A Challenging Task
Parenting is difficult under the best of circumstances, and few fall into the “Best of Circumstances” category.
Knowing what to do and what not to do when parenting is incredibly difficult. Especially when there are tools missing from your skills toolbox as a result of abuse, trauma, or emotional neglect, it can be terrifying to consider shepherding another human being through this crazy train we call life. Equally terrifying is having children and then realizing you don’t know how to parent because you were not properly parented.
From Hurt to Healing
In the ways that mattered most, I was not parented. I was left to my own devices, and
frequently made to feel shame and self-doubt. This, if I may put it this way, “handicapped” me a fair bit when it came to having kids of my own. My babies are young adults now, and miraculously, we made it through. They are good and solid human beings. I was terrified at many points when raising them, because for much of the time I just did not know the “right” thing to do. There have been many times at which I felt as though I was a blind person trying to raise seeing children, but I’m proof that it can be done.
How to Parent When You Haven’t Been Parented
When people ask me “How?!” it’s like being asked to describe the smell of a number. Honestly, so much of it has been on a wing and a prayer, though a lot of it was also very deliberate evaluation and seeking. Sometimes, the simpler wisdom to share is what not to do when parenting.
Five Things Not to Do
Here are some things I have learned along the way:
1 Don’t use your children to recreate the childhood you wanted for yourself.
Your children are not an extension of you. They are each their own unique person with their own specific gifts, abilities and dreams.
Creating the childhood you missed out on for your kids is not an effective way of coping with what you missed out on.
You need to grieve whatever was lost in your story. But you must do your best to keep that grief and unfulfilled needs and dreams out of your playbook for your child. Specifically, don’t pressure them into doing things just because you wanted to do them and weren’t allowed, or things you loved doing but weren’t good at. Your child’s life is not your chance at a do-over for your childhood.
2 Don’t swing full pendulum the other way from what you don’t want.
The knee-jerk reaction of many survivors of abuse and neglect is to do the opposite of what was done to them. It is not uncommon for someone who wasn’t protected as a child to become a helicopter parent, or for someone who had extremely controlling parents to raise their children without rules or boundaries. Neither is good, my friends – for you or for your child.
It’s okay to not know what to do, and “What Not To Do” is a valuable teacher. Abusing a child after an infraction is never, ever appropriate. But neither is not addressing the infraction at all, and not holding them responsible for their actions.
Love is always somewhere in the middle.
3 Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong.
You may need a paper bag to breathe in for this, but: you’re going to get it wrong sometimes.
You are a human being in a new situation, and every stage is a new situation – for them and for you. It’s all new, even when they’re grown! I’ve never been the mom of a 24 year old before, and he’s never been 24 before, so we are both figuring this out as we go.
You’re going to mess up, and I mean this as a permission slip to not take yourself so seriously. You’re doing the best you can.
It is okay to get it wrong sometimes.
Don’t focus too much on what you’re afraid of, though a basic awareness of your fears is appropriate and even helpful. Focus, ultimately, on what you do want. Be intentional. Focus on loving well. Love – the verb, not the feeling – really does cover and accomplish much. You can heal and learn.
4 Don’t fall for the lie that you need to be perfect.
The best thing I heard in all my child-rearing years was this:
You don’t have to be a perfect parent. You just have to be a good enough parent.
Truth, ya’ll. There is no one perfect way. Every human being is unique. Even between my own three kids, some things were handled differently because they’re each wired differently. There is no one-size-fits-all response, except for love.
Check your perfection issues at the door when it comes to parenting; you are an imperfect person raising an imperfect person. And, I’m sorry if that last bit is news to you, but you’re welcome …
Your child will do things, say things and think things that are not what you would prefer for them or for the situation they do it in – but they are not you. Their imperfections are not a reflection of you as a person or as a parent; imperfections are proof that they’re human. You are too. So, calm down, resist the temptation to compare yourself to other parents and your children to other children, and focus on who your child is and what they need. And, remember: they don’t need perfect!
5 Don’t make decisions based on guilt or shame.
Neither guilt (I’ve done something bad) nor shame (I am bad) make good co-parents. Generally speaking, decisions need to be made based on facts vs. feelings, on healthy boundaries, and in the best interests of your child.
What children truly need and will benefit from is often not the same as what we wish we could give them.
You may feel guilty creating boundaries for your children that you breached as a child. Not allowing your child to do something that you did may prompt you to ask: “Doesn’t this make me a hypocrite?”
Nope, it does not.
Avoid Shame and Guilt Based Parenting
If you feel ashamed of where you live, and give your child everything he/she wants in an effort to compensate for what you believe they’re lacking, you’re most likely doing so to quiet your own feelings and issues rather than trying to do right by the child.
After all, what equips a child more: the understanding that things and circumstances are required for wellbeing, or learning things like contentment, gratitude, using their imagination, ingenuity and the likes?
Another example would be if you made certain regrettable choices at age 14, and your child is making them now, but you don’t address it because you feel like you have no right setting a boundary that you yourself didn’t adhere to.
These are just two examples of shame and guilt based traps. Avoid acting on these feelings as much as you can.
Teaching our kids healthy boundaries, wise choices and self-control is being a loving parent. Remember, their childhood isn’t about your childhood; their childhood is about them, and about equipping them for a healthy and successful adulthood. If anything, the choices we made in younger years give credibility to the healthy boundaries and rules we need to set for our kids. It’s because you made such choices and know the consequences first hand that you want your child to be better equipped to choose wisely.
Make choices based on what’s best for your child. Avoid choices based on redeeming yourself.
You. Can. Do. This.
You are not alone. You are not too damaged. Many people before you have made mistakes and have not known what to do much of the time – you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last.
If you don’t have kids already, don’t decide against it out of fear.
Whether you have kids already or haven’t gone there but wonder if you can, don’t be afraid to reach out for help and support. You will find many, many others who feel like you and fear like you. Their validation and help will be priceless.
Parenting when you have not been parented is a challenge, but it is not impossible. Much of what you experienced can actually help inform your choices. Your past will help you to be a very loving, intentional, thoughtful and self-aware parent. You are not your parents, and not knowing what to do doesn’t mean you can’t do a good job. One of your greatest strengths is that you care.