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The legacies we carry

Ever wonder why you do what you do? Ever find yourself behaving in ways that you never meant to? Ever feel out of control of a reaction?

We live our lives, choose our experiences and relationships, hold beliefs about ourselves, and raise our children according to how we were raised. Many of us don’t connect the dots to see the connection. Many swear to be nothing like their parents and would never make the same choices. But our resistance or rejection of our parents’ ways is provoked by those old experiences — and eerily we often end up doing or saying what we swore we wouldn’t. Until we recognize the connections and change our consciousness.

As small children, we are open receptors of our experience and environment. We do not yet have the cognitive ability to decipher the meaning of what someone says to us. Not until seven or eight are our brains developed enough to take in an experience and think, Dad didn’t really mean that, he’s just having a bad day. Or, Mom is being funny with her sarcastic remark. She’s just pretending to be mad at me. Or, That’s his problem. Before then, a young child’s psyche is just forming. Yelling, criticism, and blame are absorbed and processed as truth. So when Mom gets her button pushed and screams, “Who do you think you are? You never listen. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” the young child’s brain hears, I’m bad, I’m wrong, I’m not good enough, It’s not okay to cry.

Parents can send perfectly well-intentioned directives to their children, but when anger or resentment takes over that intention, the child’s immature and egocentric brain misses the intention and absorbs only their perception of what is said. “Why would you ever do a thing like that?” is heard by the child as, I must be really stupid. When children receive messages from their parents over and over about what they are doing wrong, they come to believe they can’t ever get it right.

What they do with those beliefs differs depending on individual temperament and how often and how deeply embedded those messages were. Some take them in as guilt and shame and learn to focus only on what they think others want and expect of them. Pleasing others becomes imperative to gain approval and feel okay about themselves. Some fight back with belligerence and unacceptable behavior. Some grow to be high functioning capable people (perhaps in a career their parent insisted on) with empty emotional holes inside. Some can’t admit a mistake or express love or empathy. Others become angry, negative people who hold power over others to get their way in order to finally prove themselves to disapproving parents. Still others become victims — a powerful position that puts responsibility on everyone else for their problems. The varieties are endless.

Emotionally wounded people try to fill their emptiness with external conditions — drugs, alcohol, anti-depressants, eating, not eating, sex, buying things, never saying no, never saying yes, gambling — whatever we think will make us happy and protect us from vulnerability. Sometimes it must involve excitement and risk, sometimes it requires sacrificing self to gain approval. We are a planet of the walking wounded — addicted to anything we think might help.

The value we perceived our parents placed on us is the value we place on ourselves. Those messages from our past get stored away in our subconscious, and we live perfectly functional lives, even as CEOs of companies or heads of state, but they drive the decisions we make and rear their ugly heads in moments of stress, especially with our children.

So many parents tell me, “The way I was raised was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my kids.” Or, “I got ignored/beaten/isolated and I turned out fine.” Most of us aren’t even aware of empty holes inside because we have nothing to compare it to. We don’t know how much better we could feel. We just think that’s who we are. If life isn’t turning out the way we want, it’s somebody else’s fault, it’s the stupid mistakes I made, or it’s the way of the world. Rarely do we see that it was because of limiting beliefs we hold dear: I was scared to make the choices I really wanted to, I never believed I was good enough, I’m a girl and so could never make it, I wasn’t smart enough.

So many parents today fall over backwards to do, do, do for their children, fix their problems, praise them to the hilt, blind to the entitlement they are producing. Perhaps these parents were treated harshly and fear their children feeling as they did and compensate to the extreme. Perhaps they believe they are worthless so allow their children far more than they give themselves.

Others take out their long pent-up anger on their kids with yelling, criticism, threats, and blame, passing on their heritage directly. It can feel good to finally get it out on someone who won’t fight back — until they do.

The good news in all this glumness is that we can do something about it. The first step is recognizing and claiming what we all deserve. It begins with awareness. It’s not about blaming anyone. It is about claiming our rights and needs. It requires taking responsibility for ourselves and stop asking our children/spouses to behave differently/better/quieter/easier so that we can feel better about ourselves.

Often it requires paying attention to the messages we believe about ourselves and discovering where they came from. When we raise our consciousness about ourselves and pull those old cobwebbed beliefs out of the corners of our attics, we can brush them off and learn what they really are, ideas we hold about ourselves perceived by an immature child’s mind that are simply not the truth. Then we can change our behavioral habits slowly but surely by using different language when we talk to ourselves.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email

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