How Do We Parent in Ways We Weren’t Parented?

Make lasting changes in behavior that last a lifetime and span multiple generations.

In some ways, it’s easy to parent our children in ways we weren’t parented, right?  I was a latch-key kid with a working mom who was gone a lot. When it came time for me to be a mom, I was fiercely committed to giving my kids what I didn’t have: a stay-at-home, available, attentive mom. I felt noble and righteous changing the pattern handed down from my family of origin. I loved being there for my boys.  (I still do…. It’s just that now my high school and college-aged kids aren’t around as much for me to mother them.)

But there’s also the other side of this coin that shows up with our kids’ emotions and it can be hard to parent in ways we weren’t parented.  Over and over in my therapy office, I’ve worked with parents who get utterly exasperated with their kids’ big, hard-to-take emotions. The parents come into my office thinking something must be wrong: either with their children or with them. The 4 year old son is fussy and demanding and mom snaps. The 14 year old daughter is socially awkward and doesn’t have friends and mom feels depressed about it. The teenage step-kids are lazy and entitled and stepdad gets enraged at either the kids or their mom.  In the gentle peeling back of layers that happens in therapy, all three of these parents have come to the same a-ha moment: the traits that they find least acceptable in their kids are precisely the same traits that were considered least acceptable by their parents when they were young.

Let’s take a look at each case to help uncover unacceptable behavior in the children and how parents can make lasting intergenerational changes for the better:

Mother of Fussy and Demanding Young One:

As a girl, the mother of the 4 year old son was valued for being a high achiever with a sunny personality and not too many needs.  She came from a solid, stable family without abuse or neglect; she was just expected to be “good” and not fussy or demanding.

Mother of Socially Awkward Teen:

The mother the of awkward girl hated how awkward and shy she was as a kid and watching the same traits in her daughter triggers painful memories. Now when her daughter is lonely and sad, mom not only feels irritated with her teen, she also blames herself for passing this on to her daughter. She also feels lonely and sad herself because she has never done the personal work to find herself to be lovable in spite of her social challenges.

Stepdad of Lazy and Entitled Stepchildren:

The stepdad was raised in a hard-working, high-performing family. He was valued for his accomplishments and hard work and as an adult, this has served him well professionally.  But it has left him with little compassion for the soft, tender part of himself that needs to be loved and accepted even when he feels down or has emotional needs. This void leaves him with little compassion for kids who have needs and don’t have a great work ethic.

In each of these cases, the parents tended to shut down and become intolerant of their kids’ undesirable behavior. This just perpetuates the cycle of the next generation not feeling lovable in the same ways their previous generation felt unlovable. The good news is that toxic patterns can be broken. That is what therapy is all about. In each case, the parents were able to make measurable changes in the way they responded to their children’s unacceptable behavior.

Compassionate Mother of Fussy and Demanding Young One:

Once the mother of the fussy 4 year old boy found compassion for the fact that SHE had longed for comfort and reassurance when she was little, she was able to “move in” lovingly to honor and comfort her son during his tantrums. As the son no longer felt his mom’s withdrawal and instead felt connection and comfort, the tantrums gradually subsided.

Understanding Mother of Socially Awkward Teen:

The mother of the awkward teen had to work hard to find value in her own introversion and to develop compassion for the young version of herself who didn’t grow up with guidance in developing social skills. Once she did this, her sulky daughter was less repulsive and mom could move in and connect authentically with her struggling teen.

Accepting Stepdad of Lazy and Entitled Stepchildren:

And the stepdad who could be so judgmental and angry with his entitled step-kids was able to connect with the little boy who still resides inside him who wanted to be loved regardless of what he did or didn’t accomplish. He was able to see his step-kids through a more compassionate lens and connect with them as young people who longed for his love and approval that wasn’t tied to their accomplishments.

If you are interested in a bit of self-reflection:
  1. Make a list of your kids’ traits and behaviors that drive you the most crazy.
  2. Jot a few thoughts about how those traits were considered by your parents when you were young.
  3. List how those traits have served you well.
  4. List the pain those traits have caused you.
I think that the aspects of our kids that rub us the wrong way may actually be one of their biggest gifts to us. If these traits irritate us to a point that we don’t feel proud of how we are responding to our children, it might drive us to make some changes. If we change the way we respond to our children, it may help our children develop, feel loved, and make changes in their own behavior. “Doing something about it” can lead to true and lasting compassion for our own wounds. This, in turn, lets us be truly present to heal our children’s wounds. With this noble act, we can change the patterns of dysfunction, big or small, that get passed from generation to generation.


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Kerry Stutzman MSW, LMFT

My passion is helping my clients develop close, connected families and healthy relationships. For the past 20 years I have been helping people discover the best version of themselves.  Learn more

Brett King LPCC NCC, MFT

My specialty is couples therapy with parents. I also have expertise in parenting, betrayal recovery, and addiction.  Learn more

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My focus includes trauma, attachment, anxiety, depression, and relational work; including a focus on children and teens, parents, and couples.  Learn more

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Amy Cobb MS Family/Human Development

I specialize in working with parents and caregivers with children from cradle to college, with special focus from birth – 10 years old. Learn more

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