By: Nina Malanay
Parenting is not an easy task. It can be the most demanding job we take on in our lifetime. But for parents who, as children, were raised in homes where physical punishment, spanking, hitting, swatting, yelling or shaming was used as a means to “discipline”, it’s even harder. The strict, and often punitive and toxic, discipline methods used on them as children have a tendency to become their own default response, especially when their own children act out or misbehave. In fact, studies show that most people who were subjected to harsh physical punishment as children are more likely to spank, hit, yell at, and emotionally abuse their own children.
What is Positive Parenting?
Positive parenting takes a different approach. It is a child-centered parenting philosophy rooted in a warm, secure and loving relationship between parent and child. Emphasis is on building loving connections to make the child feel secure, safe and loved, and thus more receptive and more willing to cooperate. When we nurture our connection with our children, mutual trust and respect is strengthened and this, in turn, helps the child learn essential social and life skills that help them thrive.
Parenting with unhealed hurt
There is no such thing as a perfect parent – and this means that we, too, were raised by imperfect people. While most parents have the best intentions for their children and generally do the best they can to raise their children well, the sad truth is that some of them may not have a lot to give emotionally because they, too, have experienced emotional hurt and a punitive parenting style.
As a result, many of us end up feeling inadequate and broken because of the way we were raised. For most of us, we have to wage a battle in our heads against the ideas that we internalized as kids. Most parents who were raised in punitive homes do not want to repeat the same parenting patterns they experienced, but they lack the emotional tools and knowledge to parent differently than the way they were parented, thus further perpetuating the vicious cycle of toxic parenting across generations.
Default parenting response
For most of us, the impulse to lash out comes unexpectedly. And despite our strong desire to do things differently with our children, – to not subject them to the same guilt, hurt and feelings of rejection that we went through – the things our parents did and said to us often become our parenting script. The way we were parented becomes our default parenting response.
The things that upset us are usually triggered by ideas that were formed in our childhood. For example, if you were raised by strict, perfectionist parents who yelled at and punished you when you played rough, physical play and laughter become triggers for you. Even if you want your children to play freely and have fun, you find it annoying when they do horseplay and behave rowdily. The deep-seated memories of punishment and blame make you edgy, irritated or angry.
So what can we do to change this default parenting response that has been deeply ingrained in us from childhood? What can we do to ensure that this cycle of brokenness ends with us?
Becoming a positive parent
1. Recognize that you were parented imperfectly.
Punitive parenting creates ambivalent feelings in the child because while we love our parents, it is difficult to comprehend how they can subject us to physical pain and emotional hurt. Some people tend to repress the memories of their broken childhood as a means to numb the pain and rejection they feel. But acknowledging the way you were parented is an important step to creating a nurturing and loving relationship with your own child because it makes you aware of the patterns of behavior you want to avoid. Bringing the parenting mistakes you experienced and the effects it had on you to light can serve as motivation for you to be a better parent to your child.
2. Forgive your parents.
There are no perfect parents. Some of our parents’ mistakes in raising us may be forgivable, others may be more difficult to forget, especially if it left a big impact in our lives as adults. Try to make sense of your own childhood and your relationship with your parents by looking at their parenting mistakes with compassion. Your parents may have been emotionally hurt and subjected to the same harsh parenting style themselves. They may not have had positive role models to look up to for parenting advice and may just be mirroring the way they were parented. Make the decision to break away from the emotional chains and be better for your children.
3. Recognize your triggers.
Recognize that your negative feelings are not reactions to your child’s behavior per se, but to what that behavior means to you. When we understand that our behavior is triggered by things that happened in our childhood, we can be aware of our reactions, and with the proper mindset, be able to control and redirect our response to our child’s misbehavior. By being aware of your triggers, you become mindful of the situations that provoke your default response and you can prepare yourself by coming up with alternatives for what you can do instead.
4. Focus on one habit to change at a time.
Change is hard. Breaking an old habit is hard. And when ideas and practices have been ingrained in you for a big part of your life, by people you love and trust, it can be difficult to renounce.
Focus on changing one habit at a time. You can start with the decision to stop spanking, or committing to spending more time to connect with your child, or to be more careful with your words when you correct your child. Take small steps that you can commit to and build on that.
5. Have an alternative response to your default.
Most parents do not want to resort to harsh discipline techniques like spanking, hitting, yelling, or shaming. Unfortunately, knowing what you don’t want to do is not the same as knowing what to do. Come up with a list of alternatives to punishment that you can use when your child misbehaves. Having a plan in place helps you stay in control when dealing with your child’s challenging behaviors and helps you avoid impulsive, default reactions.
6. Connect with other positive parents.
It really does take a village to raise a child. If the people around us behave in a certain way, we come to accept it as normal. Surround yourself with other parents who share the same parenting philosophy as you. Having someone to talk to about your frustrations and challenges, and seek advice from can provide you with support as you make the change to becoming a more positive parent.
7. Be gentle on yourself.
Being a parent is tough work. Despite our best intentions, we will make mistakes. At some point, even the best parents become short tempered, punish their kids unfairly or say things that we later regret. Be gentle with yourself and cut yourself some slack. Learn how to forgive yourself of your parenting blunders, connect with and apologize to your child and start all over again.
Remember, though, that while we need to be gentle with ourselves, we also have to hold ourselves accountable. How we raise our children is not determined by our past. We can choose to overcome our past to become a parent who embraces positive parenting practices.
Healing from toxic parenting and becoming a positive parent starts with making the brave decision that you refuse to continue a legacy of brokenness. You can change the world, by first changing your fate and that of your child’s.
“Our children will become who we are, so we need to become who we want them to be.” – Anonymous
Nina Malanay is a mother to two rambunctious, affectionate boys, aged 7 and 4. Her husband-slash-best friend died in a tragic bombing incident in 2013. As she tries to navigate through life with her boys as a solo parent, she hopes to rediscover herself beyond the many hats she wears – mother, teacher, writer, baking enthusiast, student of life – and move boldly into her future.