Automatic emotional reactions shape our responses as parents
Dr Havighurst says these automatic responses regularly play out in our own parenting and it can be passed onto the next generation.
“Some of the really interesting research looking at intergenerational patterns of parenting shows that we often parent the same way one generation to the next. If we’ve developed an awareness of what our own experience was and how it has affected us then we have a greater capacity to try something different and do something new,” she says.
Our early experiences set something up deep within us that is triggered when we are faced with the emotion as an adult – even if that emotion is coming from our child.
“It might be that we hate to show other people we’re sad because our own experience with sadness was our mum always went into her room when she was sad. Or, our parents said, ‘Oh, let’s cheer you up now. There’s nothing to get sad about’, If that was your experience as a child, and if you don’t feel comfortable about feeling sad or expressing sadness then you will be more likely to avoid it. Instead, you will keep sadness private and lock it away where it just keeps on bubbling up,” Dr Havighurst says.
Start by thinking about your own childhood
Given that our family has a huge effect on our emotional responses, the Tuning in to Kids program asks parents to reflect on their childhood experiences with emotions early in each program.
Dr Havighurst says it’s important for parents to also consider any cultural practices around emotions in the culture they grew up in. She says some cultures express a lot of emotions (both positive and negative), while others teach their community members to keep things bottled up inside. Regardless of the approach, the messages are passed on through the generations.
She suggests parents start by considering the culture they’ve grown up in and ask how emotions are responded to.
“Then you can start looking at it in your own family of origin. Ask yourself things like how specific emotions were responded to? So how was sadness responded to? How were fear or worry responded to? How was anger and how was jealousy?”.
Dr Havighurst believes this awareness is the first step to breaking our automatic responses to emotions, so we can begin to respond consciously.
“It’s this examination of your emotional responses and then development of new skills that give you a new way of parenting. Research has found in order to break intergenerational patterns of emotionally avoidant, dismissive or disapproving parenting, people needed to be aware of what their experience has been, understand what the effects have been on them and then develop new skills,” Dr Havighurst says.