Past “Baggage” Brings Parenting Problem

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on November 26, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine

Question:  My relationship with my brother growing up was pretty toxic. While it has improved with age, I have recently realized it has stuck with me more than I first thought. I notice that I let my baggage with my brother affect my parenting. Every little fight the kids have I assume will turn into something much bigger and scarier (my brother was verbally and physically abusive to me). How do I tame the thoughts in my head and not let my baggage affect my parenting?

Answer:  You are wise to recognize that this toxic relationship from your past is interfering with the way you parent your children today. Many people miss this important insight and can overreact, overprotect, or live in a state of depression and anxiety. Right up front, I want to say to you, and to any other reader, that processing the adverse events of one’s childhood as an adult can help change the way we view those events and they will not have the same power over our lives. The feelings from this physical and verbal abuse in your past are triggered by hearing your children fighting. That triggering can exaggerate your perception of their fighting making it seem many times worse. Please go see a counselor to talk about what you experienced when you were young. Your work with a professional counselor will give you power over those thoughts that need taming. 

When you hear your children fighting, remember that your brother is not in the mix. He is not in the room; he is in your head. Your children and their circumstances are different. Some sibling fighting is normal and helps teach them skills to navigate the disagreements they have as an adult.

I can tell from your question that you seem to be paying attention to what your children are doing. That is important. At every opportunity, teach love, respect, and empathy through activities and family events. Have family rules about acceptable behavior toward one another with consequences for fighting, poking, hurting, and teasing. These behaviors all need to be addressed when they happen in a serious but calm and straightforward way.  

Here is a review of the main points that may help:

  1. See a counselor so your past experiences do not keep interfering in the here and now.
  2. Remind yourself that just because your children are fighting, they are not in the same situation as your brother and you.  
  3. Remember, some fighting is normal.
  4. Continue to pay attention to what your children are doing. Often childhood trauma happens when no one is paying attention.
  5. Teach and model love, respect, and empathy through your words, behavior, and activities that you and your family engage in.  
  6. All family members should show respect for each other, including saying “please” and “thank you” and apologizing when they hurt each other.  
  7. Have family rules for behavior toward each other.

It is tough to have grown up with a toxic abusive relationship. I hope that through counseling you can learn how to leave that ‘baggage’ behind.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website and click on “Referrals.”

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