How our Childhood Affects our Parenting


What we can do when we are activated by our children's behaviour.

How do our childhood experiences impact us as adults?

Unless you grew up in a family where your feelings were welcomed, where you got to express your needs and know that they would be consistently met, where you felt unconditionally loved regardless of how you behaved, where you weren't punished or shamed, it's likely that you will be carrying some trauma with you from your childhood. 

When we practice Aware parenting, it becomes so clear to us what children really need in order to thrive in their childhood. This process often illustrates to us for the first time how things were difficult for us in our own childhood. 

Maybe it was hard to say No, and or our "No" wasn’t respected, so we might grow up to be an adult who finds it hard to say "No" in a clear loving way. 

Maybe life felt really unfair and we might be an adult who finds unfairness really hard to accept.

Maybe you just had to do as your were told, regardless of what you wanted, otherwise you would be punished so you grew up feeling afraid of getting in trouble or making choices that other people don't agree with or approve of. 

Maybe you had to compromise who you truly were in order to be a "good" girl or boy so you grew up thinking that you are lovable and safe only when you are being "good" and pleasing others. 

Maybe you had to keep your feelings tightly locked inside to avoid being punished or shamed so you grew up finding it really hard to be in touch with your feelings, hard to cry and hard to be authentic. 

Maybe you had to be super vigilant all the time to keep yourself safe by making sure everyone was happy around you so your nervous system is still often stuck in that state as an adult, feeling apprehensive, unsafe or on edge.

Maybe you were punished in really harsh ways and hurt so you grew up to be an adult fearful of confrontation, scared of being hurt again, full of anger and sadness, stuck in hyper-aroused nervous system response - always on the look out for danger. 

Maybe you had to dissociate in order to survive the stresses of your childhood and you find yourself as an adult, frequently using your control patterns and zoned out, unable to remember much of your childhood years or fully experience the present. 

Why does our children's behaviour trigger us as parents?

All these experiences set up really painful core beliefs about who we are and how we "should" behave, what it is safe to do and how to be ourselves in the world. And our inner child comes up again and again, feeling frightened and wary and keeping us small or resulting in us, at times, being full of rage and frustration, feeling disempowered or deeply sad and unsure who we truly are. Being a parent means that time and time again these unintegrated wounds will be touched by our own children's behaviour and we will find ourselves responding to them from a place of our pain. Before we even notice, the voice of our parents comes out of our mouths. 

However none of us wants to yell or get angry with our children, especially when we so value Aware Parenting and see all the benefits of close connection and unconditional love. Often we feel deep shame when we aren't the parent we want to be. But harsh words and tones come out of our mouths before we are even aware that we have been triggered and we feel so overwhelmed and then often feel really sad that we are not acting in ways that are aligned with our values. 

There is a powerful quote from Scott Noelle who says "You know you are face to face with the unfinished business of your chidhood when you react with strong negative feelings to your children's behaviour". I imagine that all parents are familiar with these moments when we are so activated by their behaviour. 

I used to think that the reason why I was triggered by my children's behaviour was because they were being annoying or difficult or simply because life is stressful sometimes. But increasingly I became aware of the reasons why my children's behaviour was annoying, why it felt so difficult for me and why it can feel so stressful and painful at times - because it is often touching parts in me that still feel deeply wounded. This can bring up intense feelings of frustration, disempowerment, anger, outrage, sadness, grief and more. 

Perhaps when your children don't listen to you, it brings up intense anger and powerlessness, touching the wound in you of not being heard as a child. 

Perhaps when your child is in intense anger and being aggressive, you feel shocked and uneasy or petrified as your younger parts remember feeling in danger and terrified on the receiving end of aggression, violence or rage. 

Perhaps when your child talks back to us we experience intense rage and frustration, touching the parts in you that were silenced when we were a child.

Perhaps when our children disagree with us, we feel outrage and furious as the younger parts in us remember that it wasn't ever safe for us to disagree.

Perhaps when our child behaves "badly" in public, we feel intense dread and disappointment as the wound of being shamed in public when we were a child is touched again. 

Perhaps when you or your child make a mistake, you feel intense fear and panic remembering the deep shame and blame you experienced as a child when you made mistakes. 

Perhaps when your child has big feelings, you feel overwhelmed and terrified or shut down as you felt so unsafe as a child having big feelings punished or shut down. 

Perhaps when you have big feelings, you feel dismayed, irritated or distraught as your younger parts felt alone and like a burden when you were struggling. 

Perhaps you feel mortified or terrified when you get things wrong because of the 1000's of times you got into trouble and punished as a child, even when it wasn't your fault.

Perhaps when your child is showing you, they have unmeet needs it triggers the younger parts of you that were made to believe that your needs were too much. 

Perhaps when your child is struggling with friendships at school, you feel despairing and worried, as your body remembers the times you were left out, hurt and rejected at school. 

When we have so many painful experiences in childhood, where we didn't receive the support and loving care that we needed, nor the opportunity to express our feelings with a loving adult, these parts of us stay inside us and drive the show when we have similar experiences again. But when we start to notice these younger parts in us and give them what we needed as a child, deep healing can start. 

So what can we do when we are activated by our children's behaviour? 

One of the most helpful ways to change the way we respond in moments of intense activation, is to just notice what is going on. Being present with the sensations that arise and being curious about what the story might be is a really powerful practice to learn. Slowing down and noticing the parts that are there, the parts that might be wanting to scream, the parts that might be wanting to correct, the parts that might be wanting to shut down. Just notice and learn to recognise what is coming up for us and our younger parts in these moments. When we can be present with whatever sensations are there and naming them without judgement or harshness, we can bring some space and expansion to what is there, which makes it more likely that we can be loving and caring to our children and to ourselves. 

The understanding that aware parenting gives us about nervous system responses can be so helpful at these times to support us to become more aware of the cascade of emotions, thoughts, feelings, impulses and sensations that we experience at times when we are triggered. We can then see that it's our inner child that is coming up in these moments and our nervous system has then responded by activating our fight/flight response again, pulling us back into fight/flight behaviours e.g, shouting, being aggressive, agitation. We go into activation when we are re-activated. 

When we start to become aware of what is going on at a neurobiological level, we are then more likely to be able to support ourselves in helpful ways.  So we can start to practice noticing when we are going into that response, when we starting to be activated, when we are feeling ourselves reacting in these ways, when we are getting that familiar sense of buildup of intense feelings and we’re about to explode.  If we are able to notice that that’s happening,  we can try to pause just for a moment before we respond, before we say anything, before we react.

Perhaps our partner is doing something that’s just on the point of driving us absolutely crazy. Can we just pause for a moment, can we just take a breath and just bring our awareness to what’s going on? Then we are in a position where increasingly are able to choose to respond rather than to react. And it’s not about spiritual bypassing or not allowing ourselves to go there with the feelings. That’s the next step. We are definitely going to dive into the feelings later. But in the moment, we are going to choose to pause when we can, and then we are going to be able to make a mindful and more conscious choice about how we’re going to respond to this situation. We can give ourselves reassurance, understanding and compassion in the moment about what is coming up for us, or that there is pain there, or that we are just overwhelmed. 

The most important thing in order to be able to do this is to be getting listening and to be doing some healing work for ourselves, whatever that might look like.  So that might be having lots of opportunities to share with somebody who can hear us in all of the big feelings that are coming up. Maybe that might be doing some bodywork that really supports us to get this these feelings and to the intense stored energy to get it out of our body through dancing, through shaking, through movements that are helpful, through vocalisations. And to keep reaching out for support and practising offering ourselves compassion and understanding, and, if we notice ourselves going into judgement and harness and criticism of ourselves, increasingly trying to just pause and to making a deliberate choice to stop that. I so recommend Marion Rose's Marion Method courses to support yourself with this process. 

Sometimes we might not feel very compassionate towards ourselves and instead be punishing and harshly judging ourselves in these moments. Because most of us were punished as children when we made mistakes or did something "wrong" we learnt to punish and shame ourselves. But, just as we know that in aware parenting we don't punish our children,  punishing ourselves is also not helpful for us because it doesn't deal with the cause of our behaviour and it leads to disconnection for us. From that disconnected place, it is impossible to parent with compassion and connection.  So punishing ourselves actually makes it more likely that we will again behave in these painful ways towards our children. 

We can offer ourselves loving limits when we find ourselves going into judgement, and whilst offering ourselves, love and care, we can tell ourselves that we are not willing to judge ourselves or to criticise ourselves any more. We might remind ourselves "I’m not willing to judge myself any more about whatever it’s coming up" but that we will find spaces to sink into and explore the feelings that are underneath the judgement. 

We can come back to the list of three things that are always underneath behaviour; the thoughts, the needs and the feelings. So we can explore what are we understanding? What are we making things mean? What information do we need to understand more clearly?  What are we telling ourselves in these moments and is that really true? 

The second piece is about our needs. We can ask ourselves "How can we tend to ourselves in the moment? How can we take care of ourselves in the moment? How can we meet our needs more so that the underlying state of our nervous system is at a lowered level of activation and to support us back to balance? When our nervous system is more balanced, it means that we can tolerate more of that activation before we get to explosion point or overwhelmed by pain. 

And the third piece is the accumulated feelings that we are carrying. So the more that we’re able to receive support in a way that resonates for us, to be able to express feelings, to have those heard with loving kindness and compassion, to cry and rage, the less those feelings are there in our bodies driving our reactions.  And the more those feelings are released, the less we are going to be pushed into these post-traumatic type behaviours that we often see in the form of agitation, aggression, yelling, shouting. And the less we are going to be in that dissociation state, needing to numb out or suppress our feelings, or switch off.  

Our culture doesn’t support us to have our needs met in parenting. Lack of support and being highly stressed because we don’t have the support that we need, the fact that we are doing it all by ourselves, often isolated and alone also contributes to us being triggered by our children. Maybe we are listening to all the feelings of our children,  maybe we’re at home all day with our kids by ourselves, maybe we are really sleep deprived, maybe we don’t have enough supporting connection. Maybe we don’t have time to play or to laugh,  or the help in our home . So of course many of us do have lots of unmeet needs.  The more unmet needs we have, the more our nervous system is stressed and stretched and the easier it is to then go into overwhelm and activation. 

And often we have lots of stories around self-care that we learnt as children. Perhaps we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be taking care of ourselves, or we shouldn’t be resting because it is lazy.  Perhaps we are telling ourselves that we just don’t have time to do anything to look after ourselves probably. Maybe in our family of origin, self-care wasn’t modelled to us in a very healthy way.  So it can be really helpful for us to be reflecting a bit on what our needs at the moment and how can we find small ways to take care of ourselves, even if it’s just one thing that we’re going do in the next week that might be really helpful.  Maybe we can be reflecting a little bit about what self-care might look like for us at the moment in in a way that’s more supportive and then we can come back to to finding ways to address that. 

And again, this is not like another long list of "Shoulds" -  it’s about tending to ourselves in a way that feels really loving and deeply supportive of our bodies and our nervous system. Sometimes that is practical support that we might be able to do before we get to the point where we feel completely burnt out and overwhelmed and sick. So, can we reach out and ask for help? Can we organise for a babysitter to come? Can we do a swap with a friend so that we are taking care of each other‘s children so that we get some time off? Can we find ways to ask for help more so that we get a break before we get to the breaking point?.  And can we do some things when we do have a break that bring us joy,  fun, relaxation and nourishment, rather than just using that time to do the laundry or the house work? Can you set up a listening partnership with somebody and to receive that compassion that we all need? Could you join a circle, either online or in person? Can you do some journaling? Might you have some sessions with somebody who resonates with you? Can you start doing some reflections and some time deliberately to think over these things, and and how you might support yourself more?

We can learn to see these triggers as valuable information, not a sign that there is something wrong with us or that we are bad parents. We can bring some curiosity to the fact that maybe there is something for us to explore in this that accounts for why we are having such big reactions to this behaviour from our children. When triggers remind us of very painful and traumatic moments in our own lives, it's especially important to be getting support to integrate, to let go, to heal. 

When we notice that our younger parts are being activated in a way that can be really deeply painful for us, where can we go to get support? This is very tender work and can be excruciatingly painful for us at times so please reach out for support with this process if that is helpful. I highly recommend Marion Rose's Inner Loving Presence Process course. What support would help you to tend to and care for your inner child? Often that is through having sessions with somebody who understands this approach and can support us to to meet and support our inner child.  What can also be really helpful is when we are noticing ourselves being highly activated and we are noticing things coming up, can we explore that a little bit? Can we bring some curiosity to what might be going on for us? Can we be looking inward when we have space to do so, and the support externally to guide us in this process? Can we be really honest about how we’re feeling and what’s coming up when we have big challenging experiences with our children? Where did this originate? What is familiar about this for us? Perhaps it might be asking where did we learn this or how old do we feel when we are noticing this? 

Then we can be asking ourselves what did we need and what should have actually happened at that time for those younger parts of us? What did they really need?  We dont have to be realistically thinking about what might have been possible for us then, we can simply reflect on what did we actually need to happen.  We can ask ourselves what did we really want to happen then and, if it’s hard to clarify that, can you think about your child and if your child was in that situation, what can you see that they would need? 

What can also be really helpful is to explore ways that we might be able to offer that to ourselves now, or imagining what those younger parts needed to hear then, and can you imagine yourself receiving those words now.  Can you imagine a very unconditionally loving presence with you offering you loving words or can you seek that externally through having sessions with somebody who is able to ask you what did you need to hear, what would you like to say and offering you those beautiful words with loving kindness. 

And, just as our children need to cry and rage to heal,  we also need to cry and rage. Can you find safe places to cry with loving support, to scream and shout and shake? Can you sweat? Can you dance? Can you move your body in ways that are helpful? Can you receive loving listening externally for all of the big feelings that are coming up and can you offer some unconditional love and support to all the big feelings that you might be experiencing if you’re going through this process by yourself?

We need support and listening, places to explore this with support and guidance to get clear about what is there for us and to process, integrate and let go of these wounded parts of us so they are less likely to be driving the show in future. Listening partners, journalling, attending circle or having sessions with an aware parenting instructor who understands this aspect of aware parenting and how to support healing for parents as well as children. The more listening and reparation we get, the less reactive we will be to our children and to our partners or co-parents, the more harmony we have in our families and the more enjoyable parenting can be. 

Your parenting coach and mentor

About Joss Goulden

I am a trauma-informed Parenting Coach and a Level 2 Aware Parenting instructor, certified with the Aware Parenting Institute. I have been practising Aware Parenting for 17 years and am the mother of 2 children, aged 19 and 17.

I am also passionate about Homeschooling and Natural Learning. I have homeschooled my 2 children and I have been supporting families with Homeschooling and Natural Learning for many years.

Aware Parenting with Joss

I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
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