Whether or not we have yet realised it, we have a wounded child within us. Few of us, if any, are exempt.
Charles L. Whitfield estimates in his book Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, that between “80 and 95 percent of people did not receive the love, guidance, and nurturing necessary to form consistently healthy relationships and to feel good about themselves.”
Dysfunction is the accidental inheritance that we pass down generation to generation. If we truly want to be the best parents we can be, we need to break the chain and do the work to address our issues and heal the child within us.
Perhaps we aren’t even aware there was anything wrong with our upbringing. This is common simply because whatever we grew up and around was “our ordinary,” and also because we have a society that normalises unhealthy behaviour. Many of us are afraid—to either turn our attention back to an obviously painful childhood, or to put our parents under the light of scrutiny because the child within us desperately wishes to preserve the pretty picture it has held on to. But we must.
Because until we unpick and unpack where we came from and what happened to us, it will continue to live in and through us. We cannot be the best parents we can be until we are out from under the influence of our own histories.
Even if we believe we are doing differently, this is often more an act of resistance to what was, rather than a true evolution beyond it. What we resist persists, so the dysfunction has simply metamorphised its form.
If we had parents who were cold, physically or emotionally absent, neglectful or abusive, we may well be the same. On the other hand, it is common that we may swing the pendulum too far the other way and become smothering and enmeshed with our children. We will unconsciously try to take from them the love that we never received ourselves—turning them in to our companions, carers, counsellors, and confidants.
If we had a parent whose whole sense of self-esteem came from caring for us, we may also become far too preoccupied with pleasing our children to be able to parent them properly. They too will learn that their worth is something to be earned rather than something that is innate. If we experienced loss or abandonment in one way or another, we will likely be distant with our children. Authentic emotional intimacy is not the same as co-dependent closeness.
If we grew up with a parent who was insecure or anxious, we will likely carry that quiet fear within us too. Our children will absorb the same. If we have a strong inner critic, if our parents did too, as will our children. If we grew up with parents who body shamed or dieted constantly, we probably don’t have a loving relationship with our own physical form. Our children will come to question their beauty too.
If we grew up with parents who were controlling, critical, placed pressure on us to succeed, or were overly strict or intimidating, we may parent with a similarly hard hand. Alternatively, we may lack boundaries entirely, allowing our children to run riot in the name of freedom.
Few of us grew up in emotionally healthy homes. If we were raised in environments where it was not safe to feel fully, we will carry a lifelong sense of shame within us—the feeling that there is something wrong with us or that we are not good enough as we are. If we were raised in environments where there was no space for us to express ourselves authentically because the adults were too caught up in their own issues, we will carry a nagging sense of aloneness inside of us.
If we struggle to even connect with, let alone express, our own emotions in healthy ways, we will struggle to hold space for our children to do the same. We will naturally curb their displays of fully feeling in one way or another. At best, we will tell them not to cry in misguided attempts to comfort them. At worst, we will shush them and shame them, or isolate them by sending them to their rooms or sitting them on naughty steps—punishing them for simply not yet knowing how to handle their feelings because we haven’t been able to teach them.
If I could sit down and talk with you for an hour we would likely uncover a Pandora’s box of familial dysfunction that would simultaneously surprise you, and yet somehow allow a lot of things to start to make sense about how you are, who you are, your relationships, and so much more. For now all I can say, is that there are few things more important than intentionally exploring our story. We cannot see ourselves until we understand where we come from.
To honestly begin to explore our childhood and how it shaped us is a brilliant beginning, but knowing what the dysfunction was isn’t enough—we will still pass down that damage no matter how hard we try not to. We cannot intellectually transcend such things—they are etched far too deeply into the brain and the body. We need to do the work.
We have to “feel it to heal it” and grieve it to release it, so that we can then become free to parent beyond the imprint of our own experiences. It is a process. We will need to read books, and learn to feel and to breathe, and get a good therapist (if we can afford one). We will want to start writing and self-reflecting and meditating and sharing with others who are walking the same path of conscious parenting. We will find much wisdom, awareness, and comfort in each other’s reflections.
I also often refer to healing as, in part, a process of reparenting. We have to actively learn to look after ourselves, to meet our own needs in healthy ways, to love ourselves, and treat ourselves with tenderness.
Our children do what we do, not what we say. They are who we are. We can sing love and praises into their sweet ears every day of their lives, but if we are insecure and question our own value, they will question theirs. If we cannot honour, accept, and process all of our own feelings, they too will repress and self-deny.
To get honest with ourselves about our issues is no easy thing, but that is what the role of parent is asking us to do. It is a soul contract between parent and child, and we are calling on each other to break this ancestral karma.
Our children are suffering in epidemic proportions from anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders—the list is long. It is too easy to throw our hands in the air and see it all as a product of outside influence: pressure at school, diet culture, social media, movies, and magazines. But, if we want to be truly responsible parents, we need to realise that we are part of that paradigm.
As adults, we are now simultaneously victims and cocreators of this world that thinks instead of feels, that reacts instead of considers, that is too fast and too shallow, that has too much stimulation and too little authentic connection, and doesn’t know how to stand still. We have created it because we are all running from ourselves, afraid to feel what has been buried in our bodies since we were children ourselves. We must stop self-abandoning so that we can learn to be truly present, with ourselves, and in turn, with our children.
I understand this article is uncomfortable, but it is the very part of us that feels reactive, resistant, or dismissive—triggered—that we need to learn to tend to. We are not to blame. No one is. We are all just victims of victims. But, no matter the fact that we have all suffered at the hands of this broken world, we must now become responsible for ourselves so that our children don’t have to take responsibility for what we didn’t heal later in their lives.
I don’t believe for a second that we need to attempt to be perfect parents, as if there is such a thing. I simply believe that if we do the work we can become families that take ownership of our issues and begin to transcend them, rather than pretend that they don’t exist. Nothing grows in darkness and no child can thrive in an environment of denial.
I wrote this article as a professional, as a parent, and as an adult child of a dysfunctional family. It is as much for me as it is for you. I genuinely believe that by doing this work we can be better parents, the parents our children are inciting and inspiring us to be. I also deeply believe that if we do this work we can heal the world—one child at a time, starting with ourselves.
Author’s note: the word “parent(s)” is used throughout this article for sake of ease, but the word simply refers to all and any primary caregiver(s) under individual circumstances.