We Asked Experts How Not to Turn into Our Parents

With the right approach, you can avoid becoming joyless buzzkills.

by Alanna Rizza
May 25 2016, 2:55pm

As peaceful as this walk on an autumn day may look, are we sure we want to be like these people? Photo via Flickr user matryosha

Aside from saying, "I'm cutting you off financially to teach you the value of money," the greatest weapon in your parents' tool kit is the fear-inducing "You're going to be just like me someday" line. Of course, this seems insane at first. Your parents haven't listened to new music since they were 25, seem perpetually stressed, have no idea how to work a Snapchat filter, and barely speak to each other.

But then the further you get into "adulthood," the more you notice that cliche prophecy coming true.

Moving away for university made me realize that was a lot more like my parents than I wanted to be. I worried if my roommates didn't come home from a night out, I freaked out about technology when I couldn't figure out how to setup the wifi, and I was always nagging everyone when it was their turn to take out the garbage.

My parents are great people (I'm required to say this), but of course there are some (maybe many) things about them that I don't want to inherit. Naturally, I've been trying to avoid turning into them. But all I've accomplished so far is not worrying too much if my roommate was up at 4 AM throwing hashbrowns at people and stealing their cigarettes.

Now that I'm back home with my fam for the summer, and hopefully not much longer than that, I'm even more aware of their habits that have been passed on to me. So I asked some experts if there were any strategies for people to avoid turning into their parents.

Victoria Donahue has a masters degree in counseling psychology and she is a psychotherapist and coach. Dr. Daniel Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and postgraduate education from UCLA. Dr. Siegel has written many books including The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are and Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Catherine Lee, PhD, is a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa and her teaching includes family psychology.

How do your clients react after becoming aware of the fact that they're ending up like their parents?
Victoria Donahue: They're shocked, they say, "I vowed to never be like this and this is what I've become. I'm continuing the pattern." I see this the most when I'm working with people who have just become parents themselves. That's when they're like, "Holy shit I'm becoming like my parents." It's scary.

It invokes fear in people because this is something that they didn't want to reenact and now they are. And they're like "holy shit."

Do you see a lot of people who have struggled with who they've become because of their parents?
Actually a lot of people come in for things not to do with their parents – they'll talk about work or their relationships – but they don't even realize that there is a connection to their parents. Almost all the of the time it goes back to their attachments with their own parents that they reenact in their relationships, especially their intimate relationships.

What do you mean by the attachment with parents?
There are different types of attachment styles. You could be safe in an attachment style or you could be insecure. So let's say that your parents weren't always available—your mother was depressed while you were growing up so she wasn't there for you emotionally—that creates an insecure attachment where you don't feel safe in the relationship. So those patterns will be re-triggered.

So is it very easy to turn into our parents, especially if they've been a negative influence?
Yes it's very easy, especially for those who are not aware or conscious of it. The reason it is so common is because between 80 to 90 percent of our life, we're actually operating on the unconscious level. Most of our interactions are unconscious. For the most part, people start acting like their parents and start inheriting attributes from our parents when we're infants and toddlers. Their brains are actually programmed by our caregivers to act and behave in the world. So it actually starts much younger.

What sort of things could someone do to not turn into their parents?
Awareness is 100 percent the first step to not turning into a parent. Let's say you're really stressed and you're with your partner and you're all worked up. And when your parent was angry and stressed they would snap at people. Well when you're stressed it's even harder to realize that you're reenacting these patterns. So you have to work on reducing your stress level and at the same time, realizing you don't have to snap and be nasty to other people like your parent did. Doing things differently than our parents have done, and by repeating that again and again, we're creating new pathways. So that's how we change from becoming like our parents.

Could you explain more about these pathways?
Neuropathways and neuroscience, for the past 10 to 20 years, has really shed light on how we become like our parents and how our brains form. When we're stressed and can't think properly, we go to those neuro-pathways that have always been formed from when we were infants. It's like if you were walking in a forest and there's no path and you have to create one. The more you walk on that path, the clearer it becomes. You do the same thing in your brain, and when you create and use that new pathway—who you want to be and how you want to react—rather than going to that old path that you learned from your parents. That's how you create new habits and new ways of behaving around other people.

Moms who we do want to turn into.

Do you think people end up like their parents one way or another?
Dr. Siegel: Yes, it's done in a couple of ways. People absorb ways of communicating from their childhood. Or sometimes you even try to avoid them but you don't do an effective job doing that and then they pop out when you're stressed. So both direct and indirect ways we can be like our parents even though we may not want to. Let's say someone says, "My parents are very cold and disconnecting. When I raise my child, I want to be sure that I'm close and warm." That's a great intention but what can happen under stress is that they can start becoming cold and disconnected, and may not even be aware of it.

So what can they do to stop acting like their parents?
There are many people who don't do anything about it, but there is a ton for everyone that you can do about it to not turn into your parent. If you take the time to reflect on what your history was when you were a kid.

Is that a difficult process?
It's remarkably not hard to do, but a lot of people don't do it.

Why is that?
Well a lot of people either don't want to think about it, or—and this is maybe why they don't want to think about it—they have thought about and they think my past is in the past, there's no reason to think about it because the past is over. That person will be setting up a state of mind that says I have no reason to reflect on anything because I can't change anything. They continually rationalize why the way they are is OK, even though it's not. It's not what happened to you in the past, it's about how you have made sense of how the past has impacted you. The key to liberating yourself from the legacy of the past, is by making sense of how the past has impacted you.

Is it ever too late to start that process?
You can do that at any time in your life. In my book Mindsight, there's a guy, Stewart, who's 92 years old and for the first time he's reflecting on the past. And you see how deeply and profoundly this changes someone because his wife of 65 years calls me and says, "Dr. Dan, did you give my husband a brain transplant?" And the good news is you don't need a brain transplant, you just need to do the reflective work and it is like getting a new brain.

For the people who choose not to reflect, what is the most common negative experience of their past?
It's divided. But one group that is the most challenging, is when their parents were a source of terror. This could be neglect or abuse, or a parent coming home drunk all the time or beating the other parent. When the parent is the source of terror, two things happen in the child's brain that is really distressing. One thing is that the brain says to get away from the source of terror, but the brain also says to go to an attachment figure for protection. But if the attachment figure is the source of terror, then the mind becomes fragmented. Unfortunately when those kids get older, they have something called disassociation. They disassociate when they get stressed —they can't think clearly, they have a lot of trouble regulating and balancing their emotions, they have difficulty having mutually-rewarding relationships. With disassociation they literally have a fragmentation of consciousness and they can feel disconnected from their body, their emotions, even their memory can be fragmented and their ability to access it. This isn't rare and it's hardly ever talked about.

For this group of disassociation, if they don't reflect and make sense of their past, is that how the cycle of neglect or abuse continues?
Absolutely, that's exactly how it happens. Because when they fragment, they disassociate and they are unintentionally terrorizing their kids. They don't want to, they love their kids, no one wants to hurt their kids—well, there are some sadists—but for the most part everyone loves their kids but they are doing this. Some people reading about this might feel a little nervous about making sense of their past because those experiences were so terrifying. But it all comes down to reflection. If Stewart can do it at 92, then so can you.

READ MORE: We Asked Our Moms How We Were Conceived

Do you think it's possible to avoid becoming like our parents?
Catherine Lee: Yes. As we have two parents biologically, we are not identical to either parent, so we are not clones of our parents. The ideal would be that you learn in early childhood that you choose the lifestyle and values that make sense to you, not as an imitation of your parents, nor simply as a reaction against them. As the young person grows older, they have so many more sources of role models and validation that can help in their identity.

So having other role models around helps with not taking on the negative traits of our parents?
There can be lots of role models other than parents. The role model may never know how important they are. I worked with a person who had been horribly abused by her parent. In high school she visited a friend's house and was amazed at the way her friend's parents behaved. It was like a lifeline and when she became a parent, she was more like her friend's parents than her own.

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turning into your parents