We Parent How We Were Parented

December 15, 2022

Something that I’m consistently made aware of as a child and adolescent therapist and working with their parents is that we parent how we were parented. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a “bad” kid, OR a “bad” parent.

Being a parent is the hardest job in the world. As a parent you are the leader of the household, and you carry a LOT of responsibility. Your children look to you to provide shelter, nutrition, safety, and love.

While being a parent and having the massive responsibility that comes along with it, you are also inevitably triggered by your child’s behavior. For example, when your child has a meltdown and begins to throw items around the house, you are triggered. When your child is having big emotions and they begin to hit, bite, scratch, kick, etc., you are triggered. When your child tells you that you are a “lousy parent”, you are triggered. When your child asks you where a loved one is who is no longer a part of your lives, you are triggered. When your child pushes their sibling around and refuses to share, you are triggered.

How do you handle those situations? The most likely answer is that you yell and punish the child. Why? Because you are trying your best to teach them what is appropriate and what is not. Also, because you are triggered and losing patience (understandably so). And finally, because this is probably how your parents parented you.

When we feel triggered, we act on high emotions rather than trying to understand the child’s behavior and what they need in that moment. What is natural to us is to parent our children the way that our parents parented us. This is what we know. However, sometimes there are things that can be adjusted.

Avoiding Shame

Something that I see a lot, not only in my practice but also with the general public, is that parents tend to use shame as a way of disciplining their children. What does this look like? This can be phrases such as, “how could you let this happen?!”, “you know better”, “why is this so hard for you?!”, “you are so difficult”. It can look like the parent yelling at the child and wagging a finger in their face, or the parent walking away from the child without any conversation about repair.

Shame is the most distressing emotion we can feel as humans. Shame tells us that we’re not good enough. Shaming a child into appropriate behavior will cause the child to feel unheard, unimportant, and that their feelings don’t matter. This leads to a bigger disconnect between you and your child, which then causes more difficult behavior.

What can help YOU have more patience and understanding towards your child during high stress moments is trying to separate the behavior from the child. If the child is behaving inappropriately, they are trying to COMMUNICATE their needs. Children don’t always know how to ask or tell us what they need, so instead they communicate through their behavior. It is our job as caregivers to TEACH them how to communicate appropriately. Kids are always learning. Their brains are under construction all the time. So, if we try to separate the behavior from the child, we can find more patience within ourselves to be able to teach them right from wrong.

Attention vs Connection

When a child acts out, people often say, “oh, they’re just doing that for attention”. The word attention has a negative connotation with it. When we think of attention, we think that it is for selfish reasons. However, the child is not misbehaving for attention; they are misbehaving for connection. When your child has a meltdown, they aren’t doing this for attention or to make you mad. They are doing it because they need connection, and they have a need that they are trying to get met.

How to Connect

So, you may be wondering how can you not yell, punish, shame, and lose your patience…

First, I encourage you to take a deep breath. Take care of yourself so you can be there for your child. Pause for a moment and think about you can effectively communicate with your child.

Second, listen to your child. Get down on their level, use a soft tone of voice, and make eye contact.

Third, reflect to them their feelings. This looks like saying, “I can see that you’re feeling really mad right now”, or “You’re feeling sad”, “that upset you”. Simply reflect what emotion they are feeling. It’s OK if you say the wrong emotion, the child will correct you.

Fourth, validate the child’s feeling and experience. This looks like saying, “I understand”, “I hear you”, “I see you”, “If that happened to me, I’d be mad too”. This helps the child feel understood by you.

Fifth, set the limit. This looks like saying, “AND it’s not ok to yell at me like that”, “AND it’s not okay to hit others”, “AND it’s not ok to steal your sister’s toys”. Using the word “and” helps to connect the limit to the feeling. When we use the word “but”, we invalidate the other person’s emotions and experience, and we want to do the opposite.

Sixth, offer an alternative. This looks like saying, “Next time you need me, tap me on the shoulder like this” and show them, “You can hit this pillow instead” and show them, “What else can you play with until your sister is done playing with that toy?” and pick out a toy if needed. It is important not to inhibit their attempt to express themselves. Find an alternative that you are okay with.

Seventh, sit with them. This isn’t always possible. But, if you can sit with them, continue to talk to them and breathe deeply you will help your child regulate their emotions. If you are calm, your child will become calm as well. This is also known as co-regulation.

Additional phrases that you can use here are…

“It looks like your feelings are in control of your body.”

“I’m here for you.”

“How can I help you?”

“Mom is going to finish dinner, I will be in the kitchen if you need me.”

“I love you.”

“I want to help you. Can you show me how I can help?”

“It’s ok to have big feelings”

“You are having a hard day. I have hard days too.”

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that managing difficult behavior with your child is not easy. I know that during times of high stress it isn’t always possible to stay calm. That’s ok! Parents are humans who make mistakes just like kids. If you are a parent reading this, I encourage you to give yourself grace and be patient with yourself! The best thing you can do after you lose your temper is to apologize to your child and accept responsibility for whatever mistake was made. You are NOT a bad parent! You are doing the best that you can.

Below is an infographic that help outline the steps in managing difficult behavior. Feel free to save, print, and share!

managing your child's difficult behavior


Axline, V. M. (1981). Play Therapy: The Groundbreaking Book That Has Become a Vital Tool in the Growth and Development of Children. Penguin Random House.

Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship. Brunner-Routledge.

Written By: Ellen Meystedt, LPC-A Supervised by Karen Burke LPC-S


Past Posts

Contact Us

We’re here to help you transform you life!