When Parenting Triggers Old Hurts

The best service we can give our children is to let this walk in the woods be their own unique journey, with all twists and turns. We can’t mend the mistakes our parents made. We can’t guarantee a perfect childhood. We can’t go back and find what was lost along the way.

As parents, we are destined to travel through the adventurous forest of childhood twice.  Once for ourselves, and once again as we guide our children along the crooked path.

For the first journey we are, like everyone else, blissfully unprepared.  We encounter joy, conflict, trauma, growth, and challenge as we pass through the expected and unexpected developmental milestones of growing up.  At that time, probably, the furthest thing from our mind is how all of this will repeat itself when we have our own children and the same joys, conflicts, traumas, growth, and challenges appear.  

As children, we are observational learning machines.  Our job is enormous and daunting, though we are well prepared for it by the neuroplasticity of our young brains.  Think about it; we only have a few critical years in which to form the foundational understanding of the world that will take us through the rest of our lives.  We learn about language and expression.  We absorb all of the intricacies of social interaction.  We soak up all of the complicated unwritten rules that govern how we relate to our environment.  And at the end of this developmental exercise, when we have barely figured out the basics of the strange old world, we are suddenly biologically ready to have children ourselves and the cycle begins again.    

We are such good learners, in fact, that we learn even without knowing it. So effective is the mechanism of our young brains for taking on data that we internalize whole bookshelves on parenting without ever signing up for a class.  The subtle but powerful interpersonal chemistry of human interaction means that we are excellent students of everything in our childhood, including how our parents handled the difficult task of parenting.  We will have learned much of the good and much of the bad, and when we are placed in the position of being mommy and daddy we will react to these internalized  lessons in our own way.

When we gear up with everything we need to make it through the woods a second time—all of the knowledge and advice and good intentions, all of the experience and all of the urgency and love—the last thing we expect is for the path to be so familiar.   Along the journey we find the same pitfalls that our parents did, and in many cases our actions are determined by trying to fix what we feel they did badly.

For example, how do we react when our child is inconsolable with tears when our parents weren’t always nurturing and understanding?  Do we overcompensate with excess, thinking to heal ourselves? When the expected battles for boundaries and control begin, do we remember being strictly disciplined and attempt to give our babies more freedom?  If we grew up in scarcity, do we attempt to heal our old wounds with a shower of abundance for our own children?

The best service we can give our children is to let this walk in the woods be their own unique journey, with all twists and turns.  We can’t mend the mistakes our parents made.  We can’t guarantee a perfect childhood.  We can’t go back and find what was lost along the way.

We can be good guides on the path without sharing our own burdens.

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