Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Understanding Parents' Own Histories and the Influence on the Parent Child Relationship

By the time parents reach adulthood, they have experienced a lifetime’s worth of relationships, both good and bad.These relationships exist with caregivers, siblings, peers, friends, and so on. A normal effect of having relationships is that they leave indelible impressions upon the psyche, which create  templates, often unconscious, about how particular kinds of relationships are supposed to work. In a sense, people become “programmed” as to what to expect from others (parents, friends, partners, etc.) and how they feel about themselves based on previous experiences with people already in these roles, and the impressions start during even the earliest days of infancy.  

With new parents, these impressions happens all the time. The parents teach more by doing and relating than they ever could by saying. Parents who are supportive and encouraging, listen and reflect produce thoughtful, intuitive, self confident children who have patience, develop (in time) skills of good communication, and have healthy relationships.  

Parents relate to their children based on their own early experiences and what has become an innate part of their personality. Child development specialists and authors T. Berry Brazelton and Bertrand Cramer, in their 1990 article The Earliest Relationship, suggest that parents have images and fantasies about themselves and their families, their ideals, goals and values, and they have anxieties, worries, and fears, many of which originated in their own childhoods. Children tend to trigger some of these fantasies and fears in ways parents cannot even imagine. When someone says things like, “She has the same expression that my grandmother used to have” or “Just look at his eyes; he’s going to be a wild one, that one,” meaning is being attributed to certain characteristics based on that person’s experiences. Someone else may see the same expression or the same look in the eyes and interpret it very differently. In other instances, parents sometimes say, “I can’t get her to settle down, she hates me” or “He is such a charmer, he needs a lot of attention.” These parents are experiencing something from the child’s behavior that is stirring for them. Assigning intention or meaning to child behavior tends to come from within parents and various others, and most often is a result of personal histories and is not associated directly with the child or child’s behavior. The behavior triggers a personal response. So, when people have babies, their own histories are what they use to define, defend and build their new roles as parents.Their own life experience becomes their primary resource for how and what to do.

Every adult brings memories (both conscious and unconscious) from infancy and childhood into their interactions with the world around them. This is a normal and healthy part of becoming an adult. What is key is how parents reflect upon their lives, as this helps them make optimal decisions as they go along. Not only do parents pass along genetics, moral standards, family values, cultural histories, and physical mannerisms, they also pass along their own childhood experiences.

So, what does all this mean? It just means that it is very valuable for parents to reflect on their past experiences and relationships - positive and negative - and think about how those things played a part in their development. Being aware of these things will help parents better understand themselves and their emotional reactions, which ultimately enhances their interactions and relationships with their children.

Stay tuned. The next post will discuss what parents can do when there are memories or experiences from that past they would rather not bring into their current relationships with their children.

Posted by Andrea Hohf, LSW