Intergenerational Family Patterns and How We Parent

Intergenerational Family Patterns and How We Parent

Intergenerational family patterns are made up of behaviors, beliefs and family dynamics that are passed down from generation to generation.

These patterns become deeply entrenched within family systems. And in the case of unhealthy patterns, this is problematic because they can be difficult to break. Family members may accept certain patterns as the norm, or they may maintain unhealthy patterns subconsciously. So these unhealthy patterns persist across generations.

As a mother of a 2 year old, I want to examine how my intergenerational family patterns impact my parenting style. I hope that with this awareness, I can break any unhealthy patterns. And likewise, preserve the positive patterns that have been passed down to me. I also hope to contribute new healthy patterns to pass down to my son and subsequent generations. 

Passing Down Healthy Family Patterns To Our Children

mother and baby
Me and O

I like to think that every new generation has the opportunity to be better parents than the previous generation. I may be able to offer my son something my parents weren’t able to offer me. In turn, my son will be able to offer his children (if he chooses to have them) something that I wasn’t able to offer him. And so on and so forth.

With this in mind, I acknowledge that I will never be a perfect parent. But I know that as long as I am striving to work on being a better parent, I am a good enough parent for my child.

Interviewing Older Parents to Learn About Intergenerational Family Patterns

One way I am developing a better understanding of my intergenerational family patterns, is to learn more about my parents.

For those of us who still have parents that are alive, we can ask them about their pasts;

  • What were their homes like as children?
  • What were their parents like? 
  • What was their relationship like with their parents?
  • What challenges did they face?
  • How did their parents treat them?
  • What did they admire about their parents? What did they dislike?
  • What beliefs were instilled in them regarding family?
  • What challenges did they overcome growing up?

The more information I gather about my parents, the more I understand what is/was behind their behaviors, beliefs and our family dynamics. And this makes me feel more compassionate towards any struggles we went/go through as a family. I am then able to extend this growing compassion towards my own child. And do my very best to parent from a place of empathy and consideration.

So the more I learn about my parents, the more I realize how many challenges they overcame, and in turn provided me with far more privilege than they ever had as kids. So I keep this in mind, as I reflect on my parents and my own parenting approaches. 

Additionally, the more I reflect on my parents’ patterns, the more I recognize those patterns showing up in myself, both the desirable and less desirable ones. So often we think that we are nothing like our parents, only to realize that we are more similar to them than not.

old family photos
 Glimpses of where I came from ~
old photo of child with parents
Me and my parents ~

Engaging in Therapy to Learn About Intergenerational Family Patterns

Another way to learn about personal family patterns is to seek professional mental health services. Individual or family therapists can offer relatively objective perspectives on family dynamics. They point out unhealthy patterns, and help individuals and families break them. 

Using Self-Help Approaches to Learn About Intergenerational Family Patterns

In addition to learning about our family histories or engaging in therapy, we can also go on self-help journeys. We can read books and journal about family dynamics, healthy relationships and developing self-awareness. 

What are Unhealthy Family Patterns? 

Unhealthy family patterns are usually related to boundary violations. Examples of poor boundaries include family dynamics that are centered around manipulation and enmeshment. 

Enmeshment in a parent child relationship for example, might be a parent consciously or subconsciously keeping their child from forming a separate identity. And simultaneously, not allowing that child to express his or her own needs. If a child tries to establish a boundary, the parent may apply manipulation tactics to break that boundary. The child may then feel pressured or guilted into maintaining the status quo. 

Boundary issues and other unhealthy family patterns among family members may also arise due to mental health issues like mood disorders, substance use disorders or unresolved trauma. In these cases, a struggling family member may not realize the way that their behavior is negatively impacting others. And in turn, others may not understand the extent of that family member’s struggles and feelings of powerlessness. 

What are Healthy Family Patterns?

Just as important as it is to identify unhealthy behaviors and beliefs within a family system, it is also important to identify healthy family dynamics. Healthy family patterns encourage supportiveness and togetherness, while simultaneously encouraging individuation and appropriate boundaries between family members.

There is open communication and respect regarding all family members’ personal boundaries. Family members listen to each other and validate each others’ feelings. Behaviors that accompany those feelings don’t necessarily need to be validated, but there is always acknowledgment and respect for the other family members’ felt experiences. 

Parenting and Intergenerational Boundary Patterns

In the context of parenting, the term ‘boundaries’ is often mistakenly equated with authoritative parenting. When I use the word boundaries though, I am talking about the kinds of frameworks we establish for our children that help them feel safe and supported. The frameworks that help them learn to honor their own personal boundaries, as well as respect those of others.

Below are some examples of different types of boundary patterns that I have found helpful to be aware of when it comes to parenting my child. 

Relationship Boundaries: Helicopter Parenting Vs Neglectful Parenting

Helicopter parents hover over their children and are overly involved, to the point that they stifle their child’s ability to develop independently. Neglectful parenting on the other hand, is when parents do not provide adequate support, either emotionally or physically for their child. 

After taking an honest look at where I fall on this spectrum, I realize I am closer to the helicopter parenting end of the spectrum. So to better understand why I am drawn to helicopter parenting and to hopefully change any unhealthy behaviors, I ask myself the following;

  • How present (or absent) were my parents during my childhood and how did it impact me?
  • How do I encourage independence in my child?
  • How do I demonstrate that I am available for my child when he needs me, but not overbearing? 

(For more on encouraging independence in toddlers, you can check out my posts on How to Create a Toddler Friendly Home and How to Encourage Independent Play)

Physical Boundaries: Unwanted Physical Contact Vs Absent Physical Affection

At the extreme end of the spectrum, a lack of respect for physical boundaries includes any form of physical or sexual abuse. And at the opposite end, may include physical neglect. 

While many parents fall nowhere near either end of this spectrum, it is still useful to see what kinds of patterns around physical boundaries exist within your own family. So to do this, I ask myself the following;

  • How did my parents show me affection physically?
  • How do I relate with my child physically? (With babies and young toddlers, we obviously do not ask their permission to pick them up or hold them in most cases. But, as they get older, they are able to tell us when they want or do not want physical contact)
  • Do I tell my child he has to hug family and friends? Do I demand he gives me hugs and kisses?
  • How can I help my child understand that he is the owner of his body?
  • How can I teach my child about consent and cultural sensitivity when it comes to physical contact with others?
As my son continues to grow, I hope I instill in him some sensitivity around this issue of physical boundaries. And while it may sound strange to ask consent to give your child a kiss, I think it is a good practice to create some dialogue around physical affection. This helps my child know that he is in charge of his body. And also helps him understand that different people have different boundaries in this department.

Emotional Boundaries: Emotional Reactivity Vs Emotional Regulation

Parents have a lot of power to influence their children’s emotional development. For example, children who grow up routinely witnessing outbursts and emotional chaos in their homes, may grow up to model those same behaviors for their children. Or alternatively, grow up feeling that they have to suppress their emotions to avoid the kind of conflict and chaos they experienced growing up. 

So I ask myself the following questions;

  • How did my parents express and model emotional behavior? 
  • How do I express (or not express) emotions in front of my child?
  • How do I respond to my child in moments of frustration?
  • How do I respond to my child’s expressed emotions?

(For more on the topic of emotional regulation and parenting, you can check out my post on Helping Toddlers Deal with Big Feelings)

Examining our Family Patterns as Parents
For some people, family matters are the source of their deepest wounds. For others, family matters are the source of their greatest joys. And for many, it can be both. Wherever we fall on this spectrum, I like to think that we can intentionally foster healthy family patterns to pass down to our children. While this is supremely hard work as a parent, it is also the greatest privilege. 
 
I would love to hear your thoughts on family patterns and parenting approaches. Say hi in the comments! 
Be well ♡


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