I think we all wonder how our parenting choices are going to affect our children when they become adults. We have the honor and privilege of raising the next generation of adults and, if you’re like me, you worry at times that you might be screwing them up. #mommyguilt.
We make a million and one parenting decisions, sometimes in a single day. Some big. Some seemingly insignificant. But what are the decisions and practices that really matter?
I don’t have a definitive answer to this question — and, if I did, I’m sure I’d sleep better at night! But, I do have a unique perspective about how childhood can affect the experiences and relationships of adults.
In addition to being a mommy of two, I’m a psychologist. I work with adults and have heard the life stories of thousands of people over the 12 years I’ve worked in the field of mental health. I hear the things people don’t share with family and friends, and see the patterns people don’t see in themselves. And through this work, I’ve noticed some distinct patterns in adults that have led me to reprioritize what I consider most important in my role as a parent.
*As a disclaimer, these observations don’t hold true for every individual and may not be true in your life. These are simply the trends I’ve noticed in my own professional experience that influence me as a mom.*
Kids “Remember” Much More than We Think
I’ve often heard parents say, “At least my kid won’t remember this.” Heck, I’ve said it myself! And, it’s true that most adults don’t have clear memories for events that happened before about age three or four, because of lots of neurological reasons. But, there’s a whole other type of memory we rarely talk about called implicit memory, which is subconscious and can shape our lives in very powerful ways from DAY ONE. These memories are cemented by our senses and emotional experiences (especially traumatic ones). Ever smell something you have no distinct memory of, but somehow it seems familiar? That’s implicit memory. While we may not be able to recall exact events from early childhood, we are certainly able to “remember” things like the emotional tone of our homes and our early relationships. Our bodies remember if our early years felt secure and comforting, or frightening and unpredictable. These memories can often subconsciously shape the choices we make as adults. Which leads to the next observation that . . . .
Adults Tend to Repeat the Relationships They Observed in Childhood
We learn how to behave, what to expect, and what to accept in relationships by watching others. Many of my clients who observed parents acting with explosive anger or passive aggression engage in a similar relationship dynamics as adults. Why? Thanks to implicit memory, humans tend to be attracted to people and situations that feel familiar, even if the familiar is dysfunctional or unsafe. It works in the opposite direction too. My clients who observed healthy, kind, and caring relationships in childhood tend to engage in those types of relationship dynamics as adults (and be unwilling to continue in relationships that are unhealthy).
Emotions Matter . . . A LOT
Some of the deepest emotional damage I’ve observed hasn’t sprung from childhoods of abuse. Rather, it stemmed from subtle emotional neglect. It’s shown me how critical it is to tune into and validate ALL of children’s’ emotional experiences. Well adjusted adults are able to experience, identify, and express a full range of emotions — including the unpleasant ones. They’ve gotten the message over and over from parents and others that ALL emotions are valuable, have a purpose, and are acceptable to express in safe ways. This is not the same as saying that all behaviors are okay (e.g. “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hit”). Many of my clients, especially men, learned early on that it was not okay to express sadness or vulnerability. As a result, these boys became men who expressed sadness through anger/aggression, isolation, and substance abuse. Similarly, I’ve noticed many girls who received the message that anger is not acceptable became women who expressed anger through anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
Boundaries Are VERY Important
Though they drive us crazy testing them, clear and consistent boundaries help children to feel safe and loved. In fact, they are developmentally driven to test boundaries in order to find their “safe zone” and confirm their parents love. More often my clients who had childhoods with few/no boundaries (think: “Do whatever you want”) or extremely rigid boundaries (think: “You will do what I want in every situation or else”) experienced devastating and sometimes lifelong consequences, including: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, unstable relationships, and poor self-esteem. I’ve noticed that my well adjusted clients often came from homes that had clear, predictable boundaries that were able to flex with the particular situation (think: “Pick your battles”).
Harsh Discipline Almost Always Has Negative Consequences
Disciplinary techniques like spanking are controversial, but based on my observations, the price of these techniques is too high. Harsh discipline may influence a child’s behavior in the moment by instilling fear, but it also instills anger, confusion, and anxiety that can last into adulthood. Rarely have I met a client who experienced regular harsh discipline who didn’t also have emotional or behavioral damage as a result. When they say, “Well, I was knocked around as a kid and I turned out okay,” my internal reaction is, “But who might you have been if you had been treated with kindness and patience?” These observations also match the latest psychological research on physical discipline.
Children Who Are Treated with Respect Tend to Become Adults Who Treat Others with Respect
It’s as easy as that. Similarly, we teach people how to treat us as adults, and what we teach often stems from how we were treated in early relationships. My heart hurts when I see parents scream at their children or treat them harshly as they simultaneously tell them to “act nice.” And, more often than not, they do it out of love and the belief that this is the best way to teach such lessons because that’s how they were taught. But, children learn MUCH more from what we DO than what we SAY. When our actions as parents say, “You are important. You are valuable. I care about what you think and feel,” our children become adults who treat others this way too.