As a psychologist, I often hear in the therapy hour the impact of childhood and family experiences on clients lives. Many who come into therapy for the first time, have this belief or thought, that therapy will be spent re-hashing the past or dwelling on childhood or blaming one’s parents for all current challenges.
I’ve mastered my response and my belief about this to a few sentences: Does childhood influence and impact our current functioning? Yes. Do parents influence who we are? Absolutely! But does this mean we have to be defined by our childhood? No. We have choices on how to understand, cope and create a life we desire.
For some, it may take extra work and effort, but we all have the opportunity to heal, grow and find meaning and happiness, regardless of our childhood experiences. And as a psychologist who focuses on client-centered therapy, I always go where the client wants to explore, with respectful guidance. Which means, sometimes when mothers are struggling with parenting, we have to understand the influences of childhood and parental experiences.
Becoming a mother can be the portal to rediscover one’s childhood experiences. I have seen this for many years with mothers and fathers in the therapy room. What’s interesting, clients rarely come into a session explicitly stating: I want to work on childhood issues so I can be a better parent. Instead, a mom or dad will come into session for anxiety, depression or feeling overwhelmed parenting. As the work progresses, clients will disclose fears such as:
- I don’t want to be like my mom.
- I need to be a different dad than my father.
- I see myself talking to my daughter like my mom spoke to me and it scares me.
- My home life was chaotic, and I am afraid I’ll make a mistake and harm my kids.
- I have to give my kids a perfect childhood because I wish I had a different childhood.
- I don’t want my kids to have the same childhood I did.
- I wish I had the kind of mother I am to my kids.
- Somedays I don’t know what I am doing as a mother. Maybe if I had a different childhood, I wouldn’t feel this way.
Regardless of whether our childhood was idyllic or wrought with turmoil, most parts of childhood are a range of experiences, parts of a whole, defined with calm and happy to moments with periods of chaos and stress. As a psychologist and mother, I have come to understand; childhood is a range of experiences, positive to neutral to negative. Hopefully, for many, the experiences are positive, but realistically, there is a vast range of childhood experiences.
Our childhood experiences will influence our parenting choices. And the good news: we don’t have to be defined by our childhood experiences, or for that matter any experience in life. But we do have an obligation to acknowledge and understand the challenging moments and situations in our life in an effort to learn, heal and cultivate happiness and well-being.
Research shows, and I have seen this in years of practice, when we bury upsetting or traumatic events in childhood or any part of our life, it will come out and present in other ways such as unhealthy coping skills and behaviors, negative self-talk, and dynamics in relationships and work experiences.
Mothering can stir up childhood wounds and experiences, but the good news is, with awareness and effort, we have the opportunity to heal those wounds by making different choices.
Here are 9 strategies and skills to consider:
- Don’t Live in the Past. Instead of dwelling on the past or ruminating about what you wish would have happened, ask yourself: what did I learn from these experiences? Seek to understand the past, but don’t spend too much time there. Instead, focus on skills and strategies to heal and improve.
- Stay Focused on the Present. Be sure to focus on the here and now. Mindfulness practices are great ways to be focused on what is happening in front of you rather than living in your mind through re-imagining, replaying and focusing on past events.
- Embrace Teachable Moments. Allow your childhood experience to be a teacher for you in the present on what to do and what not to do. Shift your thinking to a growth model, where our experiences provide a rich opportunity to make a change and develop as a person.
- Increase Flexible Thinking. Move away from seeing things rigidly in ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Instead of putting experiences into strict categories, try to see experiences on a continuum by viewing situations with flexibility.
- Increase Self-Compassion. Our experiences do not define us, they inform us. Be caring towards yourself and accepting of the challenges you may be going through and suspend judgment of yourself. Work on finding ways to heal rather than dwell on the pain.
- Be Aware of Your Triggers and Vulnerability. We all have experiences which influence our mothering. Know how your personal experiences, including fear and worry, show up in mothering. For example, when I was ten I was very sick and was hospitalized with a ruptured appendix. Obviously, this was a traumatic event not only for me but also my parents and sisters. I noticed when my twins were approaching their tenth birthday and had severe stomach aches; I was overly focused and worried it was appendicitis. Nope, it was just the stomach bug. Just catching myself in the awareness helped to calm my fears and focus staying in the moment versus going to the worst case scenario. Being able to talk about this fear with my husband, friends and parents helped me to move past the worry.
- Talk to a Therapist. Seeking the support of a therapist is a great gift of self-care. Therapy takes effort and time but having a person to help you understand experiences, situations, and concerns can help you to gain insight, heal and finding skills to increase well-being and happiness.
- Increase Self-Care. Taking care of your emotional, physical, social, spiritual and mental/cognitive parts of yourself is an important commitment not only for well-being, but also in mothering. When we take care of ourselves, we are better equipped to care for our children.
- Actively Work to Forgive. Forgiveness and healing does not mean the pain never existed, rather, it means the pain doesn’t have to control your life. If you had childhood experiences of abuse or neglect, which is never to be condoned or accepted. This behavior is trauma, and you need to talk to a therapist, if you haven’t done so already, to work on creating a path to healing.
Mothering often shines a light on the cracks of our experience in childhood. Be loving and compassionate to yourself and make a commitment to understand how these experiences impact you as a mother. We all have the choice to make changes, but the key is having the willingness to make the change.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2017