An important way your own childhood affects your parenting

Imagine this scene:  Your third-grader, standing before you with hands on hips, indignantly whines, “Mo-om!  You didn’t remember to add money to my lunch account!!  The lunch lady had to give me a special note today, and it was SO-OH EMBARASSING!  How FLAKY can you BE!?!”

How do you react?

a) You unappreciative little brat!  I pay for your lunch every day! And you got lunch today, didn’t you?! You have no right to get angry with me!”

b)  “Oh my goodness, I am so so sorry I embarrassed you, Sweetie.  It’s totally okay with me that you are being huffy with me right now, since I know I screwed up. How can I possibly make it up to you?”

c)I am sorry you had to be singled-out today; That must have been embarrassing.  However, just because I made a mistake does not mean I deserve to be spoken-to that way.  Try that statement again without the attitude this time.”

d)  “Ugh. I am such a moron.  But you don’t have to be such a brat about it!  Go away now; I don’t want to hear it.”

According to “Transactional Analysis”, our experiences in childhood are formative, and create one of four “life positions” that remain stable even in adulthood.  These life positions are reflected in every area of life, including parenting.  Here are the four “life positions” that one may adopt:

  1. ” I’m okay; You’re not okay” (depicted in answer “a” above)  This narcissistic worldview occurs when one has been placed in a position of superiority/put on a pedestal, with little accountability for viewing others’ perspectives.  It also could be adopted as a compensatory “life position” to stave off messages of inadequacy.
  2.  “I’m not okay; You’re okay” (depicted in answer “b” above)  This inferior/submissive worldview occurs when a person is exploited, mistreated, or manipulated by individuals that are otherwise respected and highly regarded.  I commonly see this worldview in children of addicts/alcoholics and victims of abuse who were expected to keep “public appearances” and “act like everything’s fine”  despite their suffering.  These individuals often feel an obligation to please others, and feel guilty if they disappoint.
  3.  “I’m okay; You’re okay” (depicted in answer “c” above)  This healthy worldview occurs when a person is respected while also held accountable for seeing the perspective of others.
  4.  “I’m not okay; You’re not okay” (depicted in answer “d” above)  This hopeless/hostile worldview occurs when a person is neglected or diminished by sources who are viewed as dysfunctional.  I commonly see this worldview adapted by trauma and abuse victims (when the abuse is generally understood to be unacceptable as opposed to minimized and brushed under the rug).  These individuals are often controlling and judgmental/critical, (of themselves and others) and expect themselves and others to adhere to rigid “shoulds.”

Of course, the “healthy” goal is to view both ourselves and others as “okay.”  A parent who tends to view himself as “not okay,” may allow a child to walk all over him (or even bully him), thereby missing opportunities to teach his child how to respect the perspectives of others.  A parent who tends to view others as “not okay,” may miss opportunities to instill the message that the child’s own viewpoints and perspectives are “okay.”

My mom's childhood taught her that she's okay AND I'm okay, so she lets me wear this mask the way I want.

My mom’s childhood taught her that I’m okay AND she’s okay, so she accepts my love of upside down masks and no pants.  As long as I don’t run over her in my Bat-Mobile.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help both types of parents to understand and discontinue automatic ways of behaving.  Helpful strategies for the parent that thinks (s)he is “not okay” include practicing assertiveness, self-validation, and cognitive reframing to quell pointless guilt/excessive responsibility for the feelings of others.  Helpful strategies for the parent that thinks others are “not okay” include practicing validating others, empathy, and  cognitive reframing to challenge overly controlling/critical tendencies.

As usual, my goal is simply to offer you something to think about!


This psychologist who loves psychological theories, but, if she’s honest, has to admit real people rarely fit that easily into categories, since she herself answered “a little bit of B and a little bit of C.” 🙂


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