I honestly think it would be impossible to get out of childhood unscathed. Our parents and carers are/were only human after all and while they will have done the best they could, there were bound to be ‘issues’ that they brought to parenthood directly from their own childhoods. It’s just how it goes.
We all received a unique narrative from our childhood that contributed to the beliefs we hold about ourselves that consequently impact upon how we approach life and various situations. Much of the time these default approaches - that we tend to resort to more when we are stressed- are not always the best. So what’s the answer? For me it is quite clear: it’s self-awareness. However, gaining self-knowledge is easier said than done as a lot of what we don’t like about ourselves we successfully hide (from ourselves) by locking it away in our subconscious, guarded by deep feelings of shame.
My upbringing was probably typical of its time: lots of criticism and not a lot of nurture or encouragement. I can see quite clearly how the narrative I received as a child resulted in my childhood (naughty and attention seeking) and adult behaviour (not much better!).
As a parent, a little self-awareness goes a long way to preventing us automatically passing on any damaging narrative to our children. The narratives we receive, and that we can pass onto our children can cover numerous issues such as: what it’s important to be good at, how we deal with making mistakes, how we express emotions, how we get our needs met, how well we feel listened to, how validated as a person we generally feel and therefore what we feel we deserve, how we manage illness, what we become self-conscious of, what makes us lovable etc. (The list can go on…..)
So while this is a huge topic that can’t really be covered in one blog post, I will ask some questions that I have reflected upon both as the child I was, and the adult and parent and teacher I became.
What gets praise? These will be the things your child understands you value and in turn they will assume these are the things that will make them ‘worthy’.
What gets criticised? These may well end up being the things your child feels self-conscious or sensitive about.
How do you respond when your child makes a mistake? Are you supportive and encouraging so that they feel comfortable having another go?
Do you really listen to your child? Do they feel like what they have to say will be listened to and of significance? Obviously you cannot listen to them every single moment of the day, but putting some time aside to really listen can have a huge impact.
Do you let your child express their emotions – even the ‘uncomfortable ones?’ Do you tell your child off for being angry or tell them they are wrong to cry? Or do you show empathy for what they are feeling.
Do you often compare your child to others? Hopefully not, but it’s always good to check!
Another way to develop self-awareness is to look at how we react. Carl Jung said, ‘ Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. This is also true of our children. If they do something that irritates us, chances are it was something we were berated for doing as a child.
And as a last word, I will share with you the narratives that the children I work with have. Obviously, these are the narratives we would ideally avoid as the coping strategies children develop to deal with these, lead to extreme behaviours and a lot of emotional pain.
- My needs are not important
- I am not as good as everyone else
- I am not worth listening to
- My opinion does not count
- I am unlike-able
- Praise is not to be believed
- Never show vulnerability - it makes you more vulnerable
- Others’ needs are more significant than my own
- Others will always think the worst of me
- I have no right to express my emotions – especially the ‘ugly’ ones
- I have lots of bad parts that cause other people to dislike me
- I have to be perfect to be lovable
- To be loved, I must be quiet and contained
- I will be misunderstood if I try to explain myself
- My emotional needs will not be met
- I can’t rely on care or support from others
- It is terrible to make mistakes or get things wrong
- Whatever you do - it won't be good enough. It's almost not worth trying.
- When I make mistakes, it just proves how rubbish I am.
- I am no good at sport/art/being kind/being helpful/math etc
- My very existence is questionable!