When I talk with parents in my practice, I often use the airplane safety instructions metaphor: We have to put on our air masks before we can secure our children’s. This metaphor translates to emotional wellbeing. Understanding more about yourself, in a deeper way, can help you build a more effective and enjoyable relationship with your children. As we grow and understand ourselves, we can offer a foundation of security and emotional ease that enables our children to thrive.
Research from the field of child development shows that a child’s security of attachment to his or her parents is very strongly connected to the parents’ understanding of their own early life experiences. And while attachment isn’t the only factor in child development, it is one that parents can have a strong influence on.
Our positive and nurturing experiences influence our parenting, but our negative and painful experiences affect us as well. The nurturing we’ve received in our lives can be passed on to our children and the pain we’ve experienced can also cause us to react in negativity. Unresolved issues and trauma have a way of resurfacing as we parent. When we become parents we are given an incredible opportunity to grow as individuals because we are put back into the parent-child relationship, this time in a new role.
I often hear, “I can’t believe I said or did the thing I didn’t like as a child to my child.” Parents can feel stuck in repetitive, unproductive patterns that don’t support the hopes and dreams they had for parenting. Making sense of your past experiences can free you from patterns of the past that don’t serve you in the present.
Stories are a way we make sense of the events in our lives, they help us create meaning both individually and as a collective. Our life story can give us clues about how our present is shaped by the past. Journaling our stories gives us a way to process experiences and integrate them. Journaling can take many forms- writing, drawing, bullet journals or reflecting with a friend or therapist. Sometimes we may feel uncertain or ashamed of parts of our memories and begin editing to present a more perfect image of ourselves. This keeps us distant from our own emotions and prevents us from being open with others, and ourselves! Embracing our stories and being honest with ourselves means allowing space for the pain and the joy. We can do this by using prompts to help cue memories, feelings and images that may come to you in the process.
Here are a few journal prompts to begin your self reflection journey.
• What was it like growing up in your family? Who was the nurturer? Did it feel safe?
• How did your family discipline and what impacts did it have on you then and now?
• How have your childhood experiences influenced your relationship with others as an adult?
• What would you like to change about the way you understand yourself and relate to others?
• What comes to mind when you think of a “good mom” or “good dad”?
Embracing a new process can be stressful and difficult at first, but eventually can lead to a sense of compassionate self acceptance and interpersonal connection. Though the events of our childhood may have been confusing at the time, it is still possible to make sense of how it has influenced us. Being open, honest, non-judgmental and getting it out on paper or sharing with supportive others can allow for healing to take place. We all want our children to thrive and grow, which means we need to be with them in the process and thrive and grow ourselves. Integrating a coherent story involves bringing together and healing the themes of the past with the ongoing story of our lives, as we all move into the future.