How Our Own Early Life Experiences Affect Our Response To Stress And Parenting
Your childhood experiences have shaped you into what you are today, but they have also created behavioural patterns that you might not be aware of. That’s all the more true for those who have been exposed to acute stress or traumatic events at an early age, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). So what happens when a child comes into your life? Is it possible to let go of the past and start with a clean slate?
In today’s post, we’ll explore how your own Adverse Childhood Experiences might have affected your parenting style, and then we’ll go through some support strategies that will help you resource yourself so that you can move forward.
What are the implications of Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Adverse Childhood Experiences are either one-time or recurring stressful events that can have negative effects on a child’s mental and physical health, which often continue through into adulthood. A study of over 17,000 participants has shown that ACEs are pretty common (nearly one-third of participants reported at least one ACE) and they often occur together. There are numerous examples of ACEs, with the most common being physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, exposure to domestic violence, having a parent that suffers from mental illness or substance addiction, loss of a parent, divorce, as well as physical or emotional neglect.
Exposure to toxic stress (prolonged periods of stress without attuned supportive relationship support available) and trauma during early childhood has an adverse effect on brain development and alters brain chemistry. This causes emotional difficulties like the inability to self-regulate and form relationships, as well as cognitive delays reduced ability to focus, learn, and retain knowledge. As adults, people who have experienced severe trauma are likely to have more emotional and behavioural difficulties or develop unhealthy habits like smoking, alcohol, or drug abuse, as well as health problems like obesity, heart disease, and depression.
You can check out some of our courses for parents here.
How your childhood experiences affect your parenting style
There are many different ways in which your childhood experiences can affect your parenting style. In fact, it’s very difficult to escape learned behaviours unless you put hard work into recognising your own triggers and patterns (that originated in your past).
Let’s have a look at a few examples:
- Imitating behaviour: More often than not, modelling our parents’ behaviour happens subconsciously. Try to spot phrases or tactics that you might have picked up from your parents. For example, you might say things like “Look what a mess you’ve made! Why are you doing this to me?” But the child is not trying to upset you on purpose. Responding this way in an attempt to force them to change their behaviour weighs them with an unnecessary burden of shame, guilt and regret.
- Overcompensation: That’s the opposite of imitating. In this scenario, you go out of your way to do the exact opposite of what your parents did. That might sound good in theory. But in reality, you might be doing more harm than good. Let’s say you grew up feeling neglected or your basic needs for adequate food or clothing weren’t met. Naturally, you want to make sure your child doesn’t go through the same. In an effort to grant your child’s every wish and give them your full attention, you end up spoiling them or becoming a “helicopter parent”.
- Being distant: Children that have been neglected, or had the adults in their lives emotionally unavailable to them, often grow up believing that their feelings don’t matter or that they are a burden to others. Eventually, they learn to cope with life on their own and keep everyone at arm’s length. They usually have difficulty expressing their emotions, as well. Sounds familiar? You might have convinced yourself that you’re teaching your child independence and self-sufficiency, but skimping on hugs and affection is only a sign of avoidant attachment. The result? Your child will most likely develop the same attachment style as yours, and they are at higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
- Insecurity: Having suffered from neglect or abuse of any kind can often leave individuals with low esteem. If this is you, this may make you constantly doubt your parenting skills and doesn’t let you enjoy the gifts of parenthood and the moments you share with your family. However, children notice when you’re not well, and your mood directly impacts theirs (through our mirror neuron systems). Most importantly, children tend to blame themselves for what’s happening to their parents. So if they see that you’re constantly agitated or worried, they might feel they’re doing something wrong or that there is actually something wrong with them.
How to overcome Adverse Childhood Experiences to become a better parent
Research has shown that children of parents with exposure to a high number of ACEs are more likely to exhibit behavioural problems, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD.
However, developing a child-centred parenting style following consistent, nurturing parental practices can significantly lower this risk. This means that it’s time to take a deep breath and take a trip to the past to help in moving forward to help yourself and your family thrive.
- Self-reflection: The first step is always the hardest, and this is no exception. You can’t change your current behaviour unless you think back to the past. Dedicate a few moments every day to revisit your past and understand how it has affected your present. You might realise that you’re still living in your childhood home, except now the roles have changed.
- Learn self-regulation techniques: Trauma usually narrows your window of tolerance to stress, and the slightest trigger can get you into a state of anxiety. It’s important to find ways to handle your own feelings now so that you can cope with an angry or distressed child later. Practice meditation, mindful breathing, or even yoga or tai chi. Our post on Co-Regulation Techniques to Upskill Your Toolbox and Tame Meltdowns will equip you with practical tips to co-regulate with your child.
- Surround yourself with positive people: You have to fill your own cup first before you can give love back to your child. So apart from spending quality time with your child, surround yourself with positive people and leave toxic relationships of any kind behind you. Positive people have a lot to teach you just by being there, starting with an optimistic view on life and gratitude for the present. And it’s nice to be reminded that there’s still a lot of kindness around you, and people who love you.
- Seek professional help: You can’t put all negative childhood experiences in the same bucket. If you’re dealing with serious childhood trauma, like abuse, it’s best to see a therapist that will help you process your experiences and move forward in your journey. Or, if you just need advice on how to improve your parenting style, consider joining a parenting class or taking one of our online parenting courses here.
Parenting is 80% connection and just 20% behavioural coaching. But, you can’t truly connect with your child if you’re still hurting inside. To build a better future for you and your children, you need to make peace with the past first.