When parents bring their children to therapy, they frequently express feelings of discouragement, defeat, confusion, shame, frustration and anger relating to their child and their parenting experience. As they describe the behavioral, academic and/or social challenges of their children, some parents can relate to their child’s struggles. Others are able to identify challenges they observed in siblings or extended family members. They want to make sure that their own son or daughter goes down a different path. Further discussion of parents’ family histories provides important information about the genetic aspects of their child’s strengths and challenges. More importantly, it offers insight into each parent’s relationships with important adults throughout their own development. We are all shaped by relationships and experiences throughout our lives. The template for relationships is formed in infancy by our interactions with our parents. Therefore, the quality of the relationship with our parents or other significant adults in our lives will directly influence how we relate to our children. Whether we like it or not, we can sometimes hear the voice of our parents in our heads as we deal with our children. At times we are reminded of our unresolved pasts, because relating to our children can become a re-enactment of early experiences we had with our parents. At times our children might demonstrate characteristics similar to those of our parents, which may provoke old feelings in us that might be confusing and guilt inducing. Sometimes it is difficult to make sense of our feelings and differentiate our child from our parent in our minds.
Sandra and James have a 5 1/2-year-old daughter Jillian who frequently tantrums both in preschool and at home. As Sandra and James described their difficulties with managing Jillian’s inflexible, oppositional behavior, each of them began reflecting on their upbringings and the ways in which their own parents imposed expectations. Sandra explained that her mother had consistent daily routines in place that were not only predictable, but rarely challenged. She described herself as very compliant as a child and adolescent and noted that her father had a quick temper that she and her older sister would avoid provoking. Sandra, with a tone of frustration, stated that at some point in her life she would like to feel in charge. She did not feel in charge as a child, and she didn’t feel in charge of her daughter. In fact, she felt strongly that Jillian was in control of their lives. Sandra’s experience of accommodating others has been recreated in her relationship with Jillian. She was walking on eggshells to avoid provoking Jillian and vacillated between feelings of guilt and resentment toward her daughter. Sandra had little awareness of these feelings prior to our conversations. This insight offered her greater understanding of her reactions to Jillian and the ability to delineate experiences between relationships. Up to this point, Sandra’s history had been influencing her reactions to her daughter; however, with this new found awareness Sandra was better able to monitor and control her emotional responses to Jillian, which also helped regulate Jillian’s emotional state and behavior.