How Your Inner Child Could Be Keeping You From Parenting Effectively
Your testy reactions towards the kids may be coming from the past where your own childhood needs weren’t met.
If you are active on social media, chances are you have been fed a deluge of parenting slash self-help memes—and a good chunk of them would have called up your own childhood experience.
“Be the parent you needed as a child.” “10 things your inner child needs to hear.” “5 ways to reparent yourself.” And so it goes.
Even Oprah Winfrey shared about how being raised by an abusive grandmother has shaped her life in her book “What Happened to You?” that was co-written with neuroscientist Bruce Perry.
But what (or who) exactly is your inner child? And how is this version of you influencing the way you function as an adult, and especially in the way you are parenting your own offspring?
“The inner child is a reflection of how much our childhood needs were met through our early interpersonal experiences. This influences our memories, thought patterns, emotions and behaviour patterns,” explains Justine Xue, senior psychologist at Private Space Medical.
“Although the inner child typically involves negative emotions and behaviour such as sadness, anger and impulsivity, it can also be associated with joy and fun if our childhood needs have been met,” she adds.
It is however the negative (or for some, traumatic) aspects of the past that have drawn interest for those who have found themselves surprised at the anger that arises from certain interactions with their children. There are still traces of that little kid that yearn to be soothed, even when you are a grown-up.
Without having had the opportunity to emotionally process unhappy incidents, you may subconsciously view situations through the lens of your younger self and feel intense emotions when certain triggers are pulled.
Your subconscious at work
You may be familiar with how, typically, people with body image issues have had highly critical parents, or how a near-drowning
“We may encounter situations that could activate the inner child associated with negative emotions and thought patterns. This can lead to poor decision making and maladaptive behaviour patterns that negatively impact our relationships with others. The inner child might also have learnt that their early experiences were normal and hence parents may behave in similar ways towards their own children,” explains Justine.
For instance, parents who grew up in an invalidating environment or one lacking warmth and loving care might find it difficult providing care and support for their children’s needs and forging close relationships with them. They may also find it hard to set firm boundaries and limits for fear that their children will get angry with them.
And those who were chastised for lacking academic achievements may have similar expectations of their own kids and place less value on fun spontaneous activities, which are important for a child’s development and stress management.
It is also common to hear those who grew up with the good old rattan cane go, “I was spanked and turned out fine!” Growing up in a punitive environment provides a model for parents to punish and express anger when children make mistakes, even when modern science urges parents to rethink this method of discipline.
Be your own detective
If the power struggles at home have been a weight on your shoulders or if you have been unable to form a close bond with your
“Being aware of the inner child is important for us to be able to notice ourselves responding in unhelpful ways. We can then make changes early to mitigate the perpetuation of unhealthy interaction patterns, learn to regulate our own emotions and maintain a supportive environment and healthy relationships within the family,” says Justine.
For a start, Justine suggests identifying the “difficult emotions, interactions and thought patterns that commonly occur with your children.” Ask yourself: does your child’s experience mirror yours with your own parents, and at what age did you encounter those emotions?
The healing process
There is no quick fix to feeling better about the past or changing the ways you interact with your family and the world at large. But there are little shifts you can make, which with time, can make a positive difference in your life.
Acknowledge your inner child
Embrace who she is and her vulnerable spots without judgment.
Identify your current needs
For example, if feelings of inadequacy from childhood have spilled over to your confidence level as a parent, notice when your mind starts to spiral. Parenting isn’t about being perfect. Self-validate by drawing focus to your strengths instead.
On the same note, learn to communicate your needs honestly and respectfully to your spouse, be it time out to pursue hobbies or more hands-on help at home. Self-care is integral to your ability to parent effectively.
Find healthy ways to release negative emotions
When a difficult situation arises with your child, give a mental nod to your anger or frustration, and refrain from flying off the handle. Release, rather than suppress, your anger in an appropriate manner. Excuse yourself, get a sweaty workout or take a shower before returning to the conversation.
School yourself on the normal needs of each stage of child development—Google can be a great resource. It can also be helpful to ask the children specifically what sort of support they need from you in different situations, such as when they haven’t done so well on an exam or if they are having trouble moderating screen time.
Do also try to get in one-on-one time with each child for activities that he or she enjoys so to strengthen your relationship and have fond memories to look back upon.
Manage your expectations
Your needs as a child, be it to feel heard by mum and dad or to have a warm loving family, may never be met now that you are an adult. Making peace with the reality of the past is crucial to seeing the present with fresh eyes.
Seek out a pro
It may be possible to start healing the inner child on your own or with support of loved ones. But if you need help to access your emotions and needs, guidance from a therapist can be beneficial.
No matter how you go about your healing journey, being patient with yourself is key to staying the course. “Most of us did not have control over our early experiences. I would encourage parents to practise self-compassion in their process of healing,” says Justine.
She adds, “Know that you are not alone and others too have had similar experiences. Give yourself kindness through words of acceptance, strength and forgiveness.”