Why can't we follow our own advice?

Simple advice doesn't help! : Like parents, like children

Recently, parents were advised at this point not to rely on threats in their upbringing; in the sense of "If you are not good, you will not get any dessert". It is better to explain to the children why you are asking for something and to appeal to their willingness to help. If it were that easy! “If… then” scenarios are often parents' attempts to utter a power word when in reality they are feeling helpless. There are probably few parents who never catch themselves trying to blackmail themselves like this, even in everyday life. But how do you change behavior that has been recognized as wrong but cannot be turned off?

Almost all parents decide again and again that they will never freak out again and often cannot prevent it. We read advice, draw up rules, make SOS calls in Internet forums, vow to get better - until it happens again. Why is it so difficult to curb our aggression towards our beloved children of all people and still often fail to enforce what is right and necessary?

A story told by a participant in my parenting workshop is an example of where the problems lie. Kerstin was at the airport with her daughters Anna, four, and Merle, one and a half (names changed). She had just checked in the suitcase, dragged the remaining bags to a row of seats and, exhausted, sat little Merle there, then looked around for the larger one. She had already walked far into the departure hall, although Kerstin had told her to stay close to her.

The mother regretted the sentence as soon as she had said it

Kerstin said to Merle: "Stay here, I'll be right back" and ran after them. She called, Anna ran faster. Kerstin was out of breath when she finally caught up with her. She grabbed Anna by the arm, looked around at Merle, who was climbing quite a distance from her seat, and hissed: "You're coming with me now!"

Anyone who has been alone with small children can imagine what happened next. Anna, stopped in her enthusiasm, struggled. Kerstin grabbed the kicking child and ran back to Merle before she disappeared somewhere in the crowd.

Another three quarters of an hour remained until check-in. Kerstin tried to keep her children busy. But Anna was still much too excited, wanted to run away again, tore herself away until Kerstin couldn't think of anything better than: "If you don't quiet down immediately, you can't sit by the window on the plane!"

She regretted the sentence as soon as she said it. On the outward flight Anna had looked out the window so fascinated that she had been quiet the entire time. Actually, Kerstin had counted on it for the return flight, but now she had scored an own goal with her threat. Of course Anna didn't give up now, and on the plane she went straight to the window. Angry and determined not to lose the last of her credibility, Kerstin pulled her up again and put her roughly in the aisle. Anna's screams were so bloodcurdling that a flight attendant stepped in and took the child back to her colleagues. The flight was quiet, but Kerstin could have howled. She felt like she had totally failed as a mother.

Children trigger feelings from our own childhood

To give a simple piece of advice here would be insufficient. Close relationships have the ability to activate old patterns in us that we have carefully hidden from ourselves. Our children, in particular, purposefully trigger feelings from our own childhood that we swore by: I never want to feel so helpless, hurt, fearful, sad again. We - like our parents, their parents, and so on - carry many such hidden injuries within us. But if we understand difficult situations as learning scenarios, we can heal them bit by bit and don't have to pass them on to our children.

Any horror scenario can become a learning situation if we become aware of our feelings. The key is to observe them instead of reacting to them, because then we will come back to our old patterns and nothing will change. When we observe, emotions often arise that we do not like to admit to ourselves.

When Kerstin became aware of the scene at the airport in the workshop, she discovered a deep dislike for her older daughter. She found her selfish, stubborn and mean to her little sister. Upon further investigation, it was found that, even as the eldest, she had never forgiven herself for how she treated her younger siblings as a child.

We all tend to run away from bad feelings. But that doesn't make them any smaller - on the contrary. When Kerstin was ready to feel her guilt and shame for her past behavior, what happened in the end always happens when you face feelings of guilt: They dissolve. Kerstin was able to forgive herself because she saw that she herself had been a child in need at the time. She even realized that her siblings had long since forgiven her. That changed her view of her daughter fundamentally.

Patterns of behavior are passed on from generation to generation

The next learning step concerned Kerstin's relationship with her mother. She realized that the main reason why she felt so helpless at the airport was that she didn't really want to be a mother - especially none like her own. She wanted to be some kind of friend. But she understood that a four-year-old child has no idea how to get back on the ground from a great excitement. It has to learn that first - from its mother. That doesn't mean that the mother is patronizing the child. It just means that she is ready to lead her child based on her greater life experience.

The last thing it turned out was that during the whole trip, Kerstin had the feeling of sacrificing herself because she had to do everything on her own. She lives separated from the father of her children. She realized that she was using everything that had gone wrong internally as an accusation, especially against her own father, whom she had always found absent. Not only that, she'd accepted that something might go wrong so she could blame him for her failure.

If we catch ourselves behaving like this, it is worth its weight in gold. Because at this moment we have a choice: Do I want to continue to suffer (and make my children hostage to my suffering) just to prove to father, mother or myself that they have behaved wrongly? In Kerstin's case, the decision was clear. After her subconscious conflicts were exposed, she could imagine taking full responsibility and safely leading her children through situations like the one at the airport.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Kerstin's problems are now gone once and for all. Becoming aware of our feelings and tracking where they come from and how we use them is a never-ending process. Inevitably, we keep coming across charges that we bring against our parents. These unconscious long-term complaints have the fatal effect of making us victims. We thereby deprive ourselves of our own freedom. When we are ready to face our feelings and feel them until they dissolve, we free ourselves, our parents and our children.

Susanna Nieder is responsible for the children's page of the Tagesspiegel. In addition, she is a coach with a focus on partner and parent-child relationships. This text appeared on the family page in the printed Tagesspiegel, every Wednesday in the Berlin section. You can find more texts here.

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