Surprising Ways Our Parent Relationships Affect Us

The legacy of our parents haunts us. Selma Fraiberg referred to these legacies as the ghosts in the nursery. She proposed that the way we attach and bond with our babies is directly impacted by how we attached and bonded with our parents. Thus, the conscious and unconscious memories of what it means to be a good parent, a bad parent, to love, to bond, to trust come flowing out of us without us even knowing it.

Many of the women I work with come in having already "done the work" around their relationships with their parents, either through previous therapy or because they have loving, healthy relationships with them. But what they don't see is how they are trying to shape their parenting around their parents' ghosts.

It comes out in subtle and perhaps unnoticed ways. A parent may get angry when a baby cries for no reason. They may get anxious when left alone with their baby because they are afraid of "messing it up." Their child's reluctance to snuggle is perceived as rejection. These feelings often go unacknowledged if not unnoticed.

It's only when a therapist begins to ask "Why?" to these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that we learn that most of these things have come from somewhere. Why do you think your baby shouldn't cry? Why do you think that attachment is built in perfect understanding of each other? Why do you get angry when she cries for hours? Where did you learn what was good and bad, right and wrong? None of the answers to these questions are ever "It's just how I've always been." It may be how you've always been, but how did you learn that that particular way of functioning would get you what you wanted? Why did that behavior or relationship style get reinforced over something else? Why does that coping strategy work for you and not others?

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Therapy is about curiosity. It is about learning about why and where and how and who. It's about not taking anything for granted, especially those things that we hold onto the most. It is those things that drive us and, often times, those things that have gotten us stuck. We have to look at our ghosts with compassionate skepticism and realize that so much of what is happening with our children and in our relationships is about what happened with our own caregivers.  

In a way, therapy is like parenting. In a good therapeutic relationship you will experience unconditional positive regard, space to challenge and question your most basic assumptions, and security to try out different ways of being. Therapy and parenting both require seeing and acknowledging our ghosts and finding ways to heal and incorporate them without being ruled by their presence.