What was your childhood like? How was your relationship with your father? With your mother? Do any significant events stay in your memory? How was your early childhood? And your adolescence? Sibling relationships? Friends?
If you’re a parent, I expect you’ve asked and answered these questions to yourself, even without being aware of it. It begins with the pregnancy where family stories abound. ‘My mother’s labours were long so mine will be’ or ‘My mother carried me in front too so I’ll have a girl like she did’. Then when the baby is born we have the relatives’ comments – ‘she has her father’s eyes’; ‘he has his uncle’s nose’ etc.
When it’s just you and the baby, often quite unconscious memories come flooding back to you – a feeling of unease, a feeling of delight. Your parents tell you how you were at that age. Then the family routines and rituals kick in. Some you follow because they are in your bones, and as you decorate the Christmas tree with your toddler, you feel warm inside, for that’s what you did. Some routines you start anew, determined to make it right for your children where your parents got it wrong. Even with that thought, your childhood is sitting on your shoulders, and it remains, every step of the way through your child growing up.
If you had a difficult phase during any of your growing up, when your child reaches that stage it can feel very tricky and uncertain. Particular family relationships can get repeated for you, so that if, for example, you were a loved only son who felt pushed out by a younger sister, you might feel more sympathetic with your own son than with your daughter when they argue. This can feel confusing and upsetting. Wonderful experiences get repeated too. If you were a child who was lucky enough to have a holiday every year, you will almost definitely do the same for your children, and as you experience the holiday with your children, you will be reliving your own childhood holidays.
I worked with someone who loved to celebrate Christmas, but always wanted perfection, and invariably ended up yelling at her children on Christmas Day when things didn’t go her way. As we traced her own history, she remembered her father doing the same to her when she was a child. She knew that her father’s mother had died of an accident when he had been a child. In talking to her parents, she found out that the accident had happened a week before Christmas, and her father always ignored the anniversary, determined not to spoil his own children’s Christmases, as his had been spoilt. He became controlling every Christmas; what he was doing was trying to control his own feelings of anxiety and loss.
It can feel complicated, but really it is surprisingly simple, yet painful, to avoid such difficult repeated experiences. It is often the pain that stops us making the links. To make the links and stop the unwanted repetition, you have to be aware of your own experiences, and be interested in them, even if they are painful. Then they won’t catch you by surprise. Ask those questions I began with, answer them as honestly as you can, get some help if it’s too hard to revisit your own childhood, then enjoy your family rituals and routines, and enjoy your family. When feelings come up to catch you out, you’ll be able to recognise them more quickly for what they are, enabling you to move forwards in your parenting. When feelings come up that make your inner child glow, the child in front of you will glow too.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists