That old saying, “an apple never falls far from the tree” is the equivalent to saying “like father, like son” or “like mother like daughter”. It is another way of saying that children inevitably become like their parents. Are you like your mother or father? Do you want to take after them? If you had a troubled childhood you’ll probably say no, but it’s harder to break away from family behavioural traits than you realise.
Often we find we revert to our parent’s behaviour when we are disciplining our own children. You suddenly hear your parent’s words coming out of your mouth, perhaps you’re arguing with a child. Sometimes you even hear yourself saying words you swore you would never utter!
We are programmed as children
Psychotherapist Diane Barth said the reason we revert to our parents’ behaviour is because people are programmed as children by interactions with the people around them. Consequently your parents have a huge impact on who you become. However it is possible to change over time. We form new relationships and learn new patterns of behaviour. Yet we still are liable to revert to the behaviour of our parents when stressed. Why?
Dr Barth says that neuroscientists have discovered that the neurons in our brain seek familiar paths, especially when we are stressed. When upset we tend to default to behaviour from our youth. Sometimes we also find ourselves in situations that are reminiscent of our childhoods, this coupled with stress can ‘bring on’ parental behaviour. An example – you find yourself eating a traditional Christmas dinner and your child is misbehaving. Out of the blue you act just like your mother. You tell your child to eat the dinner and if they don’t they’ll get a smack! Of course you would never normally consider a physical punishment, and yet here you are behaving like your mother.
Genetics play a part
Be aware that our genetics can also cause us to behave like our parents. We may have a genetic disposition to be short-tempered or impatient. Similarly some people have a genetic disposition to develop depression or alcohol-dependency, but we always have choices and we can choose to be our own person, not a shadow of a parent.
How to avoid repeating unhealthy parental patterns
If you are determined not to turn out like your mother or father, you first need to work out which behaviours you found offensive and why. Did you have a parent who was violent, manipulative or controlling? What impact did that behaviour have on you as a child? How did that impact on you long term?
Remember your childhood and document it
Documenting your childhood may be painful and if you can’t do it, consider reaching out for some professional support.
Are you able to write down the exact traits that you found distressing and also what situations that prompted your parent to behave like this? Did your mother become controlling if your father was late home from work? Did your father drink if your mother nagged him? You are trying to understand the elements of your childhood that caused you pain.
Think seriously about your own behaviour
It is time to start examining your own behaviour. You have identified the triggers that prompted your parent’s bad behaviour. What impact do these triggers have on you? How do you react when you are angry or tired or frustrated? Keep a diary and describe your thoughts and feelings throughout the day. If you found yourself regressing and becoming like your mother or father, examine what preceded the incident.
You could ask your friends or spouse to monitor your behaviour and tell you when you are behaving badly or ‘ghosting’ a parent. This should help you become more aware of your modes of behaviour.
Write down your core values
What do you believe in? What do you value? What do you want for yourself and your family? Take stock of who you are and write down core values. Hopefully this will stop you from re-enacting behaviours that are at odds with your values.
Never forget that you are your own person
It is simply not true that an apple never falls far from the tree. You are neither your mother nor your father. You are YOU. You can be whoever you want to be. You are not destined to repeat negative behaviour patterns. You are strong and you have choices.
Modify your behaviour
If you frequently find yourself acting like your mother or father, then try to alter your behaviour just a little. When you are chastising your own children, stop and make a little joke. You could smile and say to your kids, “If you do it again, I’ll feed you to a dinosaur”. This little diversion may distract your children from their naughtiness and it will also distract you. You will be moving away from the past and establishing a new future. Although we may feel like we're being just like our parents, a shift in how we deal with struggles can make a big difference.
Forgive your parents
You may find it easier not to become like your parents if you are able to forgive them for the hurt they caused you. We all want to be born with perfect parents, but often we are born with damaged parents. Life is not always fair and I’m sorry but hanging on to past hurts will get you nowhere. Set your past free. Forgive your parents for being damaged, broken and for hurting you. Now focus on the future and live your own life.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
If you had a cold, critical parent you may grow into an adult who is overly self-critical. Basically you still have that parent’s voice in your head telling you that you will never be good enough. Well, I have something to tell you – you are good enough, in fact you have dozens of wonderful qualities.
Next time you find yourself behaving like your mum or dad, stop and tell yourself that you really are a brilliant person and it is okay to be YOU. Eject that mum or dad voice from your head, and make a mental note that you are going to return to being the wonderful person you are.
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.