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Carrying The Torch: Breaking Generational Patterns

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Why parent as your parents did? That’s all you knew but it doesn’t have to be all your kids know. Xing Ni Liu shines a light

It is Sunday night. My four-year-old asks for a cup of milk. I set it up on the table for him. He takes a sip and turns around to mess with his older brother. They are laughing, I am watching them and smiling. Then, it is almost like I see it coming before it happens, he turns and knocks that cup of milk all over the table and some spills onto the cushioned chair.

“Why aren’t you more careful? Why would you mess around when you are drinking? Look at what you’ve done!” These words almost escape my mouth. Before they do, I see the guilt in his eyes and manage to take a deep breath, “It’s okay. Accidents happen. But you will need to help clean up.” He runs to the kitchen to grab tea towels. “What can we do next time to prevent this from happening again?” I ask. When he realises that he is not in trouble, he is quick to come up with genuine answers. “I can put my cup out of reach, I can also finish the cup before I play with my brother.” “Now, those are great ideas!”

This may not sound like much, but I was very proud of myself for handling the situation without an emotional outburst. It has taken me a lot of practice to get here. I used to be the mum who reacted and let those words go, until one day I heard my own mother’s voice in those words, and remembered how I hated hearing the blaming emotions behind them. I realised that many of the times I was dissatisfied with myself as a parent, I was parenting like my mother. I did not enjoy being rushed to school in the morning, yet I rushed my children, even using the same phrases; I disliked being forced to play the piano, yet I pushed my children towards taking grade exams, even with the same logic; I hated being blamed for things I did not do on purpose, yet I could not stop accusatory words coming out of my mouth when my children made a mistake.

I had always dreamt of being a wonderful mother – always speaking to my children in a soft voice, and creating a relationship where they would always feel safe. So why was I behaving like this? Was I a bad mother? I started talking to other parents, experts and decided to research this topic in my final year master’s degree in psychology.

It turns out, family behaviour patterns can be inherited and replicated from previous generations. This made me breathe a sigh of relief: there was nothing wrong with me; I was just repeating how I was parented. However, I was determined to give my children a better experience. Where to start? I set out to find answers.

Firstly, I wanted to understand the various styles of parenting available to us, broadly categorised as authoritative, permissive, authoritarian and neglectful.

Let’s imagine your child skipped a day at school. How would you react? A) Engage the child and understand why they truanted – explain that such behaviour is not acceptable and agree on a consequence. B) Have a conversation with the child, without discussing consequences or taking action to prevent further absence from school. C) Inflict immediate punishment or D) Have no response.

On paper, most of us would choose A. This option is how authoritative parenting works – parents strive to create positive relationships by setting and enforcing clear rules. In reality, we may consider it more effective or efficient, certainly easier, to choose B or C. Option B represents permissive parenting: the worry here is that children grow up without boundaries, and therefore without any real sense of security. Option C represents authoritarian parenting, there’s a focus on rules, obedience and punishment for disobedience – children can grow up fearful and lacking in confidence. Nobody would knowingly choose option D (neglectful parenting), but there are times when we may be so busy that important incidents slip past us. Children feel unseen and can grow up to have low self-esteem.

We all tend to parent the way we were parented, not necessarily because we enjoyed it, rather we follow the pattern of child-raising unconsciously – that is all we know. Family behavioural patterns have been defined by the American Psychological Association as a characteristic quality in the relationships of a particular family, which is revealed by the way family members interact. Parenting is an important element in the determination of such patterns. We may have picked up the good that our parents did, as well as the bad. Research shows that violent, harsh and abusive behaviours are passed down across generations; they can have lasting effects into adulthood and they can be exacerbated through repetition.

No doubt we should make a conscious effort to break dysfunctional patterns but how does that work in practice? After reviewing existing research, I came up with my own definition: When parents become aware of unhealthy family-interaction dynamics and apply skills to real-world interactions to change such patterns, so that their children have a more positive experience, they are breaking generational patterns.

Many of us grow up with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs came into the spotlight in the 90s and identified categories of adversities experienced by children that would have long-lasting negative effects on their lives. ACEs are caused by household dysfunction: mental abuse, neglect and domestic violence. This may sound far from you, but the CDC has found that 60% of American adults report at least one ACE, almost 25% report three or more.

Where do we start to make changes? I have identified five key skills that can be practised by anyone in everyday life: self-reflection, emotional regulation, stress management, emotional communication and self-compassion. Each topic deserves attention but here I will focus on self-compassion.

Self-compassion may sound foreign in the parenting setting. Often, we are quite forgiving when our children make mistakes. However, we become far more critical when we make a mistake. Raising children is challenging and we should allow space for mistakes during this process. We often react, and then regret – we beat ourselves up about our reaction. However, what many people do not realise is that we react because we feel triggered, and we repeat how our parents treated us in similar situations.

Instead of thinking “what is wrong with me?”, we could try to understand “what happened to me?”. Self-compassion brings us back to the beginning of our cycle, self-reflection.

When we are self-compassionate, we heal our own wounds and come to feel less friction towards those who have hurt or wronged us. Perhaps this compassion can be extended to our parents. We may be able to see them through a different lens, and realise that though they were not the parents we wish to be, they may have made every effort to do what they thought was best. In extreme cases, where what was done is not forgivable, we cannot condone the parent’s actions but we can still extend compassion towards them.

Letting go of anger and aiding your own healing is one thing, but I struggled to come to terms with my need to break patterns. I thought of it as a betrayal of my parents, until someone said to me, “You do not know what struggles they went through as a child. You may not be aware of this, but they’ve probably broken a pattern or two themselves. You can just carry the torch and continue to do better for the next generation.”

Perhaps your father used to shout at you when he was frustrated, if you are able to speak to your child in a calm manner in a similar situation, you are breaking patterns. Perhaps your mother used to punish you physically when she was angry, if you are able to hold your hand back in a similar situation, even if you are still shouting at your child, you are breaking patterns.

Each day, I am learning from parents around me. Sometimes through conversations but more often than not, through observing how they handle different situations with their children. We can all support and learn from each other, and together, do better. Every small step we take in breaking dysfunctional patterns is a big step towards building stronger and healthier relationships with our children.

DB resident Xing Ni Liu has just completed her master’s in psychology at Harvard University: she spent the last year of her degree creating workshops for parents to educate them about generational trauma, and help them build stronger, healthier relationships with their children by breaking dysfunctional generational patterns. She is passionate about helping children to reach their maximum potential and believes that mindful parenting plays a key role in this. Find more from Xing, and workshops in the coming school year, on Instagram.

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