Have you ever had one of those moments when something comes out of your mouth that doesn’t sound anything like you? You snap at your partner or scold your child, using words you never use or threats you’d never see through. Afterwards, you stand there stumped for a few seconds wondering, “Where did that come from?” Then, it hits you: You sound just like your mother or father.

For better or worse, many of our parents’ traits live on in us. This can be a good thing; qualities we liked in our parents help us take on characteristics we respect and admire. Unfortunately, on the flip side, negative traits in our parents, especially those that caused us misery, fear and frustration, can also linger in our psyche and impact our behavior. This is the case in moments of stress in our life that somehow remind us of our past and set off old triggers in us.

As you may imagine, scenarios that are reminiscent of our childhood are increasingly likely to arise when we ourselves become parents. We may not really remember how our dad used to snap on long car trips until our own kids start bickering in the backseat. We may not recall our mom teasing us when we cried until we find ourselves making a sarcastic comment to our own child when he or she gets fussy.

The good news is that by noticing these traits in ourselves, by identifying where they come from and by altering our behavior to match our own principles, we can differentiate from negative programming from our past. We can become more and more like the parent we want to be, not the ones who raised us, and there are several important steps in this process.

  • Observe your own reactions. You should try to notice interactions between you and your child that seem out of character or don’t represent a way you want to be. Do certain behaviors or situations trigger you? Does helping with homework spark an unusual amount of frustration or impatience? Do your child’s tantrums make you lose your temper? Think of the scenarios that lead to negative interactions between you and your child. Is there a pattern?
  • Ask yourself if you’re projecting your childhood onto your kids. To figure this out means becoming aware of how you yourself were parented. Were your parents impatient with you when it came to helping you with schoolwork? Were they overly pressuring, complacent or unsupportive? Did your parents ever “lose it” with you when you were having an emotional meltdown?
  • Make a narrative about your past. Telling your story, even to yourself, can help you understand your actions in the present and consciously decide how to move into your future. Reflecting on and putting together your story can be painful. Sad memories are sure to arise. The realization that your parents were human, and therefore, imperfect, can be tough to accept. We have a natural tendency to protect our parents. We even unconsciously identify with their critical attitudes toward us and often take on their disparaging points of view as our own.
  • It can feel threatening to separate from the people who we once relied on for care and safety. Yet, by having compassion for our child selves, we can extend this feeling to our children. We can differentiate from our parents’ less desirable attitudes and traits, while maintaining qualities that we admired in them.

    Once we make the connection between past events and our present behavior, and once we have feeling for ourselves and the struggles we endured, we become much stronger in our effort to challenge the negative traits we have as parents. We can question critical or indulgent attitudes and behaviors toward our children that don't seem to fit the situation. We can start to separate from the parents we don’t want to be and become the people we’d like our kids to one day imitate.

    Read More on Parenting from Dr. Lisa Firestone on PsychAlive.com.

    Dr. Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is the director of research and education for the Glendon Association. Since 1987, she has been involved in clinical training and applied research in suicide and violence. In collaboration with Dr. Robert Firestone, her studies resulted in the development of the Firestone Assessment of Self-Destructive Thoughts (FAST) and the Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts (FAVT). Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of the books: Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002) and Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003).