Families are at the center of the beginning of a new age. An age of change, change in how we parent, how we partner, and how we see each other. We call them the cycle breakers.
Gone are the days of the “Leave it to Beaver” days of the “perfect” nuclear family. Family relationships, family traditions, roles, and how we discipline our children are being questioned, reframed, and redesigned into new roles and customs. At the heart of this change is a cycle-breaker.
Consciously choose to be a cycle-breaking parents
Dysfunctional family patterns and sometimes damaging ways of parenting are often passed down generation after generation. I believe the previous generations did their best, given the information and emotional resources they had at the time.
A cycle-breaker is a parent who evaluates the way they were parented, keeps what was positive, and lets go of the negative, choosing instead to consciously parent in an emotionally healthy and connected way. Cycle-breaking may require a profound change from the way your parents parented you.
I want to take a moment and acknowledge everyone who decides to consciously and deliberately chose to take on the cycle-breaker role for their family. This may be an epic battle. You are taking on the massive challenge of giving your children something never given to you.
Picture with me: picture yourself standing with and looking at all the generations who came before you. Being a cycle-breaker is much more than changing how we were parented.
There are generations of parents that came before. There were your parents, then their parents, and their parent, on and on through multiple generations. You and your partner may be the first people in your family to say. We choose to parent in a different way. We are not parenting through fear and control. We are going to parent differently through love and connection.
Now feel the weight and the pressure of all the generations before you. Picture you and your partner putting your hands up toward all of them and saying thank you for doing your best with the resources you had. Dysfunctional and/or damaging parenting patterns stop with us. Toxic parents stop with us. We choose to parent in a loving and connected way.
“It takes courage to step outside the norm within a family system; there can be ridicule, criticism, and judgment. As others in the family might be scared of this change in a family member,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Nurick.
Recognize dysfunctional patterns
Being a cycle breaker starts with recognizing old beliefs and patterns our parents wired into us that caused us to adapt to survive in our family of origin. Things we struggle with today are adaptions from our childhood that were necessary for survival.
What are some of the attitudes and traits you see in your family handed down through the generations? Attitudes that may be damaging or dysfunctional
For example, the belief or attitude of:
- Every person for themselves.
- Spare the rod and spoil the child. I spanked you, and you turned out ok, didn’t you?
- Nobody outside of the family can be trusted.
- Self-worth in your family of origin is determined by what? Making lots of money? Always working hard? Is self-care demonized as being lazy? Putting the need of others first is a badge of honor?
- Do disagreements or differing opinions lead to heated or violent arguments rather than honoring someone’s viewpoint?
- Are your boundaries seen as a betrayal to your family of origin due to intolerance of a different way of parenting?
These are just a few of the many beliefs and attitudes we keep repeating unless we consciously choose to evaluate and change them.
Deciding to parent differently than you were parented involves not just deciding what you want to change. Rather reparenting or nurturing yourself in a way that allows you to rewire and give yourself what you needed and didn’t receive from your parents. Neuroscience research has shown that Neuroplasticity lets us take apart neuropathways that no longer serve us and rewire our brains and bodies with new, healthy pathways. You are never too old to unwire and rewire for your personal growth and well-being.
Attachment theory says that we adapt our behaviors to help us stay close to our caregivers. Evolutionarily our survival was dependent on staying close to our parents. So we learned to shut down behaviors and actions that got us sent to our room, put in timeout, or left in aloneness through criticism and contempt.
As an adult, many of those behaviors may be what we struggle with today. They may no longer serve us but were adaptive for us to survive in our family systems. When you are triggered or struggle with a negative sensation or feeling in your body, these struggles may be clues that this is a part of you that didn’t get a need met. You can now give that part of yourself what you need.
Let’s suppose your parents taught you to feel responsible for their feelings of anger when you did something they didn’t like. This circuit says, “when my parent has big negative feelings, it’s my fault.” As a child, this felt unfair and made you angry. You may have developed a voice to yell at your younger self to shut down the anger because your anger got you isolation and separation from your caregiver, thus threatening your survival.
For example, When you tell your child screen time is over, they burst into tears that rapidly escalate into dysregulation. You are triggered, yell at them and send them to their room. That same voice that you developed to shut down your big feelings is the voice that is yelling at your child now. It’s a brave step to abandon the cycle of being an angry parent.
Instead of trying to shrink those big emotions in your child by yelling, nurture the part of you that learns to tolerate those big emotions your child is experiencing today.
How? The answer is through AVA.
Acknowledge, Validate, Allow.
- First: Pause and Acknowledge the feelings. Acknowledgment is the process of naming the feeling you are experiencing, for example, “I feel angry and uncomfortable that my child is dysregulated because I said screen time is over.”
- Second: Validate the feeling; validation is telling yourself the story behind the feelings you are experiencing. For example, “it makes sense that I would feel this way because I had to shut down my big emotions instead of learning to tolerate them. I now have difficulty tolerating my child’s big emotions because I said screen time is over.”
- Third: Allow the feeling, “It is ok for me to feel this way. I can allow and let myself feel all the feelings within me. I do not need to react to or try to get rid of these feelings. Feelings are just feelings. It’s ok to let them roll over me. Letting yourself have and feel all the feelings that were shut down or you lost access to may initially feel overwhelming.
Be patient. Reparenting may take a long time. Seek professional help if you cannot stop repeating damaging or dangerous patterns from your past.
Give yourself grace
When you said this dysfunctional or damaging parenting pattern stops with me, you are a cycle-breaker. Being a cycle breaker doesn’t mean you have to do something different every time you are triggered or an old unhealthy pattern arises.
Let’s reset the expectation that you must do something different every time to be a cycle-breaker. For example, you may feel that you aren’t a cycle-breaker when you yell at your child. However, when you go back and repair, you are a cycle-breaker. That’s right, even though you yelled at your child, the fact that you now know to repair moves you into the category of cycle-breaker. I am not encouraging you to yell at your child or saying it is okay to yell at your child as long as you repair it. The shift that lets you be a cycle-breaker occurs through your insight and conscious decision to repair after you yell at your child.
You are human; you have all the daily stressors of your life plus the old, generational patterns you are reacting to in your body. So, of course, there are going to be moments when you catch yourself doing the things that your parents did, and you say to yourself, “no, I wanted to do anything but that!” Pause, take a deep breath, and remind yourself, “I am as much a cycle breaker now as I was yesterday when I stayed calm and didn’t yell at my child.” Give yourself Grace.
Think of the generations before, as if each has written a chapter in your family’s parenting book. Cycle-breaking is when you take that massive book and put it way up on the top shelf, in the back of the bookcase. You start a new book of loving, connected parenting for your family. You might occasionally forget and begin to write a chapter in the old book. However, because you are a cycle-breaker, you are repairing your relationship with your child every time you stop, catch yourself, put the book away, and finish the chapter in the new book. As you repair the inevitable ruptures with your child, they learn new behaviors. You stand at the beginning of a new age for your future grandchildren and their future generations. The day will come when the memories of the old book are not just forgotten but gone altogether.
After you yelled at your child, you can open the new book and repair it by saying, “I yelled at you and said some things I wish I hadn’t said. That probably felt really scary to you. When I yell, you didn’t cause it; you didn’t make that happen; it isn’t your fault; you are a good kid who was having a hard time. I am working on my big emotions and my ability to stay calm. I’m sorry I yelled, and I will keep working on that. I’m here for you, and if you want to tell me what that was like for you when I yelled, I’ll listen.” You added connection, compassion, and safety to a moment that felt scary and alone to your child. When you were a child and your parents yelled at you, that likely left you feeling scared and alone. It wasn’t the fact they yelled at you, but the fact that they never followed it up with a repair. You end the chapter differently for your child when you yell or mess up and repair. You are cycle-breaking every time you do this. These words may be as much for your inner child as for your child.
Honor your parents without repeating your past
Your parents may have strong opinions about how you are parenting and may choose to express their views in front of your children and their grandchildren.
Remember, their opinions are based on their perspective, and it’s important to honor their perspective and not deny it. They parented you based on the emotional resources they had at the time. You can choose to honor them and their perspective and respect those differences while still setting and holding a firm boundary for when and where you will discuss the parenting differences.
Let’s suppose you struggle with your parents becoming defensive when they see you choose to parent their grandchildren differently than they parented you. You decide you want to have a conversation with them to discuss your parenting differences and address their defensive posture. How might that conversation sound?
“Mom, Dad, I want to talk to you about how I choose to parent my children that is different from how you parented me. I’ve noticed that many things feel tricky and hard for both of us to discuss when we talk about this. Our discussions tend to lead to conflict and arguments. I understand how hard it is for you to watch me make different parenting choices. I believe that you wanted the best for me when I was growing up. I want us to have a discussion where we listen to and respect others’ reasons for doing things differently without feeling like we have to defend or justify our parenting decisions. I would love to get to a place where we have a conversation, and when we disagree, we say, ‘we do things differently, that’s ok.’ No one has to be bad or good, right or wrong. I would like to find a way to talk without having to prove anything to each other. Can we do this together?”
Will it be uncomfortable? Yes. Holding that boundary to have a conversation without blame, shame, or criticism is uncomfortable. The goal isn’t to eliminate the discomfort but to learn to tolerate it during those conversations with your parents as you shift the focus from being right or wrong to collaborating on what is best for your children. If the challenge of these conversations feels like to much you may choose to initially put some distance in the relationship. You may also consider seeking the help of a trained, licensed therapist. But remember, you can do it!
Make time for self-care
Being a cycle-breaker means you don’t have to keep sacrificing yourself for others.
Remember, Self-Care isn’t Selfish. It is the opposite. Self-care is prioritizing your physical, mental, and emotional health so you can have the energy to be a cycle-breaker and deal with daily life tasks. Self-care is how you show yourself that you are worthy and valuable. It is the antidote for it all.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” quote Joseph Fleming.