Be a Better Parent than Your Parents
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Written by Scott Spradlin, LPC, LMAC

“We are all born with the capacity for love and care, and many of us have had to learn to adapt to a life with suboptimal attachment. It’s never too late to reflect on what may have gone on in our own lives and then begin the repair process in our self-understanding to allow that care for ourselves to emerge.”

~Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne, ‘The Power of Showing Up’

Our health and integration, our dis-ease and disintegration, stems from our relationships. Identity is relational. I love therefore I am! This last phrase I discovered in the spiritual literature of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. However we look at ourselves as a species, as human beings, there is no getting around the fundamental, essential, reality that we are relational beings. Our wellness is founded upon responsive, warm and safe parenting, while our dis-eases, stem from disrupted relationships, wonky attachment styles and invalidating environments.

As noted in an earlier entry, DBT understands Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), as a function of biological emotional vulnerability transacting with an invalidating environment. The invalidating environment is dismissive of children’s emotional experiences, or in some cases the environment turns against the child, punishing them for not only experiencing emotions but also for expressing emotions. In these poor conditions, children initiate instinctive bids for connection which are either “neutralized,” as one of my clients once described his experience, or punished. With the chronic repetition of either response, children learn that they are fundamentally unsafe. They have no one to thoroughly trust. Their very neurobiology is affected by these social experiences. Perhaps you were one of these children. Punished for expressing emotions. Or your emotional bids for connection were neutralized as your attachment figures had the habit of turning away from you, ignoring your bids, or showing disinterest. Emotionally vulnerable or not, these experiences are invalidating, and you are more likely to experience chronic emotional flooding, amygdala hijacking of the brain, compared with folks who are blessed with strong and consistent attachments and emotion coaching.

Here you are, in adulthood. You’re a parent. You are conscientious and desire to do other than what was done to you. Even if you notice yourself invalidating your kids, or behaving excessively angry or engaging in behavior that you know to strike terror into them, take heart. Your desire to do otherwise will serve you well. And the good news is, you can build on your insight and desire by learning mindfulness and emotion regulation skills.

Where to Start?

Start with paying attention. Simply notice what you are feeling this very moment. Do you notice anxiety? Boredom? Mild curiosity? You’re invited to simply begin with observing your emotion, factually, without exaggeration and without minimizing. Labeling your emotions is one facet of successful emotion regulation. Matching the word to your experience is a form of self-validation, one small step toward the life practice of taking yourself seriously, and learning to trust the wisdom of your emotions. Intentional breathing brings you home to the present moment, to come home to the space of you, within your body. Inhaling gently through the nose letting your abdomen expand, then exhaling through the lips, be where you are for a few more short moments. Intentional breathing helps you, too, to down-regulate during stressful situations by increasing oxygen flow through your body and you feel grounded and calm. And this practice gets your upstairs brain (neocortex/thinking/planning/imagining) talking with your downstairs brain (amygdala/breathing/fight/flight/freeze) allowing for neural integration (See Daniel Siegel, mindsight) and allowing for access to your wise mind.

When you find yourself becoming more skillful at noticing and labeling your emotions and becoming more familiar with your intentional breathing, you will find that you are better equipped to be present for your children when you see and feel their emotions. You can be present to their stress, fear or sadness without distancing from them, and without blaming them. You can be available to validate their emotions and to turn toward their bids to connect with you. These are the opportunities for you to connect with your kids, to cultivate a healthy attachment as you model care and comfort. As you inhabit yourself, your kids will come to inhabit your presence as a shelter where they know they are safe.

Compassion and Repair

As you learn more about mindfulness and emotion regulation, you can reflect on your life experiences. Consider the likelihood that your attachment figures, mom and dad, or other adults in your early childhood had inherited invalidation, distress, and confusion and passed this legacy to you. Generations of neural wiring and modeling are difficult to change, but they can be changed, and with a view of understanding that all behaviors are caused, you, me, us, all of us we can perhaps have at least a modicum of compassion for our forebearers. The insights that can emerge from these considerations can aid you refurbishing your self-understanding, see yourself in a new light. When you feel angry or irritated while parenting, you don’t have to let yourself become drawn into a vortex of self-loathing which changes nothing. Rather, you can note your distress, and say to yourself: “Of course I’m irritated. That’s what I do. After twenty (or thirty or forty, etc.) years of practice, I’m an expert at being irritated in these situations.” All the while breathing, recollecting yourself within your mind and body, loosening your attachment to your old way of doing and being.

Remember breath will help you regulate the body that you live in, and that’s where all the action lives. Mind and body are a unity, so you can change your emotions by first accepting and listing them to yourself, as noted above, and by doing otherwise in the moment of distress. You can practice opposite-action as we call it in DBT. Mindfully, intentionally turning your mind and body in a direction that alters the present distress, widening the space between stimuli and response, and thereby widening your options for responding to whatever the situation may be. Whether you’re facing a sea of legos strewn about the house, or the potential of forks-in-toasters, or robust sibling rivalry, or the simple whining of a hungry infant, you can allow your emotions while choosing the wise course of action, collecting moments of response and safety. Through this process, if you’re anything like me, or like my clients, you will not only begin to make more sense to yourself, and not only will your children feel safe with you, you will also notice that you are less miserable, reducing your own emotional suffering.

In closing here, I offer this:

“History is not destiny. By making sense of your own story, you can be the kind of parent you want to be–regardless of how you were parented.”

Daniel Siegel and Tina P. Bryson, The Power of Showing Up, 2020, p. 28.

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