Repeating Your Parents' Mistakes With Your Children

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A parenting question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: In my childhood my mom constantly criticized and nagged me about all the things I did wrong. Although I swore I'd never do that to my kids, I find myself slipping into that same tone of voice when my 3-year-old gets on my nerves. I've heard that under stress we usually fall back on what we know best. Am I doomed to repeat my mom's mistakes?

Answer: You describe a common--perhaps universal--experience among parents, especially when we're under stress. But you've taken some important first steps by 1) acknowledging how uncomfortable it was for you as a child when your mom criticized you; 2) stating that you don't want to pass that behavior on to your children; and 3) recognizing that those old voices from your past do pop out of your mouth when you're under pressure. (In this case, the pressure that comes when a 3-year-old is acting his or her age.) In fact, those are some of the factors that researchers (including my colleagues at the University of Minnesota) have identified as helping parents to break intergenerational cycles of poor parenting--even abuse.

Parenting is not a perfect journey, and nearly all of us slip into old patterns at times. The trick is to keep those slips to a minimum. Based on research, work with parents, and my own imperfect journey as a mom, here are some tips that I hope will help you.

Continue to reflect on your childhood, honestly and realistically. Depending on the relationship you have now with your own mother, you may even want to talk with her about how she looks back on her own parenting behavior. What would she do the same, and what would she try to change if she were starting over? (Although our 24-year-old son is not yet a father, my husband and I have talked with him several times about the mistakes we made in parenting him and the things we'd do differently if we had a chance. We hope this will help him do better than we did.)

After remembering your childhood, identify those specific parenting behaviors that you want to carry forward and those that you want to leave behind. It may be helpful to think of it in terms of the messages you give your children with your words and actions. These become your own positive parenting goals.

Talk with your spouse and friends about those goals. Just by stating your goals out loud, you sometimes can be more mindful of the times when you feel yourself starting to slip into old negative patterns.

Maintain a strong support network to encourage you in being the kind of parent you want to be. No parent can do it alone, and the support you get for yourself will increase your capacity to deal with those times when you feel overwhelmed with your children's needs and demands.

Finally, when you do slip into negative patterns, admit it and apologize to your children, saying, for example, "I shouldn't have said that to you. It wasn't respectful." Not only will this help you to achieve your positive parenting goals, but it will set a wonderful example to your children of admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness.

Editor's note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. You may fax them to (612) 624-6369 or send them to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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