Now that we know just how much our childhood experiences can impact us far into our adult lives, what are the big takeaways that can guide us in helping our little ones to avoid some of those emotional and behavioral pitfalls?
This has been on my heart a lot lately. I watch my young grandchildren, who range in ages from 4 – 8, and I delight in witnessing how their little personalities are developing. It’s not surprising that they remind me quite a bit of their parents at those ages. It makes me ponder what I might have done differently had I known about their early childhood brain development, emotional regulation development and the enneagram.
Admittedly I was pretty naive about parenthood at age 25. I relied on a paperback Dr. Spock baby and child care book and my budding maternal instincts. And yes, I had that list in my head of all the things I vowed I would never say or do to my children that came from my own childhood experiences.
I was often baffled how three kids raised in pretty much the same environment could all be so different. While I laughed about this with other young mothers, I’m pretty sure that few of us really adapted our parenting approaches to the unique personalities of each of our children.
This is where I am finding the enneagram to be such a useful tool. Maybe we can’t truly identify which of the 9 enneagram types a child might be. However, I do think that having an understanding of our own dominant enneagram type can be really helpful in finding better ways to relate and interact with children.
My two sons are now in their mid-40’s and my daughter is 34. We’ve each figured out our own enneagram types and frankly it has been eye-opening for me. I wish I had this insight when they were teenagers. I think it would have alleviated some of my frustration and it certainly would have been beneficial for my kids to understand their own natural hard-wiring.
My oldest son was always on the go as a child. He was the life of the party, sometimes impetuous and always full of big ideas. It was no real surprise to me that he’s an enneagram type 7 — The Enthusiast — fun loving, spontaneous and distractible. Teachers might have labeled him with attention deficit but I just thought he was smart, easily bored and needed an outlet for his artistic talents. I agreed to hold him back a year in school, but supplemented his education with art classes. His teen years were the most challenging for us when his impulsiveness would often clash with his responsibilities. If I had understood his personality better, I think we could have found resourceful ways to strike a balance. Today when he describes his own son’s antics, I wonder if he too might be a little Enthusiast in the making.
My middle son is an enneagram type 9, The Peacemaker. When he was younger, I’d get so frustrated because he appeared so indecisive. If I had known that he would rather harmonize than rock the boat by stating his personal choice for dinner or weekend activity, I could have navigated many conversations much better and empowered him to make meaningful decisions for himself. I often thought he was an introvert, but in hindsight, I think he preferred collecting information and reading a room before engaging — a consummate harmonizer and conflict avoider.
When my daughter was in elementary school, I often described her as my M & M that had been left in the warm sun. She had a very hard outer shell, but inside she was soft and mushy. She was strong-willed and not afraid to push back — and she had a sensitive, tender, loving heart and carefree spirit. She’s an enneagram type 8 — The Challenger. Turns out that my M & M description of her was spot on for a type 8. Her four year old son is so much like her we often comment on the mold not changing much. He can drive her crazy and melt her heart all in 30 seconds flat. Understanding how he is hard-wired diffuses a lot of frustration and points us toward ways to interact to help him feel heard and understood.
As for me, I am a certifiable Enneagram type 2 — The Helper. Over recent years, I have become acutely aware that I often “over-helped” and in doing so may have unintentionally disempowered my children. And because I was so sensitive to their feelings, I would often swoop in to soothe with ice cream, or inadvertently dismiss what they were feeling by telling them “not to feel that way”. What I should have been doing is fully acknowledging their true emotions and adjusting my parenting skills to meet their unique needs.
My middle son recently described his eight year old daughter to me with positive adjectives that I would have used to describe his feisty sister at that age. At the same time, my granddaughter’s mother often experiences the more challenging behaviors she possesses as well. This has me intrigued. I am wondering what enneagram type my eight year old granddaughter might be. Can we find some clues about how she’s hard-wired to help her navigate her emotions and circumstances in healthy ways? I’m also curious about the impact of the pandemic, virtual school and a major change in her familial life.
Like my own daughter at that age, my granddaughter is experiencing divorce. She is now in that challenging stage of dealing with co-parenting, two homes and merging into a new family with dad, his fiancee and her nine year old daughter.
It is only natural that my granddaughter will struggle with her emotions as she’s trying to fit into all the changes. Understanding how things land in her heart, and what she needs to feel safe and valued, will be key in helping her navigate it in healthy ways.
Kids often do not have the skills or language to articulate everything they are feeling, especially when it is a very confusing concoction. This requires some special parenting skills and a lot of patience. I’m beginning to understand more clearly the relevance of that relational scaffolding that Dr. Bruce Perry says is critical for children who are experiencing any kind of trauma and disruption. This is where other family members — and especially grandparents — can provide so much support and continuity for young children and their parents.
I can look back at my own divorce now and have a better understanding of how it impacted my children and especially my daughter who was only 8. When a parent forgets that their innocent children should not be paying the price for an unhealthy marriage or divorce, poor choices and actions can have long-lasting debilitating consequences. It was a compelling reason why I stressed the importance of healthy co-parenting when my son and daughter-in-law separated. I also recognized how extended family members can provide a safety net through divorce and transition. Not choosing sides, but choosing to be emotional glue and unbiased support, can ease a lot of the turbulence.
What if we had a parenting resource that would help us balance “nature and nurture”? I believe that the enneagram just might be the field guide we need.
The enneagram sheds light on the core fears for each of the nine types — and it is easy to spot the correlation to childhood experiences. Core fears include feeling unwanted, unloved, unworthy, disrespected, controlled, or a fear of chaos or of being wrong. These unaddressed fears become the root cause of problematic behavioral patterns that can follow us into adulthood.
The enneagram also helps us identify the core motivations for each type such as having integrity and being good; being admired and successful; being unique and special; having security and guidance; protecting yourself and your inner circle; being wanted and loved; being fully satisfied; and having inner stability and peace. When we are aware of the importance of these core motivations for each child, we can become more skillful at fostering and respecting those needs in healthy ways.
This brings me to another invaluable tool for parenting. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to it as “rupture and repair”. We often have this hope that we won’t mess up or that we will be nearly perfect parents. This isn’t reality — we are beautiful, complex, messy human beings. Disagreements, hurts and conflicts happen in all relationships. Repair is critical — and the sooner it happens, the better. Repair means making up for a momentary and impulsive loss of control. What if we reframe these moments of “rupture and repair” as meaningful experiences in raising kind, respectful and resilient children?
“Ruptures are opportunities to strengthen our relationships. If a rupture can be repaired, it demonstrates that the relationship is solid enough to withstand when things get bad, and even ugly.” (Psychologist Adam Rodrigues) Repair builds trust and resiliency.
Painful ruptures can be amplified for our children when they are caught in the cross-fire of divorce. Trust is the one crucial element that gets tested most fiercely for children of divorce.
I found Dr. Siegel’s and Tina Payne Bryson’s book, The Power of Showing Up” to be a phenomenal parenting resource, especially for divorced parents who have the added pressure of rebuilding trust and showing up in new ways for their children.
“We now know that the way to help a child develop optimally is to help create connections in her brain –her whole brain — that develops skills that lead to better relationships, better mental health, and more meaningful lives. You could call it brain sculpting – or brain nourishing – or brain building. Whatever phrase you prefer, the point is crucial, and thrilling; as a result of the words we use and the actions we take, children’s brains will actually change, and be built, as they undergo new experiences.” — Dr. Dan Siegel
What I am observing is that being present with our young children, giving them eye contact and fully engaging with them and their wide range of emotions is a key component for effective parenting and grandparenting. Often children simply need our full attention and a safe space to share their honest feelings. Too often, we are distracted by our devices, our own emotions or own agenda in the moment.
Dr. Seigel describes “showing up” as bringing your whole being — your attention and awareness–into the present moment when you interact with your child. When you show up with your whole being you are mentally and emotionally present for your child. It is this power of presence that enables you to create an empowered mind for your children — even when you mess up.
Admittedly this takes a lot of practice but the payoff is worth it. That’s the remarkable thing about kids — you will see a shift in their reactions and responses almost immediately. Over time, with consistency, you will see that your child is gaining some agency over his emotions and reactions. It’s that brain re-wiring taking place and it is exciting, just as Dr. Siegel has noted.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t put a little plug in for mindfulness and meditation right here. It’s really hard to shift gears, clear your mind and de-escalate your own emotions so that you can “show up” for your children. Yet it is not impossible. Awareness and practice will help you earn your “calm” badge especially for quality parenting. A bonus is that mindfulness and meditation are invaluable skills in our emotional regulation toolbox that we should be teaching our children, just like good manners.
I believe that each generation embarks on parenting with ideas on how to improve. It’s so encouraging to see young parents today who are knowledgeable about their own personal growth, coping skills and core values. In my heart, I am hopeful that our younger generations will grow and thrive in parenting environments that open them up to their full potential.
Rupture and Repair Article by Nick Bowditch (This article, written by a dad about his relationship with his young daughter is so relatable, honest and encouraging)
Typology Podcast – The Enneagram & Parenting series