How we can overcome our present parenting challenges by telling stories about our past
In Parenting by the Inside Out, Dan Siegal explains how the single most important factor that determines how well are children are attached to us, is our ability to tell a coherent life story of our own childhood. He explains the important fact that history does not have to repeat itself. No matter what challenges we experienced as a child, if we have made sense of our past, then it no longer comes to influence and dominate our present.
A coherent life story is one that is beyond simply labelling our childhood as ‘happy’ or ‘difficult,’ it is one that includes events and emotions, with an understanding of how both the positive and negative aspects of our childhood have formed us as adults, such as in this example (from this article by Siegal and Bryson)
“My mother was always angry. She loved us, there was never any doubt about that. But her parents had really done a number on her. Her dad worked all the time, and her mother was a closet alcoholic. Mom was the oldest of six kids, so she always felt like she had to be perfect. So she bottled everything up, and her emotions just boiled over anytime something went wrong. My sisters and I usually took the brunt of it, sometimes even physically. I worry that sometimes I let my kids get away with too much, and I think part of that is because I don’t want them to feel that pressure to be perfect.”
The good news is that history isn’t destined to repeat itself. If we can take some time to build a coherent narrative of our own childhood, we won’t pass down our emotional baggage to our own children.
If we take a look at any present difficulty in our parenting, we can almost always trace it’s roots back to our past, just as Patty Wipfler did in this story of how she began to form the Parenting by Connection approach. One important aspect of Parenting by Connection is the listening partnership, where two parents take time to talk and listen about how parenting is going. Since starting my first listening partnership when my daughter was 9 months old, I’m not sure how I’d live without them now! As we all know as parents, the tank of patience and energy to give our children is not infinite, but I’m always amazed how a few minutes of listening time can refuel me again.
A good way to start a new listening partnership is to tell your life story, following your mind’s stream of consciousness to talk about whatever emotions and events seem significant, stopping whenever you feel like laughing or crying, those places where we need some emotional healing.
I’ve recently started to tell my life story again, with a new listening partner, and it got me thinking, that our work of healing from the past is never over, that we can tell and retell our stories, using our present difficulties as keys, to unlock and release our past troubles. And each time we do we become a little bit lighter, a little more patient and present with our children.
Try taking turns to tell your life story with a friend, or find a listening partner through Hand in Hand parenting. Even better, Hand in Hand, have a new listening partnerships course, which explains all the nuts and bolts of how to make the most out of your listening partnership.