How does the way you were parented affect the way you parent your child? Dr. Nanika Coor explains how to begin to break intergenerational cycles of misattunement so that you can be a more responsive and present parent for your own child.
Every parent carries with them an inner template of the ways they were parented in their own childhood. Sometimes those internal templates carry profound psychological wounds due to abuse they suffered at the hands of their earliest caregivers. Other parents have maladaptive templates of having been raised by parents who had great intentions but lacked the emotional and relational skills to parent well, having been raised by relationally unskillful parents themselves.
Parents usually come into my practice already having decided that they want to parent their own children in more adaptive ways than they were raised. They want to be less reactive in the face of their child’s big feelings than their own adults were with them in childhood. They want to be less punitive when their child displays challenging behaviors, and end intergenerational patterns of using psychologically harmful strategies like shaming, spanking, and time-outs.
But while parents may want to break the cycle of unskilled parenting and pass down healthier ways of managing emotions, they aren't sure how to go about it or where to start. That’s because the desire to parent differently is necessary, but not always sufficient, for actually parenting differently. Breaking the cycle of misattuned and/or hurtful parenting requires an ongoing and intentional commitment to certain internal and external behaviors.
In this episode, I'm going to break down the first 5 steps to becoming a cycle-breaking parent.
1. Understand how maladaptive parenting gets passed down through generations
You can't break unhelpful cycles of parent-to-child disconnection without first understanding how they are passed from one generation to the next.
Let’s start with the term “trauma”—I know that’s a weighty term, but hear me out! The word “trauma” means the combination of the experience of an overwhelming event plus the after-effects it has on an individual. Anything you experienced as life-threatening or physically or emotionally harmful in your childhood that also had a lasting negative impact on your well-being can be considered psychological trauma.
Intergenerational trauma occurs when unresolved trauma in one generation is passed to the next generation through familial or cultural socialization. It can also occur when parenting behaviors are experienced by and modeled to a child in such a way that the child experiences the effects of the previous generation’s traumas—despite not having experienced the original traumatic events themselves!
Ongoing trauma that starts in infancy or early childhood is called relational or developmental trauma. It usually occurs within significant relationships with early caregivers or family members. This can include child maltreatment such as abuse or neglect, as well as a serious disruption of the parent-infant relationship, like parental substance abuse or mental illness, or an abrupt separation.
Relational trauma can also be the result of habitually negative relational patterns of parent-to-child behavior. This is when parents regularly use conflicting relational signals like passive aggression, or are antagonistic, hostile, withdrawing, or intrusive, and also don’t provide comfort and soothing.
Parents who experienced this kind of ongoing lack of attunement are more at risk of passing on their relational trauma to their own children through their parenting style and the ways they interact with their kids.
2. Develop safe relationships within which you can resolve relational trauma
When you don’t have a conscious awareness that you’ve experienced trauma or that trauma has impacted you and the ways you relate to yourself and others, your trauma is “unresolved.” This unresolved trauma can unconsciously drive your behaviors, which can damage your attachment with your child. When trauma is unrecognized, you’re at risk of unintentionally acting out those traumas in ways that your child experiences as traumatic. Resolving relational trauma requires identifying and managing any effects of trauma on you—both as a person and as a parent.
When you've experienced a lot of relational trauma, relationships won't feel very safe to you. This is a challenge because relational trauma is best healed within a safe relationship that offers new experiences of psychological and emotional safety.
A safe and trusting relationship with a therapist is ideal for resolving relational trauma, but you might also find safety in a community, in close friendships, with a fellow parent, or with significant family members.
Once you feel safe with someone, work to identify, process, and mourn traumatic events and experiences from your past. Resolving trauma is about striving to better understand and accept the ways those traumatic experiences have impacted your well-being—in both damaging ways and ways that may have led to internal growth. This will allow you to make conscious choices as a parent rather than your behaviors being driven by unexamined psychological pain. You won’t be able to change what you don’t acknowledge.
3. Practice tuning in to your child’s internal experience as well as your own
Knowing how to protect, nurture, and respond sensitively to your child is directly related to how well your earliest caregivers were able to do this for you in childhood—especially when you were emotionally distressed, angry, or sad.
The ways that your first caregivers spoke to you and about you become the way you talk to yourself.
The ability to respond in timely, developmentally appropriate ways to your child’s distress requires the capacity to reflect on your child’s internal experience as well as your own inner experience and reactions in the moment. You need to be able to see yourself and your child as separate from each other psychologically. You have to be able to understand that both of you have internal and external behaviors that are being influenced by underlying feelings, needs, histories, and mental states.
When you have a better understanding of how past trauma has impacted your internal state now and in the past, and how it might be impacting your reactivity to your child, you’ll actually be more able to offer accurately attuned responses to your child even when your child’s distress triggers emotional or somatic memories of your own traumatic experiences.
4. Use parenting strategies that foster secure attachment
Fostering security in your relationship with your child means sensitively tuning into and responding to your child’s individual way of cueing that they need comfort, closeness, or autonomy. Being attuned to them helps you remain intentionally mindful and respectful of their feelings, needs, goals, beliefs, and the unique ways they do life.
In practice, this means using parenting strategies that are based in empathy, respect, and collaboration. If you need ideas, check out my previous 30+ episodes! All of the parenting strategies I offer on Project Parenthood promote secure attachment!
5. Practice self-compassion to increase your parental resilience
The ways that your first caregivers spoke to you and about you become the way you talk to yourself. If your parents were critical and shaming, it’s likely that you find yourself belittling and berating yourself when you feel you’ve made a mistake.
Parents who wish to break the cycle of criticism and shame in their relationship with their children often give themselves a really hard time when they find themselves slipping into the negative parenting behaviors they’d hoped to leave behind. Another way of breaking the cycle is to develop a kinder inner voice.
Rather than criticize yourself when you don’t measure up to your own standards, try practicing self-compassion instead. It involves three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
Mindfulness means noticing your present experience with acceptance—without judging it, reducing it, amplifying it, or eliminating it, just acknowledging the existence of whatever bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, or images are in your awareness.
Common humanity refers to the idea that you are a fallible human who sometimes suffers—just like all of the other humans on Earth. It’s what we all have in common and links us together.
Self-kindness means talking to yourself with tenderness, patience, understanding, and comfort rather than with shame or blame.
The more self-compassionate you’re able to be in the face of your own distressing emotions, the more compassionate you’ll be able to be in the presence of your child’s expressions of distress. And a child whose emotions are met with patience and validation not only develops self-compassion as well, but also is better able to experience, manage, and appropriately express their emotions as they develop. Additionally, children with self-compassionate parents are more likely to be securely attached to that parent and pass that security along to their own children one day.
For the next 30-90 days, choose one of these 5 steps to focus on and practice. For instance, you can use calm and connected moments with your child to practice being simultaneously aware of your own internal state and theirs. First, focus on and identify your internal experience—your feelings, body sensations, and thoughts. Once you’ve done that, shift to focusing on your child’s body language and vocal tone and internally guess at what they might be feeling and thinking at this moment. Guess aloud if you like—your child will correct you if you’re wrong! The more you practice when you’re feeling calm, the easier it will be to do when your emotions are running high. Let me know how it goes!
In the end, breaking the cycle of parental misattunement and disconnection starts with connecting to and healing yourself. If you need motivation, remember that healing yourself means healing many generations to come!