Childhoods can range from severely neglectful/abusive to nearly idyllic, but there are some overall themes that emerge when people discuss what they wish they or their parents had done differently.
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1. No idea how to be a good husband/wife
This is actually a fairly common regret that people feel when recalling their own childhoods.
2. No guidance about career/life
This isn’t just a complaint from clients whose parents were not highly educated themselves. It is just as common among people who had very high-achieving parents who were fairly uninterested in and disconnected from the child’s life. A parent who goes to work 60 hours a week in a great career may say literally nothing to their child about the child’s own strengths, interests, and goals.
3. Discomfort around expressing emotions
Some families are very stunted in how they express emotion, and that can have a long-range impact on their child’s ability to verbally express their feelings, or even be aware of their feelings, in adulthood.
This can even lead to alexithymia, particularly in males. In adulthood, partners can get frustrated with what appears like emotional withholding, but it is really a genuine inability to express feelings, derived from a childhood where emotions were just never discussed.
Teasing kids, particularly sensitive ones, or telling them that their feelings are wrong or crazy, can lead to long-term low self-esteem and trust issues when these kids grow up. Many boys in particular are angry at fathers who teased them mercilessly under the guise of “just kidding around.”
Sarcastic, cutting, or just mean remarks about children that are said in a cool voice as though they are just observations may have an even worse impact than words that are screamed in the heat of the moment, when a child may be able to convince himself that you were just angry.
For example, a child will remember a parent saying, “You’re really not very attractive” for his whole life, whereas some kids will be able to discount a father yelling “You idiot!” out of anger when the child broke a window.
5. Authoritarian parenting
When a child is not allowed to do what the majority of his peers are doing, whether this is dating, going to a sleepover, or staying out till 4 am on prom night, the child is likely to resent this forever. Parents may think that a child will one day, “Boy, I’m glad my parents cared enough about my safety to give me a 10 pm curfew when they knew everyone else had 11 pm,” but I’ve yet to see that in my practice.
Note that authoritarian parenting means cold and strict, whereas authoritative, which is associated with positive outcomes, means warm but firm, and flexible. The third type of parenting, permissive, or warm with zero rules, has even worse outcomes than authoritarian because it makes a child feel uncared for.
6. Making a child scared of the world
For some, this is a fear or hatred of men learned from a mother. For others, it is being paranoid of everyone who isn’t in your same religion, because parents taught you not to trust “strangers.” For still others, it may be the fear to gain weight or throw anything away, or being sexually or emotionally intimate with partners. Fear leaves a mark on kids, and it is easy to teach and hard to unlearn.
Think about which of these regrets and complaints are relevant to your own upbringing, and which you may be unwittingly fostering in your own kids.
No parent can be perfect, nor is perfection the goal, but it is very useful to examine your own childhood when parenting in order to ensure that you don’t automatically repeat the very patterns that you wish you never learned in the first place
Article by Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom