Why We “Lose It” With Our Kids
Understanding how your upbringing influences your parenting.
Here’s the bottom line with parenting: “the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.” This quote from William Faulkner exposes why parenting can be so fraught and so hard. Your past experiences in life are profoundly influencing how you interact with your children. Every parent knows what it’s like to lose it with their children. But what’s actually happening neurobiologically? Why do we sometimes lose our temper with our children?
Most parenting failures are caused by emotional dysregulation in the parent. And emotional dysregulation is caused by unprocessed trauma and harm from your past. Who among us does not know the experience of being triggered by our child? Triggered simply means that your child says or does something and your body goes into a different physiological state. You become dysregulated. When this happens—when we become dysregulated as we are dealing with our child—we tend to react emotionally and impulsively.
In Jeremiah 6 and 8, God indicts the leadership of Israel saying, “prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Sadly, this is what many of us do with our own wounds. We are like the leaders of Israel—we do not take our wounds seriously. We deceive ourselves into believing that everything is fine when everything is not fine. “Peace, peace” we say—when there is no peace in our bodies. We have symptoms. We have anxieties, fears, depression, rage, relationship problems—there are so many ways in which our bodies are saying “it is not well with me.”
If we do not take our own wounds seriously, we will inadvertently reenact our trauma as we parent our children. Here’s an example: suppose you were never allowed to cry as a child. And today, you’ve got a 7 year old son who cries often. Whenever his crying drags on for longer than you think is appropriate, something inside your body begins to change. You get amped up inside with both panic and anger. You get dysregulated.
Why does the crying of your 7 year old cause your body to become dysregulated? Well, perhaps your unengaged heartache of not having space to cry when you were a child is playing a role. It’s this sense of “I held it together as a kid… I never cried… so why can’t my 7 year old get it together?” Until you address your story of not being able to cry in your family of origin, your body is going to dysregulate when your 7 year old son won’t stop crying.
“That past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.” Neuroscience research has demonstrated that the single best thing you can do to improve your parenting has nothing to do with interacting differently with your children. The single best thing you can do is to make complete sense of your own developmental story in your family of origin. This is what it means to dress your wounds as though they were serious. And God takes your wounds quite seriously.
If you want to engage your story in more depth, please visit adamyoungcounseling.com and get the free resources available there.
Adam Young is a therapist in Fort Collins, CO, and the host of The Place We Find Ourselves podcast. He has been married to Caroline for 24 years and has two children, a son (age 11) and a daughter (age 13). Adam currently serves as a Fellow with The Allender Center. He enjoys mountain biking, skiing, soccer, and painting (canvas, not houses).