My last three blog posts have been dedicated to helping us understand how a child’s young brain develops. Understanding both the present limitations and the future potential of these incredible developing child brains is not only transformational for parenting — it is equally transformational for us adults. In fact, it may be the gateway we need to help us understand ourselves better.
If we overlay this new whole brain parenting template on our own childhood, it will become very evident that few of us got what was needed to provide integration between our young nervous systems and our future upper brain processing. The old parenting models did not have the benefit of the recent neuroscience and neurobiology breakthroughs; nor did these models address the invaluable role our emotions play in our mind/body connection.
This is precisely why Dr. Dan Siegel is such a strong proponent of adult personal growth work. We can’t teach what we don’t know. And in all likelihood, we were not taught emotional awareness and regulation, mind/body connection, and core relationship skills. I know that I never heard about co-regulation, attunement or attachment styles when I was growing up; and I didn’t read about them in my dog-earned copy of Dr. Spock’s child care book and no pediatrician ever explained brain development to me.
I had no idea that my own personal growth journey, started eight years ago, would lead me back to my childhood. It’s taken me a long time to excavate, unravel and detangle myself from the pitfalls of that old parenting model.
So many times throughout my eight years of self-discovery work, my friends and I would lament, “I wish I knew this stuff when I was younger.” That’s the gift embedded in hindsight. We truly can look back –with the insight and knowledge we now have — and see much more clearly how complicated our lives and experiences were because we were using coping strategies instead of meaningful life skills.
This is precisely why I feel so “connected” now when I’m interacting with my grandchildren — especially when they are overcome with big emotions. I intimately know how it feels to be little and overwhelmed; and I now have much better knowledge and tools for responding to them. I am playing an active role in teaching what “I wish I knew then.”
Looking Back Through the Lens of Hindsight:
I grew up in a very unpredictable and dysfunctional Petri dish. Like most in similar environments (very commonplace for my generation I have discovered), my coping strategies became my “super powers”. Just like Brene Brown, I too became hyper vigilant for the inevitable volcanic eruption of big emotional clashes between my parents and siblings. I became a first responder – calm under pressure; assessing both the situation and the damage quickly; applying first aid where needed and cleaning up the broken pieces. But my Nurse Nancy crisis tool kit had only “aftermath” tools in it. I can’t tell you how many times as a little girl I longed to live in an environment where first responders were not the order of the day.
I went out into the adult world wanting calm stability more than anything. I naively believed that I could somehow “create and maintain” that stable calm; possibly avoid unnecessary drama and routine chaos and crises.
Hindsight is the crystal clear rear view mirror that reminds us that life is as unpredictable as the ocean. We can’t avoid stormy seas, bad weather and engine troubles with our boat. All I brought with me from childhood was a tattered Nurse Nancy first aid kit and emergency responder capabilities (i..e. poor coping strategies and childlike behavioral patterns). What I have come to appreciate is the value embedded in Whole Brain Parenting — of being raised to be the “captain of our ships”, to trust our internal GPS system (emotions), and to have a fully integrated operating system (all parts of our complex brains).
Imagine the confidence and empowerment that would come when stepping into the adult world better pre-loaded and prepared for all the elements. Eighteen years of real life experiences, in meaningful, daily apprenticeship with our skillful parents, learning how to successfully navigate good times, adversity, obstacles and necessary course adjustments. This just takes my breath away — it is so exhilarating.
That Sticky Emotional Undertow:
Regardless of the entry point for self-discovery and personal growth, sooner or later we will come to realize that what happened in our childhoods did have some long lasting impacts on how we view ourselves and how we are showing up in the world as adults. That has surely been my personal experience. As I began to peel the layers off my own life onion, I discovered blind spots and behavioral patterns that had their origins in my childhood.
In my last blog post, I shared that my number one goal as a parent was to “calm” a distressing situation as quickly as possible. That was my childhood conditioning taking charge of what I was feeling coursing through me – even though it was now my own child who needed my attention first and foremost. (Just a little relevant reminder here — I stepped into adulthood craving calm). I did not have any bandwidth left at that time to cope with what I perceived as unnecessary hardships and drama.
My poorly functioning emotional system had a faulty modulator. My own emotional discomfort at witnessing my child in distress hijacked my logical brain. I needed things to be calm; I wanted my kids to be calm again — but all along it was me who needed to be the calm. The emotional undertow from my childhood was strong; like a rip tide.
I grabbed my first responder kit and leaned hard on what got me through my childhood, with a heaping dose of good intentioned consoling in the form of special activities, cookies or fun distractions — after all, I had the agency now as a grown up to offer these comforts to my child. (See the pattern? See how I was not able to “pre-load” and “teach” what I didn’t know?). My instinct was “get to calm” quickly and my “go-to’s” to achieve this was consoling (not connecting); tangible comforts with a short shelf life (not teaching emotional awareness, regulation and resilience). It was the old paradigm of dismiss those feelings, get back to happy, have a treat.
The flip side of this double-edged conditioning was that in my adult relationships, I’d stuff my emotions to give the appearance of being calm, reliable, self sufficient. I had a black belt in this coping strategy from childhood. I was the compliant child, the one my parents could count on to never make a scene or cause embarrassment. What I didn’t know was that stuffed emotions become the tempest in the tea pot.
These exiled emotions don’t go away and they don’t go silent. In fact, they will just keep pounding on the door trying to get our attention for the things that do matter most to us. When my emotions demanded that I let them out of storage, I would have an uncharacteristic, unreasonable blow up over something minor — which would cause me both shame and embarrassment. Or….I’d be engulfed in the mire of resentment on the inside while I gave the appearance of being the happy, efficient, dependable “helper” on the outside.
Stuffed emotions will most assuredly not ensure calmness. Stuffed emotions rock the boat.
Both of these scenarios — of me as a parent and of me as a partner – show how taking those childhood blueprints into the adult world become a “doubling down” of the very things we are trying to prevent. I’d ask myself over and over (for decades) why my well-intentioned parental lessons weren’t sticking; and why I was often cleaning up other people’s consequences of their own actions. I could not see the neon yellow post it note on my forehead that said “First Responder”.
Learning What We Wish to Teach:
I am no longer swooping in to stressful situations unconsciously trying to soothe and comfort my own younger self. Yes, I now have awareness that so often throughout my life, I was often doing just that — unconsciously trying to comfort myself at the same time I was attempting to care for others. I could literally feel my emotions (both old and new) swirling all through my body and I did not have the awareness or tools to attend to myself first — and then turn my full attention and skills to another.
As parents and grandparents, we have to put our own oxygen mask on first.
Being swept away in our emotional and somatic vortex will not help us attend to the basic human needs of our children in the calm and grounded foundational ways needed to be effective “teachers.” It will also not help us in being healthy, flexible, supportive partners.
This is precisely why Dr. Dan Siegel believes that the key to becoming a better parent, partner or grandparent is to begin by examining our own childhood:
“How you make sense of your own past is the best predictor of how your child will get along with you. So, try out that work first. It’s amazing how often people then find unbelievable liberation — by just that knowledge…..that it isn’t what happened to you, it’s how you made sense of what happened to you.”— Dr. Dan Siegel (on Becoming a Better Parent)
Dr. Siegel suggests we begin with our childhood attachment style. Discovering that our childhood attachment style may have been avoidant, ambivalent (anxious or preoccupied), dismissive or disorganized can shine a lot of light on our present day issues in life and our relationships. As he reveals, it can even help us discover why we may be having trouble relating to our own kids (in spite of our best intentions).
“Start exploring who you were as a kid, who were your parents and how they influenced your development. It is not what happened to you as a child, it is how you made sense of what happened to you. People often freak out and are very resistant to going back to examine their dysfunctional or painful childhood. Yet if you focus on your own history — and in a methodical way — go through your memory systems, go through your narrative system, you can actually liberate yourself from the prisons of the past. This is supported by brain plasticity studies.” — Dr. Dan Siegel (on Becoming a Better Parent)
For the record, the prisons of the past are limiting beliefs we have about ourselves, emotional triggers that hijack us from staying calm and present in the moment, poor emotional regulation, our default (outgrown) behavioral patterns, and our inner critic. Clinical psychologist, Becky Kennedy shares that “our voice to our kids becomes their voice to themselves.”
I can attest to the liberation that Dr. Siegel says is possible. Going back through both memory and narrative was well worth my time and effort. I’ve often shared with friends that I opened up a lot of “real estate” for new and better ways of being. This inner work serves as a really good indicator light when I am faced with a familiar situation, but can catch myself before stepping into an old unhealthy pattern or reaction.
If we don’t cultivate our self-awareness and replace outdated reactions with better life skills and tools, we will inadvertently be teaching our kids the very patterns and coping styles we adopted in childhood. Good intentions alone are not the path forward. We need to be working on the same emotional regulation skills and relationship tools that we wish to teach.
I found the enneagram to be a very helpful accompaniment for this methodical work that Dr. Siegel proposes — and for teasing apart all the ways that childhood attachment styles contribute to our emotional armor and adaptive behavioral patterns. Even if you don’t determine what your own enneagram type might be, reading through all nine types descriptions and typical behavioral patterns is incredibly helpful for understanding ourselves and others.
The enneagram can be a window into the inner world of others and what may be submerged in their childhood. I found that it really helped me to recognize that how others were “showing up” in life was driven more by their core needs than by the relationship dynamic we’d created. This fresh perspective was enough to help me shift how I could show up in better ways for others; and it helped me not to take things so personally.
This is a meaningful link between attachment style and our behavioral patterns. We are often using those old childhood blueprints to get our adult needs met only to discover things are backfiring. We push away what we want the most; we make it hard for people to support us; we aren’t clear in our needs or boundaries.
The enneagram helps us understand just how those developing little brains of ours lacked the integration of what we were feeling in our young bodies with an upper brain that could help us make sense in a logical, more mature way. If our parents were disregulated, we learned to navigate disregulation. If there was a lot of chaos and uncertainty, we learned to silence our needs. Maybe we became compliant or defiant, peacemakers or troublemakers.
These childhood strategies worked because we came to count on the predictability of the unpredictably of our internal family systems. As children, we grew to know our parents and siblings patterns of behavior very well. So even if it was a Petri dish of uncertainty, confusion or volatility, we had our own “go to” patterns — all formed out of reactivity not inner resources.
Once we go into adulthood and start building our own lives and relationships, the Petri dish changes. The once familiar predictability of our family unit is replaced with new people bringing their own internal family systems with them into new relationships. Now we are in a whole new environment and we are fish out of familiar water.
I once saw an Australian TV show where a new love interest shows up for the main character, with an entire room full of suitcases, roller bags and totes — with a shoulder shrug and an impish smile, he announces “this is my emotional baggage.” Talk about a powerful image to drive home the point about all that we bring with us into our relationship dynamics and parents. The tap roots of our coping methods and behavioral traits can be traced back to childhood.
Here’s where things get even more interesting. In Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown shares with us that a lot of emotions show up looking very similar to each other but in fact can be quite different. So, if we operate on only on sparse emotional knowledge, we may mistake a partner’s or child’s emotion for anger when it is really fear or confusion.
Brene’s research for Atlas of the Heart revealed that most of us have a very limited emotional vocabulary — happy, sad or angry. How can we possibly be teaching our children the invaluable gifts of our emotions if we possess such a limited understanding ourselves?
The relatable personal stories woven into Brene’s book will help shed even more light on how our childhood impacts our adult relationships and parenting. Atlas of the Heart is yet another remarkable resource for becoming better “teachers”. Brene Brown expands our emotional vocabulary and granularity from three to 87 familiar emotions and lived experiences.
Cultivating Self Awareness and Honing Our Teaching Skills:
Just look how much we have changed with each generation in order to protect our kids and learn from our past experiences. To be honest, a lot of the things we take for granted today were met with a lot of resistance early on. Just listen to Malcolm Gladwell share how reluctant we were to use seat belts in our cars! Can you imagine any new parent not putting their newborn in an infant car seat, in the backseat, for the drive home from the hospital? Can you imagine teaching a young child to ride a bike without a protective helmet?
All that we are learning from neuroscience, neurobiology, epigenetics, psychology and the social sciences are making very clear where we can do better — for ourselves and our children. As I have shared before, in just one generation, we can make the giant pivot in the right direction for present and future generations; for quality of life, the ability to successfully navigate the uncertainties of life, for strong inner resources, flexible relationship skills, emotional literacy, empathy and a grounded confidence in their own self worth.
The first step is learning what we need to teach. That requires being amenable to looking back at our own childhood with self-compassion, with honesty and clear eyes. Dr. Dan Siegel says that people are resistant to this because they don’t want to revisit painful memories. As Shrek would say “better out than in.”
“Better out than in” – one of Shrek’s most notable lines – means that rather than stuffing things (emotions, events, waste and irritants) into your being, it’s far better to have them processed, integrated, and/or released.
I believe in this process of looking back at our childhood and learning from our experiences through the lens of hindsight and new research. It is liberating and it feels expansive to be unburdened from old self imposed limitations.
I strongly believe that reframing parenthood as an “18 year apprenticeship for life” will lead to great teaching moments with our kids that we otherwise may have missed.