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Why Parents Become Like Their Parents

“Betsy” (not her real name) was telling me about her mother who’d told her a story that she couldn’t lay down to take a nap as a child without someone coming and loudly interrupting her rest. Her mom hated this! It was so upsetting and rude. Betsy said, “The weird thing is my mom does the exact same thing to me. As soon as I start to go to sleep, she starts making a lot of noise – as if its on purpose!”

Why do parents complain about a certain thing they experienced as a child and then do the same thing as if they are oblivious to their own irritating or painful behavior? How can they be oblivious?

It has to do with unconscious beliefs.

Consider the following example. I was working with a mom (“Sherry”) and I asked her if she’d tried rewarding her child with something specific when her homework (or whatever the desired behavior) was completed.

She said, “Why should I reward her for something she should already be doing?”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this. I had a friend once who said “Why should I reward him or praise him for making his bed when he should already be doing that?” (Her child was five and I was pretty sure he didn’t care about having a made bed.)

I said, “But that’s not the way the world actually works. You go to work, you get paid. You turn in your homework, you get a good grade. You be nice to someone; they are nice back to you.”

She got quiet. Then she said, “Well, I didn’t get rewarded when I did something so I decided that I needed to not be dependent on that.”

There was a pause as we both took this in.

In other words, the best way to handle her disappointment in not being rewarded or praised was to pretend not care about the reward or praise. After awhile, it becomes a belief. “People shouldn’t need praise or acknowledgement for doing something.”

Not wanting a reward protected her. “If you don’t expect a reward then you don’t get hurt”. It made it possible to not feel the pain related to having a parent who doesn’t acknowledge what you’ve done. Therefore, if she rewarded her child she believed unconsciously she was setting her up for disappointment. She would’ve also been put face to face with that childhood pain again.

This belief had protected her very well but now she was creating the same wound she experienced as a child and her relationship with her daughter was suffering. Her daughter seemed distant and this made her sad. Sherry also felt distant and removed from the joyful parts of parenting. They weren’t celebrating anything together. They weren’t enjoying things that are there to be enjoyed.

In this new moment, she could see it why she had made this decision. She could also acknowledge that was she was currently doing wasn’t working and she was willing to try something new. It was an “aha” moment.

But what about the example from above with the nap being interrupted?

Imagine if every time you try to rest you get interrupted. It’s painful because you wonder why they aren’t tuned in to the fact that you are tired. You might decide not to need a nap, not to expect to rest, AND you might even begin to be afraid of going into a restful place because it means you could be be painfully popped right back out.

Naps (which are synonymous with quiet, reflection, space, being alone, nourishment) now feel like treacherous unsafe territory. So you try being loud instead in an effort to stay away from that pain. It’s unconscious but a real defense that does help you when you are with people who don’t respect your space.

So parents who don’t call you and check on you weren’t called and checked on.

Parents who were told to toughen up tell their kids to toughen up.

When they weren’t allowed to rest, they were told they didn’t need to rest.

Parents who just aren’t around may have decided long ago to just not need anyone around.

Parents who drink every day may have decided to not care about it when their parents drank every day even though it was painful.

And so it goes… until the beliefs are seen.

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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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