As parents, we aspire to raise children with solid values and traits. We imagine a future in which our children live healthy and successful lives, but as we know from our collective experience over the last two years, life is not easy. Challenges present themselves. We encourage our children to turn to us in times of difficulty and strife, but do we also think about how our own mental health impacts them?
How we approach our parenting styles reaches beyond the years of stress brought about by the pandemic and into the recesses of our minds. If you’ve ever said the same words or phrases you heard your parents say, then you’ve experienced unconscious parenting strategies that can have a lasting impact on childhood development. Though we may not realize it, many of us adopt parenting styles once used on us. While we tend to believe that what happened in the past is in the past, parents carry experiences that affect how they behave. Unconscious parenting techniques trigger emotional weaknesses in the face of adversity.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect all of us and influence our ability to parent in times of difficulty. ACEs include being a victim of violence at home, witnessing violent acts, a family member attempting or committing suicide, substance abuse, mental health problems, having parents who separated or divorced or a household member who is incarcerated. According to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, “one in three children under the age of 18 deal with at least one adverse childhood experience, while 14 percent experience two or more ACEs.” We react and respond to adverse experiences based on the family systems we grew up in.
If you and your child are struggling to connect, consider exploring the following attachment styles retrieved from Healthline:
- Dismissive-avoidant: You tend to be distant from others in order to hide your true feelings and avoid rejection.
- Anxious-preoccupied: You tend to feel more insecure in relationships and are fearful of being alone.
- Anxious-avoidant: You crave closeness with others, but withdraw when things become serious or intimate.
It is important to note that while an adverse experience does not guarantee a problem, it increases a child’s risk of “mental health problems, injury, risky behaviors, infectious or chronic disease and lack of income or educational opportunities.”
So how do we protect our children while providing them with the tools to successfully lead by our example?
We uniquely craft ways to connect with our children based on personal experiences from our past and particularly with our parents and/or caregivers. We have the opportunity to help our children heal and also heal ourselves, but we have to look inward and commit to doing the work.
Consider what parenting styles you were exposed to at home when you were a child.
- Were emotionally charged topics avoided? If you bury yourself in your work to create distance and withdraw from your relationships when conflict arises, pick one day each week to leave your laptop at the office and plug into your family.
- Did your parents talk with you about your feelings? Instead of assuming the worst, create a space for open dialogue and give your family an opportunity to come to you.
- Did your emotional needs feel met or dismissed? Instead of testing loyalty or being overly critical, acknowledge the attributes you love about your family.
We all have the capacity to unlearn patterns of behavior. We have the opportunity to identify, correct and provide our children with the skills needed to manage difficult moments when they arise. By releasing and letting go of unconscious parenting strategies, we can effectively meet the emotional needs of our children and parent them through difficult moments with healthy and whole relationships.
Jacqueline Orcutt is a licensed clinical social worker at Granada Hills Charter.