Looking Back, Looking Forward: Why Trying to Be Better Than Your Parents Might Be a Mistake
Many parents who seek my help have a particular stance towards raising their children: They don’t want to parent the way they were parented (i.e., they want to be better than their parents). This sounds reasonable when taken at face value. After all, it seems wise for a mother who was maltreated by her parents to want to avoid a rerun with her own children. But things can get tricky when avoiding repeating is your primary parental goal. In spite of their powerful wishes to protect their children, some parents may unwittingly recreate the wounding dynamics of old with their own children.
Freud Knows Best
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, wrote about this unconscious tendency of adults to replay the troubling relations of their youth. He referred to it as the repetition compulsion and regarded it as a potent, organizing force in the mind of the individual. Freud theorized that we repeat our traumatic and troubling experiences in order to gain mastery over them. In the case of some parents and caregivers, they actively repeat what they were forced to endure passively as children. Emotionally, they look backward when their children need them to look forward.
As a child, Olivia was treated harshly by her mother and remembers getting vigorously whipped with a belt for any small offense. As an adult, Olivia carries a deep resentment towards and lingering fear of her now elderly mother. From an early age Olivia vowed to never abuse her own children so that they would not suffer as she had. Yet when conflict arises with her spirited 5-year-old, Caroline, she readily spanks her child. While not nearly as physically painful as the whippings Olivia herself received, the spankings evoke in Caroline similar feelings of humiliation, mistrust, anger, and fear, further stoking the child’s rebelliousness and discord with her mother.
“When the mistreated child becomes an adult and parent, he is usually unable to gain a sense of mastery over or a resolution of early painful experiences and so continues to enact them with his children, among others.”
Similar to Olivia, Sean carries into adulthood misgivings about the way his domineering, emotionally distant father treated him as a young boy. It leaves him feeling anxious about his worth to his father and in relationships in general. Now a father himself, Sean unconsciously regards his children as friends as an attempt to counterbalance the purely top-down relationship he had had with his father. Unfortunately, the result is weak boundaries between Sean and his 4- and 6-year-old girls, who appear to comfortably walk all over him but who secretly feel an abiding anxiety about their inappropriate power.
In both Olivia and Sean’s lives, the child-parent dynamic, in some painful ways, echoes from one generation to the next even though the parents resolved to end the cycle. The repetition compulsion tends to not work itself out without intervention. When the mistreated child becomes an adult and parent, he is usually unable to gain a sense of mastery over or a resolution of early painful experiences and so continues to enact them with his children, among others.
Loosening the Shackles of Repetition
The goal to be better than your parents is not necessarily a bad one. The idea that each generation will be a little better, have a little more opportunity, and suffer a little less than the previous one can give people hope and meaning in the sacrifices they make for their children. With Olivia and Sean, however, they had not emotionally processed or understood their past well enough to avoid repeating it, thus contradicting many of their noble efforts. Just wanting to be better leaves out the good stuff from the past, present, and future.
“…Take what was good, leave the rest, and keep learning.”
A more integrative approach would include desiring to be better, building on the sometimes forgotten positive memories of one’s childhood, and searching out parental wisdom from worthy others. We could reduce the aphorism even further: Take what was good, leave the rest, and keep learning. Simple but by no means easy.
Here are some examples of things that shape the integrative view and act as kryptonite for the repetition compulsion:
- Trusting romantic partnerships
- Consistent family support
- Secure friendships
- Parenting education (books, videos, classes, coaching, etc.)
Being a psychologist, I would be remiss if I didn’t crown psychotherapy as the heavyweight champ of the list. Though it’s probably an oversimplification to say so, a good, intensive therapy can be the key that unlocks intergenerational patterns of suffering. Of course, I would be arrogant to minimize the importance of the other experiences on the list. I’ve seen men who never played with their fathers have great facility in doing so with their own children, and I’ve seen women whose mothers were cold and rejecting be warm and sensitive with their own little ones. These parents had been able to form strong, mutually nurturing relationships with others and learned to look forward.