As a tiny green space wizard once told his somewhat whiny pupil, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” And dang, if that’s not true of so many people whose parents modeled some really bad behavior.
Re-parenting is the process whereby an adult recognizes the poor example set for them as a child and breaks the patterns that have conceivably been repeating for generations. This kind of evolution is important for anyone’s personal growth, but becomes exponentially moreso when people become parents themselves: It is then that they must either recognize and change the bad lessons learned during childhood, or make all the same mistakes and doom their kids to the same experience.
Before we get into how it works, though, it’s worth pointing out that we’re not talking about the older — and much more controversial — definition of re-parenting. First developed in the 1960s by a therapist named Jacqui Lee Schiff, it used the principles of a form of therapy known as “transactional analysis,” which basically analyzes your social transactions throughout your life in order to see how it affects you as an adult. Schiff began a practice where patients would be regressed to a childlike state, then their therapist would role-play their parent, sometimes for a period of several years.
The practice didn’t last too long: While Schiff continued to believe in it, its efficacy was unprovable — the organization of therapists known as the Transactional Analysis Association would eventually disavow re-parenting when Schiff refused to have her work peer-reviewed. Ultimately, this form of re-parenting went the way of so many other forms of pop psychology (‘Primal Scream Therapy,’ e.g.) and was largely abandoned.
Nowadays, re-parenting is a good deal different: The patient themself does most of the work, hence modern re-parenting also being referred to as “self re-parenting.” It can be painful, since it may require you to revisit parts of your life that you’d rather not acknowledge, but by recognizing that your emotional growth was stunted through, say, some form of abuse, it allows you to finally grow out from the long shadow cast by your upbringing.
Nebulous as it may sound, love is the key to the success of this technique. As spiritual psychologist Joe Koelzer writes, “The main principle is to offer yourself unconditional love.” To anyone with even the mildest depression or anxiety, that probably already sounds like an insurmountable obstacle, but there are ways to approach it that don’t involve instantly loving everything about yourself. Therapist Veronica Acevedo suggests that role-playing may help — for example, staging conversations between yourself and your parent (or parents) in order to get to the root of issues and reframe them. This can even be effective if the parent in question is deceased — as grief counselor Amy Olshever explains, “This kind of role-play can provide a degree of catharsis.” You can even act out both sides by yourself if you’re not comfortable having your therapist stand in for your parent.
Of course, role-playing isn’t for everyone, so simply talking about these issues, realizing that what happened was wrong or neglectful and — and this part’s really important — understanding that you deserved better can also be helpful. By addressing these issues in whatever way you feel comfortable and accepting that you were, and are, worthy of being loved, you may be able to move forward.
This can all get a lot harder once you have your own kids, though, as tendencies you might not even be aware you have can start to come out. “When we talk about parenting, generally there’s this idea that we parent the way we were parented. The reason for that is that we’re not really trained how to be parents,” explains Theresa Russo, a professor in human development and family studies.
Russo explains that people often feel that parenting comes naturally, and to a degree it does: We’re social beings, which means we care about others in our species, leading us to nurture the way we were nurtured. But not all of us were nurtured, or at least, not correctly — there’s a whole spectrum of bad parenting that ranges from emotional neglect at one end to outright abuse at the other. So many people experience at least some form of bad behavior from their parents while growing up (a dad who never shows affection; a mom who takes out her own anger and depression on the kids; parents who scream at each other over the breakfast table and separately badmouth each other to the children later), and without learning to recognize your own triggers and patterns and reshaping them, you may be doomed to become the very parents whose influence you’ve spent your life trying to escape.
In no area does the idea of re-parenting become more prevalent than in the area of discipline. “We instinctively know how to take care of people, but we don’t really know how to discipline or how to set boundaries,” says Russo. What makes things harder is the fact that the “rules” behind discipline seem to change with each generation: 60 years ago, beating the hell out of your kid with a belt would have “done him good,” 30 years ago, spanking was a-okay. Nowadays, many parents are adamantly against violence as a means of disciplining a child (and with very good reason), but still struggle with disciplining kids for things like stealing, stubbornness, public temper tantrums and even just being a picky eater. In those moments of stress and frustration, it’s dishearteningly easy to find yourself echoing your parent’s response to similar situations.
This is why, to re-parent yourself as a parent, Russo says it’s going to take a deliberate level of awareness. “I don’t think everyone thinks about parenting,” she says. “A lot of people just do parenting.” To re-parent yourself effectively (and as a result, parent your own child effectively) requires thinking, self-reflection and a level of humility. Take dealing with a temper tantrum, for example: When met with a bellowing child, many parents may fall into the trap of yelling to put an end to it. This is a natural reaction: As Russo explains, so much of parenting is reactive because you’re reacting to a given situation and it’s just not possible to always be proactive. If you got yelled at a lot when you were a kid, you may naturally yell yourself in a moment of stress or anger.
But now, you want to break that cycle and avoid turning into the shaking, red-faced parent etched into your subconscious. When it comes to that temper tantrum, your natural inclination may be to fight fire with fire, but Russo says that it’s probably better to just walk away. “It’s an attention-seeking behavior and you’re giving attention — even if it’s negative attention, you’re giving attention. So not doing anything is the most neutral way to let it ride out and then talk about it later when things are calm,” Russo explains. Which isn’t to suggest there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to a toddler tantrum, but it’s certainly true that yelling will not only be the least helpful thing you can do, it’ll also make you feel awful afterwards.
Ultimately, it’s all about recognizing what’s happening in the moment and forcing yourself to rise above it. If that’s hard to do, or you find that things aren’t changing, Russo recommends journaling. By writing down what happened — including how it started, how you reacted and where it went — you can probably more objectively analyze where things went wrong. Once you’ve figured out the best approach, the key is to repeat the behavior until it becomes, if not your instinctive response, at least much easier to pivot to. Remember, the primary objective here isn’t, “better disciplining my kid,” it’s about analyzing yourself and recognizing your triggers. By doing so, the improved disciplining will naturally follow.
Also: You’re going to mess this up. Everyone is. No parent is ever perfect, so along with the humility it takes to recognize what mistakes you’ve inherited from your parents, it may also help to apologize to your child and talk things out later. By admitting that daddy shouldn’t have yelled, you’re teaching a child to own their own behavior, which is a vital part of being an emotionally mature adult. Russo cautions not to make it an empty, blaming apology, though, like, “I’m sorry I yelled, but you weren’t listening.” An apology like that is meaningless, since all it does is blame the child for your behavior, rather than owning your part in it. An apology like this just means you’ll repeat the pattern of yelling and more empty apologies.
Remember too that re-parenting isn’t about striving for perfection: As a parent, or even just a functional adult, it’s about finding a new path forward, a step toward a more satisfying, more hopeful future. It’s a lot of work and man, it doesn’t come naturally — indeed, the whole struggle is against what comes naturally. But with time, self-reflection and a Herculean effort of will, you really can unlearn those childhood lessons and teach yourself a whole new way of being you.
As that small green space wizard also once pointed out: “Control, control, you must learn control!”