Break free of your childhood conditioning

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

You may think you’ve escaped the unspoken rules that operated in your family when you were a child. But that’s often not the case. Imagine you come home after many years’ absence overseas. Suddenly you’re back in the throes of old family dramas. But now you have teenage children of your own. You’re starting to feel the weight of expectations all over again. Can you break free of your childhood conditioning?

Still affected by unspoken rules?

So how do you know if you’re still affected by unspoken rules?

Perhaps family gatherings at your parents’ house have become more and more tense. You’re constantly jumping on your normally sensible teenagers to behave. If they challenge your parents, you just know there’ll be huge arguments.

Now you’ve started monitoring your children’s behaviour, to keep them quiet. 

You’ve slipped back into your old habits of following one of the unspoken rules that governed your childhood: “Never upset your parents.”

As a child, you were eternally vigilant, so you could head off any signs of your parents’ anger. And you tried to be the perfect child.

But you didn’t realise that even the best-behaved children often upset their parents.

That’s what children do.

With luck, most parents learn positive ways to deal with these hassles. Without being overbearing, they set firm limits around their children’s behaviour. If parents are patient and consistent in their approach, children know what to expect.

That way, children learn what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. This is a benign and helpful form of conditioning, that teaches children how to interact with others in a positive way. 

Intolerance of normal behaviour

But let’s imagine your parents couldn’t tolerate even mildly naughty behaviour. They didn’t see it as part of normal growth.

Instead, they saw it as deliberate rebellion that had to be stamped out. They had no idea how to cope, and were scared they’d lose control. So they had to get on top of this behaviour fast, any way they could.

Unfortunately, instead of learning parenting skills, they used emotional manipulation.

If you or your siblings “played up,” you were ignored for hours or even days.

Such cruel punishment negated you as a person. Being denied attention made you feel invisible, worthless, useless. Lonely and alone.

Finally, you’d plead for forgiveness. You’d do anything to be accepted back into the family circle.

So you learned to be compliant, and to do whatever it took to keep your parents happy. 

Recreating family dramas

Now family gatherings are recreating your childhood and teenage years.

When family conflict looms, you’re flooded with childhood emotions. You feel you have to stop your teenagers offending your parents at any cost.

But you’ve been away from your parents for years! You thought you’d got over all that emotional stuff. And yet you’re still affected by your childhood conditioning. 

Your old fears have reappeared, dressed up in a new form.

Old fears in a new form

You’re still terrified of what will happen if your children speak out of turn.

For example, your parents may disapprove of them. They may criticise you or your parenting style. And they’re not afraid of telling you what they think.

Worst of all, you fear they’ll cut you out of their lives. Whether they will do these things is another matter.

When you’re feeling anxious, you’re convinced they will. So to prevent possible problems, you silence your children.

Ironically, you’d swore you’d never act like this. You didn’t want to be like your own parents.

Strong emotions drive behaviour

From the outside, this all seems irrational. But others can’t see the unspoken rules you learned so well as a child.

All the emotions you felt then, are welling up inside you now. And it can also happen in any situation with similar dynamics.

It could be at work, with a boss who’s emotionally manipulative. Or with a friend who’s intolerant of any disagreement.

Break free of childhood conditioning

In effect, you’ve been conditioned to respond the way you do.

Up until now, though, you’ve had little conscious awareness of these processes. That’s why it’s been hard to change. And why your emotional reactions are still as strong, even after all these years.

And strong emotions can drive our behaviour, often in unhelpful ways. 

However, you can now decide to change how you react. You can choose to break free of your childhood conditioning.

Accept your parents’ limitations

In the above example, it’s not you or your teenagers who have the problem. Vigorous, respectful debate is usual in healthy families, and in society generally.

But your parents seem unable to accept any differences of opinion.

Remember – they’re adults and should be able to cope with disagreements. If they can’t, they need to work on this.

Unfortunately, they don’t see that they’re the ones with the problem. So it’s unlikely they’ll change now.

Accept reality

So it’s up to you to accept this reality. 

Your parents’ habit of getting their own way may be too ingrained. They don’t have much incentive to act any differently. And they lack insight into how their behaviour has affected others.

That’s disappointing – we all like to think our parents have our best interests at heart.

But it’s true that some people have low levels of empathy. That means they don’t recognise when they hurt others emotionally.

If that’s the case with your parents, it’s unlikely that the situation will change at all.

You can, as mentioned below, be assertive with them when they’re negative. However, they may not respond the way you’d like.

In that case, acknowledge your disappointment, and accept that that’s the way it is. It’s up to you to care for your own emotional welfare.

Now this may seem unfair. But to protect yourself, you’ll need to learn to react differently.

Start to break down childhood conditioning

Explain the situation to your children, so they understand what’s going on. Request that they don’t deliberately provoke conflict with your parents.

However, you can’t stifle their right – or your own – to respectful self-expression.

Your parents have choices too

If your parents decide that they want to get angry and upset, that’s their right.

As long as your children have been reasonable, none of you should feel guilty. You also don’t have to feel guilty if your parents cut contact due to annoyance.

They are choosing to act like this. They could have chosen to act more calmly, but they didn’t.

You may be hurt and disappointed, but you can deal with that. Of course, it’s sad your children won’t see their grandparents for a while. But they’ll survive as well.

That’s the way it is.

It’s not your fault

It’s not your fault that your parents’ perceptions are distorted. Perhaps they see disagreement as a lack of respect. But their version of “total respect” means everyone agreeing with them.

They also may believe they have the right to control what everyone thinks.

Are their beliefs reasonable?

Perhaps in feudal times, the paternal head of the household dictated what others could do and think. That’s not acceptable these days.

You can still treat your parents with respect, but not believe everything they believe.

Anyway, is it possible for everyone in the world to agree with your parents? And do your parents really know everything there is to know?

Just because your parents are older, doesn’t always mean they’re wiser. 

And exactly why should family members all agree with your parents all the time? Where’s the rule that says they must comply with what your parents want? Or that your parents should never be upset?

What’s more – are your parents good judges of what is and isn’t appropriate in today’s society? 

The world has changed

The rate of social change has accelerated beyond anything seen in the past.

Nowadays, it’s acceptable for people to disagree in a respectful manner. In other words, to calmly state opposing ideas, without being silenced or mocked. Younger generations express opinions on topics that were taboo even 20 years ago. 

Your parents may be overwhelmed and not able to adapt to all these changes. 

Challenge the “rules”

But you can choose to break free of your childhood conditioning and challenge the “rules.”

Why should you believe something, just because you’re told you should? Surely you have the right to decide if there’s credible evidence or not for a belief.

And anyway, why does disagreement always have to be negative? Perhaps we could all learn from discussing our differences more calmly.

The right to be listened to

So you and your family have the right to feel listened to.

If you disagree politely, and your parents choose to be offended, that’s their issue. 

And it’s true that what’s happening in your lives is different to your parents’ experiences. But maybe it would be helpful for them to see the world through your eyes, even for a short time. That means taking on board different perspectives to their own.

However as mentioned above, they may not be able or willing to do so. So how will you handle that?

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