns and behaviors that you disliked in your parents or caregivers?
You may have found yourself becoming defensive or replying, “I’m nothing like them,” only to reflect on your actions or mindset and realize you are a mirror image of their mannerisms. But why? Why would any of us exhibit the behaviors and habits that we dislike or even despise in others?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “monkey see, monkey do?” We learn through modeling and mirroring those who are influential in our lives. Just as an infant mimics our facial expressions and vocal tones, we equally adopt and replicate modeled behaviors.
As a prior early childhood teacher, I observed how children spoke to dolls and stuffed animals during play. Often, they would module the same encouragement or discipline that their parents practiced with them. Equally, if your child has ever played schoolhouse at home—them being the teacher and you the student—there's a good chance they teach you the way they have been taught by either their current teacher or past teachers.
In short, the reason we find ourselves doing and saying things that we swore we would never do is that, from a young age, these behaviors have been encoded in us through modeling. To stop these habits or traits, we must reprogram our brains by breaking the strong neural pathways that have been reinforced, and learn to create new ones. Here is how we do that:
First, bring awareness to what you want to change.
What do you find yourself saying or doing that you no longer wish to do?
What are the objectives behind each of these actions or statements?
It's likely that just like your parents, you are doing and saying these things with good intent and purpose, even though it may not be the most effective or emotionally intelligent way.
For example, if you find yourself saying to your child, "What’s wrong with you? Stop doing that!"
You may feel terrible after saying it, and remember what it felt like to hear those exact words from your parents. It’s important to understand that there's a reason behind everything we say and do, none of which makes us a ‘bad’ person. Instead, we are someone who is trying to meet a need or solve a problem with ineffective, undesirable, and sometimes harsh or harmful words and behaviors, because we know of no other way or lack the strategies to regulate our emotional reactions effectively.
That said, we then need to identify the need or purpose behind our words and actions and become aware of any triggers that may have aided our response.
What prompted this response?
Was it something my child did or said that triggered me? If so, why did it trigger me?
Were you already having a stressful day before your reaction? Was something weighing on your mind? Were you carelessly running a conditioned response that once was delivered to you in the same or similar circumstance?
What was my reason or need behind my words or actions?
Finding the answer to this question can be tricky because it's likely your first answer isn't the ‘core’ answer. Using the previous example, the parent might say that the reason behind them saying, "What’s wrong with you? Stop doing that," was to stop their child from acting ridiculous and making a fool of themselves.
Then ask: What about what they were doing do I find ridiculous? Who am I concerned about them making a fool of themselves in front of?
The parent may reply, “That behavior isn't normal; I don't like it. I don't want people to see my child doing that and think something is wrong with them or they’re immature.”
Then ask: Why is it so crucial that my child acts ‘normal’? Do I view ordinary as the only acceptable behavior? Why do I care what others think of my child?
In this case, the parent may reply, “If I acted like that as a child, I would have been made fun of; I don't want that for my child. And I care what others think because I see my child's behaviors as a reflection of me.”
And there is their core answer.
This hypothetical parent could take it one step further and ask, “How can I instill confidence in my child so they can be their authentic self and not feel the impact of others’ judgment?”
And, “What might I need to address within myself to feel confident, so my self-worth is not attached to my child?”
Based on the parent’s answers, the core reason and need behind their response were:
To protect their kid from being made fun of for acting abnormal.
To deal with their insecurities and see their child's quirky behaviors as a negative reflection on them, based on their perspective.
Continuously asking ourselves why we feel and react in the ways we do helps us to address the root of our “whys.” This is a crucial step in reprogramming our responses to situations. With this new insight, how might you react differently next time or better communicate what you mean?
So, how do you avoid parenting like our parents?
Ultimately, ask yourself a lot of questions to help you develop your level of awareness, so you can address the underlying concern or need and implement more emotionally intelligent behaviors.