A woman holding a photo of herself as a baby with her father.

Family Health

Are We Destined to Repeat the Mistakes Our Parents Made?

Feb 23, 2018

It’s bound to happen, those words that you were determined you would never say, come spilling from your lips. "Oh my gosh, I really do sound like my mother!"

Is that good? Is that bad? The way in which we parent is influenced by many factors including genetics, temperament, social support and the environment, but the greatest influence is how we were parented. It makes sense that the person we were the most dependent upon for our very survival should have the greatest impact. It is from our earliest childhood experiences and interactions that we learn about emotional connections.

"A difficult childhood doesn’t mean that you are bound to re-create negative interactions with your own children."

According to attachment theory, we have a pretty good idea of how relationships work by the end of our first year based on how our parents or primary caregivers responded to our needs. We can say that a child is securely attached when expectations for comfort and relief from distress are met in a timely and appropriate manner. When a child’s needs are met, they are free to explore and learn, contributing to optimal development and emotional well-being.

The underlying assumption of attachment theory is that the quality of our early attachments profoundly influences how we behave as adults. We unconsciously internalize a model of how to be a parent as we are growing up. But what if our early experiences were less than ideal and we didn’t have “good enough parents”?

Recommended Reading: Answering My Kids' Questions About My Less-Than-Stellar Youth

Child psychiatrist Dan Siegel suggests that parenting gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own early experiences as we create a loving bond with our children. In the book, Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, Dr. Siegel and co-author Mary Hartzell offer evidence-based research in the field of child development that the critical factor isn’t what happened to you in your own childhood, rather it is how you make sense of how those experiences have affected your life.

A difficult childhood doesn’t mean that you are bound to re-create negative interactions with your own children. But it takes self-understanding, an inside-out approach to parenting, to break the negative patterns of family interactions from being passed down through the generations. Becoming a parent gives us the opportunity to grow as we engage in the intimate parent-child relationship but now we are in a different role. As the parent, we are free to choose behaviours that will support our child’s emotional well-being rather than repeating old patterns. 

The Psychology Foundation of Canada's innovative program Make the Connection offers new parents an opportunity for self-reflection as an important component of the attachment curriculum. While participating in the program with their babies, individuals may come to realize that there is always something they can learn from the way they were parented, that parenting tends to evolve from one generation to the next and that they have the freedom to choose the behaviours that support their own child’s secure attachment and emotional well-being. For example, here are just a few of the questions that new parents are invited to ponder:

  • What did you like about the way you were parented?
  • What would you not like to repeat with your child?
  • How has your relationship with your parents evolved since childhood?

"As the parent, we are free to choose behaviours that will support our child’s emotional well-being rather than repeating old patterns."

You know your child best, in spite of the well-intentioned parenting advice you may receive from family members and even strangers on the street! However, it doesn’t hurt to add a few tried and true parenting skills that build on a foundation of warmth, trust and effective communication and are backed by science.

The Parenting for Life series of booklets is another popular resource offered by The Psychology Foundation of Canada and provides sound parenting advice. This series covers important topics from birth through adolescence, including a guide for new fathers, the significance of play, building self-esteem, positive discipline ideas, understanding and encouraging resiliency, fostering independence in your preteen and effective communication skills for talking to and listening to your teen.

For example, here are just a few suggestions from this series:

  • Play is a natural way for adults to learn a lot about your child. When playing with your child, follow their lead, keep the activity short and simple and focus on fun not competition.
  • Our children learn a lot by watching how we deal with our own self-esteem issues. How we act is important. Avoid making sweeping negative statements about yourself, let your child see how you overcome obstacles and when you do something well, tell your children how you feel about it.
  • Use discipline that teaches. Describe the behaviour not the child, take advantage of situations where your child can learn from natural consequences (be mindful not to put them in danger or at risk) and help your child understand the link between their behaviour and its results.

It’s true that our parents are our first teachers, but as parents we never stop learning from our children either. A strong and loving parent-child relationship contributes to the emotional well-being of both children and their parents.

Article Author Dr. Julaine Brent
Dr. Julaine Brent

Read more from Dr. Julaine here.

Dr. Julaine Brent is a trustee on the board of The Psychology Foundation of Canada where she also chairs the Connections for Life committee. As a developmental psychologist, she has conducted research in parent self-efficacy, attachment and the transition to school and is currently investigating the long term effects of full day kindergarten on families. Julaine is the mother of three grown children and is delighted to have an emotional connection with her two grandsons! Follow The Psychology Foundation on Twitter and Instagram and access First Three Years – Make the Connection and Parenting for Life programs.

Add New Comment

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.