Most parents like me want their children to have an easy, decent life as far removed from what we ourselves experienced as possible. We want to be good parents, but sometimes it can be very difficult to know how if you grew up in foster care or in a home where you experienced abuse or neglect.
Losing my children to the system made me realize that I had a lot to overcome from my past and a lot to change about my ways of thinking as a parent.
So, how do you become a terrific parent even if you didn’t have one? That’s a very good question. It’s also the subtitle of The Whole Parent by therapist Debra Wesselmann. Her book helped me think about new ways to overcome my feelings of inadequacy so that I can change my life and my children’s lives for the better. Here is her advice to parents:
It is a challenge to know how to give your child a secure nurturing environment if you grew up in the foster care system, especially if, like many children in care, you were shuttled between foster families or went back and forth between foster care and your birth home many times.
‘Am I Good Enough?’
A person in that situation grows up not really having an idea what a healthy family life should look like, and often has lots of self-doubts like, “Why me? Why didn’t my parents love me? Why didn’t another family love me? Was I unlovable?” In truth, the system and the adults in our lives have let us down.
Experiences that lead you to doubt your self-worth can leave you feeling like you’re not good enough when you start raising your own families. Sometimes the anger and pain on our children’s faces during difficult moment just triggers all the shame and guilt and “I’m not good enough” feelings that parents feel inside.
One mother I worked with had a lot of traumatic experiences growing up. Her own mother died of alcoholism. Still, she has successfully raised three nice children. It’s amazing what she’s done, despite feeling at times that she wasn’t good enough or lovable.
This mom found a good mate, a good supportive church environment, and supportive friends. She looked to other people who she admired as parents and tried to emulate them. So becoming a good parent even when you have grown up in foster care definitely can be done, but it’s important to be conscious of the challenges you face and stay motivated.
Changing Angry Reactions
Another challenge for parents who had negative experiences as children is that early experiences are lodged in the emotional part of the brain, which creates responses that feel so automatic that your actions may not feel like something you can consciously control.
When parents respond to various things that their children do with negative responses that feel extreme and out of sync with how they want to treat their children, it’s often very difficult for them to understand why they respond the way they do. But you can change those automatic responses with a lot of effort.
For example, I worked with a mom who was having strong angry reactions. In therapy, the mom realized that when her son was doing some typical teenage things, like rolling his eyes or not jumping to when she asked him to, she was getting a feeling that her son didn’t love her. She was able to say, “Oh, it’s the very same feeling I have when I’m around my mother. I feel rejected like I felt rejected as a child.” That rejection feeling made her very angry.
Once the mom put that together, she started being able to recognize that her son’s typical teen behaviors were not rejections, and she was able to deal with those feelings of hurt related to her upbringing.
In The Whole Parent I talk about a number of other common parental misperceptions that relate to negative childhood experiences—like, “my child is invading me,” or “my child is abusive,” or “I have to have complete control for my child to be safe.”
I worked with a father who was having strong rage reactions when his 7 year old would embarrass him in public. His immediate reaction was, “What are people thinking of me? They’re thinking I’m a bad father and a terrible person,” and he just wanted to kill his son. But as he worked through those feelings with me, he realized that growing up with an alcoholic father had left him feeling very insecure about the way people were looking at him, and this trauma was being tapped into.
That’s not to say that we don’t all feel embarrassed when our children act out in public, but we’re being irrational if we begin to think, “I’m a bad person,” or “People think I’m a bad person” and take those feelings out on the child, because every parent has had embarrassing incidents in public.
A Chance to Heal
The good news is that, when you realize the ways you’re thinking and acting might be hurting you and your child, and you consciously set out to change your thoughts and behaviors, you can break those negative patterns. You can give your children much more positive feelings about themselves than you might have had.
One technique is to write out our irrational thoughts and feelings and then practice having different thoughts and feelings. The mother who felt rejected by her teenage son could write herself a little reminder card with her irrational feeling at the top: “My child is rejecting me.” Underneath it she might write: “This is not true. All teenagers sometimes act like they don’t have respect for their parents. I’m getting him confused with my mom. He’s really not my mom. I love him and he loves me.” And she could carry that reminder card with her and read it over and over until it really sinks in.
I often have people do writing exercises, such as writing down their irrational beliefs on one side of the paper, like, “My child is abusive” and writing down on other side some rational, logical responses they could have when those feelings come up.
You can also break negative patterns by getting help from a good support network. Whether you attend a support group or speak to a therapist, religious leader, a loving mate, or a supportive group of friends, you need people who you can talk to openly and honestly.
You can also find another parent who you admire who you can really talk to, and you can read books about the effects of trauma on parenting. Whatever way you choose, it’s important to sort out how your past might be affecting the way you feel as a parent and take steps to change your thinking and behavior.
Working on your own childhood issues takes tremendous courage. It’s a lot easier to try not to think about what you went through. It’s painful to look back on abuse or neglect you faced as a child, but if you don’t, your parenting will not get better. Parents can face the traumas of the past, recognize how those experiences are affecting them as parents, and make changes so their children will grow up safe and secure.