We all have ghosts from the past – things we experienced when we were children, which sometimes pop up to haunt us when we become parents. Those ghosts may have to do with relationships we had with our own parents, or things about ourselves that may have caused us difficulty. Without realizing it, those old ghosts can influence the way we see our own children and the way we interact with them.
Often these ghosts turn up when something in a child’s behavior or development concerns us. Many times, when a child is especially active, or rebellious, or otherwise difficult to handle, a mother will say, “My mother says I was just like that. Now I understand what she went through”. Or “My mother-in-law says my husband was the same way – and he still is!”
We’re used to those comparisons made about physical traits: he has his father’s eyes, she has her mother’s hair. Children usually grow up hearing them. But seeing a child’s behavior or personality traits through the lens of the parents’ childhood can interfere with our ability to know who our child really is himself or herself.
Seeing certain things in our child that we identify with ourselves at times makes us feel proud. On the other hand, if it is something we don’t like about ourselves – or our mate – it can lead us to misread its significance for the child, and to respond in negative ways.
Sometimes we want our children to make up for things that were missing or that we regret about our own childhood. A parent insisting on a child practice the piano or another instrument, stemming from regrets about what one didn’t do as a child are a familiar source of conflict.
Relationships with other family members can also play a role. A mother talked about her daughter who was demanding of her attention. The mom identified her with her own sister who was very demanding, got all of their mother’s attention, and had many difficulties later on. She did not want this to happen to her daughter and responded harshly to the child’s behavior.
Actually, this was a middle child who was very sensitive and had some real difficulties with separation, intensified by what she experienced as her mother’s rejecting behavior. This mother came to realize that she was responding to her child as if she were her sister, and that she was trying to correct what she thought were her own mother’s failures. Once becoming aware of this, she was able to appreciate that her daughter had some real needs which she could respond to in more appropriate ways.
When parents to be are expecting a child, part of pregnancy is imagining what that expected child will be like. A connection is made with that imagined child. When the real baby arrives, part of the challenge for parents is dealing with the difference between the real and the imagined child. And that challenge recurs at various times as a child grows and develops.
Our imagined children are always perfect. Our real children never are. The “ghosts” may make their appearance when we react to what we see as our children’s “imperfections”. Our own upbringing plays a big role in how we raise our children but in thinking about our own lives, it helps to recognize that our children are entitled to their own. You are not your mother or father and your child is not you. Her life will be different from yours.
Ghosts are often invisible. Bringing them into view is what makes it possible to sweep them away.