Do Parents Replay (or Try to Correct) Their Own Childhoods?

July 23rd, 2012

By Dr. Jim Taylor

ParentingMy wife, Sarah, and I have two daughters, ages 7 and 5, and, thankfully, we have very similar philosophies on how we want to raise our girls. This common ground has enabled us to provide a generally united and consistent front in the messages we send and, overall, how we respond to each of them.

In recent months, however, as our daughters have presented us with the usual challenges of those ages, including asserting their independence, pushing limits, and resisting their responsibilities, I have become aware of a noticeable difference in one way that Sarah and I react to them, namely, the amount of support and affection we give them when they get upset.

Sarah tends to be the softer and more caring of the two of us. Though she always stands her ground, she is more responsive to their emotional needs and attempts to validate their feelings, whether frustration, anger, or sadness, and comfort them when upset. I suppose this is stereotypical of mothers as they in particular feel their children’s unhappiness at a visceral level.

I, in turn, am more of a tough guy with our girls. Though not dismissive or disdainful of their emotions, my reaction is more hands off. I allow our daughters to fully experience their feelings (i.e., I let them feel bad) and give them the space to come to terms with them on their own with only a minimum of intervention from me. I’m also less accepting of emotions that I think are unwarranted given the situation, such as crying because they don’t get what they want.

In recognizing this juxtaposition in Sarah’s and my responses to our daughters’ emotional experiences, I had an epiphany that really struck me. These divergent reactions appear to be directly related to the very different “emotional cultures” in which we were raised by our parents.  By emotional culture (a term I just concocted), I mean the way in which emotions are valued, discussed, and expressed in a family. My epiphany continued with the realization that people either replay or attempt to correct the emotional culture in which they were raised when they become parents.

As an example, a friend of ours grew up in a volatile emotional culture in which her father had a brutal temper of which she was often on the receiving end. She learned that explosive expressions of anger were appropriate ways of dealing with conflict and she has been replaying that emotional culture in raising her own children. Her emotional detonations toward her children became more frequent and unsettling, and her children, not surprisingly, were making her emotional culture their own, expressing both fear and anger toward her. Thankfully, being an intelligent and self-reflective person, she recognized that there was a real problem and has sought counseling to help her change her family’s emotional culture.

Now back to Sarah and me.

Sarah grew up in an emotional culture in which feelings were not expressed openly. Emotional stoicism—the proverbial stiff upper lip—was the foundation of her family’s emotional culture. Overt demonstrations of emotions, whether love and joy or sadness and anger, were infrequent and implicitly discouraged. Sarah felt that she never had permission from her parents to either express her feelings or to ask to have her emotional needs met. As a consequence, she has had her struggles with expressing her own emotions and accepting others’ emotions in adulthood. At the same time, Sarah realized early on as a parent that she didn’t want to carry that emotional culture into our family and her reactions to our daughters reflect her desire to correct that emotional culture. She makes sure that our girls feel the love and emotional support that she missed as a child.

I, in turn, was raised in a very different emotional culture. I was an emotionally sensitive and needy child. My parents were open and expressive people. Not wanting to see me unhappy, with the best of intentions, my parents attempted to meet my significant emotional needs as completely as possible. Whenever I was upset, they would respond with love, hugs, sympathy, and understanding as an attempt to comfort, assuage, and placate my strong feelings.

The result? I became emotionally spoiled, believing at a deep level that whenever necessary I could have my emotional needs met by others. Because of my parents’ responsiveness, I never learned how to deal with my emotions on my own. Needless to say, being raised in this type of emotional culture doesn’t play well with emotional life in the “real world.” And it has caused me to have my own struggles with emotions in adulthood.

When our daughters are upset, my reaction is quite the opposite of Sarah’s. I don’t want them to become emotionally spoiled, but rather resilient to the emotional storms that they experience. In my approach to their emotional lives, I attempt to instill in them the toughness that I, in retrospect, wished my parents had instilled in me. I acknowledge and reflect their feelings back to them, but don’t attempt to directly intervene on their emotions. In doing so, I am having my own “corrective emotional experience” (psych-speak for changing the way you respond to the world emotionally), attempting to alter the emotional culture in which I was raised.

Now where does this leave our daughters? You might think that such different reactions would cause a great deal of confusion with them because they are getting different messages about emotions from their parents. However, as has been our practice in our parenting when situations of inconsistency arise, Sarah and I talked it through and came up with a “hybrid” emotional culture that takes the best of each of ours (e.g., providing love and support while also giving our girls the space they need to gain emotional resilience) and removing the less desirable aspects (e.g., too much support and too much distance). In other words, Sarah and I have sought to moderate our respective emotional cultures and meld them into one that is more beneficial for our girls. The goal? To create a new and healthier emotional culture for our family that will hopefully give our daughters an emotional culture that won’t need correcting when they become parents.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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One Response to “Do Parents Replay (or Try to Correct) Their Own Childhoods?”

  1. d |

    Haha,good luck. No matter what you do,you will screw them up. Plus,it will always be you or your wife’s fault. Dream on,there are no perfect parents or children. They will sort it out,think through it thoroughly,then,still blame their emotionally distant father,or their soft,their words,not mine, mother. I feel for you,glad my kids are grown,but I bet it’s still,my fault.

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