It may come as a surprise, but one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to reflect on your own upbringing. The 2 books we review in this article, Growing yourself up: Bringing your best to all of life’s relationships by Jenny Brown and The book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad that you did) by Philippa Perry, argue that we inherit a lot from our parents. We get a lot of their strengths, but we also get a lot of their emotional immaturities.
These immaturities pass from generation to generation, and people are emotionally programmed to be just about as emotionally mature as their parents. Because of this, parents have very little control over how emotionally mature they become. The programming usually starts with an overly close relationship between a child and a mother.
This eventually generates a lot of relationship tension, either resulting in a child who is overly compliant and loses their self, or a child who is overly rebellious. In either case, the child feels very dependent on their parents, but feels emotionally distant from them. They end up feeling that they didn’t get what they needed from their parents.
When the child reaches adulthood, a common reaction is to cut off emotionally from their parents to some extent, either moving away physically or staying close by but being superficial in their interactions. They will also pretend to be strong and go off and create their own family, feeling extremely driven to give their own kids plenty of love and nurturing—what they felt they missed out on from their parents.
However, what you might not realize is your parents probably had great intentions too, and the real problem isn’t a lack of love, but a lack of emotional maturity. The more emotional immaturity is passed down from each generation, the more tension is generated in family relationships, and the more alienated family members will feel from one another. When a new generation blames their problems on parents, they fail to see the real problem and as a result, fail to see how they may be repeating exactly what their parents did.
Do you see how this can turn into a vicious cycle? The key to stopping the cycle is to stop blaming your parents and see that the real problem isn’t a lack of love, but a lack of emotional maturity.
In this article, we will review two books that are aimed at helping you to break the cycle of emotional immaturity in your family. First, Elizabeth Miller reviews Growing yourself up: Bringing your best to all of life’s relationships by Jenny Brown. Next, David Easton reviews The book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad that you did) by Philippa Perry.
Growing yourself up: Bringing your best to all of life’s relationships by Jenny Brown
I think this is probably one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Its ideas are presented in a simple, straightforward way that can be applied by anyone who wants to become more emotionally mature in their relationships.
Brown’s book focuses on how the families we grow up in largely affect our level of emotional maturity. She explains that getting beyond blaming our parents and growing up ourselves is necessary to have healthy adult relationships.
Key takeaways from the book
I believe the most important ideas from Brown’s book on how to become more emotionally mature are to focus on yourself, see the patterns, and take responsibility for your happiness.
Focus on yourself
Brown argues that the only way to really grow up is to focus on yourself—soothing your own anxieties, confronting your own weaknesses, and speaking for yourself. This is the opposite of what most of us do, which is to expect others to soothe us, focus on others’ weaknesses, and fail to say what we really believe to avoid conflict. This focus on self is not selfish, rather, it strengthens you and makes you more capable of being truly compassionate in your relationships with others.
Some people may be hesitant to focus on themselves instead of others because they think that it will allow others to walk all over them. But actually, focusing on yourself gives you the ability to stand up for yourself on important matters. It allows you to know who you are, know your boundaries, and have the personal strength to express them clearly, calmly, and respectfully.
One caveat to this is that focusing on yourself is not the same thing as taking all of the blame. Self-blame is an immature response to relationship conflict, usually borne out of a “peace at any price” mentality, in which relationship harmony is valued over one’s principles. Being a responsible self means to be responsible for what you truly are responsible for—holding yourself responsible for others just generates more anxiety and tension in the relationship.
Another reason we are hesitant to focus on ourselves is that we think it lets others off the hook. We might think that if we don’t point out the other person’s shortcomings, they won’t change. But in actuality, focusing on the other person’s flaws makes it more difficult for them to change. It is a futile effort that only brings about an endless cycle of defensiveness and blame. Instead, focusing inward interrupts this cycle and creates an environment that is conducive to more mature interactions, making it easier for the other person to also focus inward and behave more maturely.
See the patterns
The next main idea that I got from Brown’s book is the importance of seeing relationships as they truly are, not as linear interactions, but as circular ones. One person doesn’t cause changes in another, and vice versa. Each participates in a reciprocal interaction, in which one person’s behavior is both influencing and influenced by the other person’s behavior. Seeing things this way helps you to see that in our interactions, both people contribute equally to the emotional tone of the interaction.
The really great thing about this is that if one person changes their part in the interaction, the interaction changes completely. An interaction can shift from an interaction filled with blame and defensiveness to a productive and respectful conversation.
If 2 people aren’t able to do this, and instead just continue reacting to each other emotionally, they fall into dysfunctional patterns of interaction. There are 4 universal patterns:
- distancing to avoid problems,
- giving up who you are for harmony,
- focusing on someone else (usually a child) in an over-positive or over-negative way to relieve relationship tension.
Being able to see how you are contributing to these patterns gives you a more objective, bird’s eye view of the patterns going on in your relationships so that you can stop getting caught up in them.
Take responsibility for your happiness
The last idea that I really loved from Brown’s book was that a happy relationship doesn’t come from seeking fulfillment in each other, but growing side by side. This is such a unique approach to relationship happiness. The more you focus on improving the relationship and getting the other to make you happy, the less fulfilling that relationship will be. But the more you focus on improving yourself and looking to yourself for happiness, the more fulfilling your relationship can be. It can be less of something that you need to fill you and more of something that you and your partner fill together.
How does this apply to the parent-child relationship?
Each of these ideas can apply to both marriage and parenting relationships, but because the parent-child relationship is so unique, it’s necessary to address it separately. Brown explains that unless we focus on growing up ourselves, we can fall into using our relationship with our child to fill in our own gaps.
She further explains that the task of focusing on ourselves rather than our children is becoming more and more difficult. Society is very overfocused on the rising generation, and is pressuring parents to give more and more of their time and energy to rearing their children. This is a problem, according to Brown, because it can result in very anxious, over-involved parents who unwittingly create problems in their relationships with their children. This over-focus on creating happy, healthy children is problematic for a few reasons:
- Parents are so focused on their children that they fail to focus on themselves and grow up emotionally. As a result, they parent from the emotion of the moment, having knee-jerk reactions to children rather than well-thought-out actions (either in the form of permissiveness or being overly controlling)
- Parents have an idealized expectation of perfect harmony with their child, and if the child reacts with non-compliance, they will likely feel threatened and react in a controlling manner and the child can become rebellious.
- Parents have an idealized expectation of perfect harmony with their child, and if the child reacts with compliance, they will have a smothering relationship with the child and the child will fail to develop into a separate self.
One major reason we parents over-focus on our children, either negatively or positively, is because of an overflow of anxiety from another relationship. So resolving these other relationship tensions can help you to have a more proportionate relationship with your child. Additionally, simply knowing what a healthy connection vs. an overly-close connection looks like can help you to identify how you may be contributing to an overly-close connection with your child and know how to make it more balanced.
In a healthy connection, each person:
enjoys both time together and time apart; treats each other with warmth and respect; displays acts of kindness and affection; tolerates the other being upset with them; is able to have disagreements without breaking the relationship; takes responsibility for their actions; responds thoughtfully.
Conversely, in an exaggerated connection, each person may:
feel uncomfortable with separation; need the other to be happy with them all the time; expect the other to make them feel good; stay silent on their view because of fear of conflict; mind-read or speak for the other; think more about the relationship than their own responsibilities; respond anxiously.
Brown also clarifies how you can parent in an emotionally mature way. She explains that techniques such as rewards and punishments can be effective in getting children to behave, but cannot help children to develop an “inner, thinking guidance system.” She says you can encourage this by clarifying your own values and not wavering on them.
You can do this by using the “I position,” stating what you will do, rather than what you want your children to do. However, she also warns that there is no magic in simply using the right language—the magic comes when you truly have an inner conviction and is willing to put it into action.
In sum, Brown’s book puts forward some very useful and unique ideas that can help parents strengthen all of their relationships.
The book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad that you did) by Philippa Perry
This book literally changed the way I parent in the week or so it took me to read. It was recommended to me by my sister, one of the greatest moms I know, and, as a family member, one of the only people who could get away with recommending a book telling me how to be a better parent.
It is probably by now already obvious that I loved this book. But, viewer discretion advised, be warned that you may at times find it an emotionally challenging read, and the clue as to why is in the book’s title, in particular, the part about you wishing your parents had read it.
Because yes, this book will make you think hard about your own upbringing. It will shed a new light on why certain behaviors in your child(ren) trigger certain responses in you (for example my wife has no problem listening to our 2 year old be a total whineocerous, whereas I cannot bear it for any more than a minute or two).
It will make you see those responses in a fresh light and better understand where they are coming from. Perry’s convincing hypothesis is that the chances are good that you are simply replicating the reaction your own parents had to that cannot-bear-it behavior your child is using to ruin your morning coffee.
Coming to these realizations, the recognition of the fallibility of your own parents, may be hard at times. But don’t let this put you off the book, because it’s also an intensely rewarding process, thanks in the most part to the totally judgment-free tone Perry adopts throughout. Her aim is to break this cycle of reproduced parental behaviors, not to tell you your parents are to blame for who you are, or who your children are going to be.
Perry is a psychotherapist with 20 years experience and has written several other books on raising children. She is also a parent, and frequently references mistakes she herself made with her own daughter in the book, so you’re in pretty good company.
Why I loved this book
So here are the top 3 reasons why I loved it so much:
- The book is totally forgiving about the mistakes you might be making as a parent. We’re all doing our best, but we’re also all human, and that means we’re all making mistakes too. I know I was. Correction: am. But Perry doesn’t want you to think about yourself as a parent making mistakes. She wants to think of yourself as a parent who wants to do better, and who believes that you can.
- The book is really practical with a ton of great examples to explain each point. You’re not left thinking, “Well great, that’s a good bit of scientific theorizing, but I have no idea what I should actually do differently.” Instead, Perry uses real examples from her experiences with her psychotherapy clients so that every point hits home.
- The book is rooted in science. This isn’t just one person’s great ideas. It’s a compilation of well-presented, clearly-explained scientific research into aspects of child psychology that many of us just don’t have time to think about in the day-to-day chaos of oatmeal cemented to the floor and small objects ending up where they definitely don’t belong.
Top takeaways from the book
So what is Perry advocating? Well, there are a lot of things, but fundamentally it comes down to 3 great strategies for having happier kids.
Know how to “rupture and repair”
As parents, we ARE stressed, time-poor, and yes, maybe even a little unhappy. And inevitably, from time to time, we direct that stress at our children when they’re acting up, even if they have no idea what they’re doing is wrong.
Perry returns to this concept again and again and with good reason. Because let’s be honest, children would be much less stressed, much easier to manage, and much happier if we ourselves were less stressed, happier, had more time…etc.
This is where rupture and repair comes in. Perry’s approach recommends acknowledging to your child your unjustified losses of temper and even (gulp) apologizing for them. This may feel intuitively inappropriate somehow, like you’re showing a weakness that your little tyrant will forever exploit.
But the idea is simple, and, according to the examples cited in the book, highly effective. By modelling self-reflection and righting a wrong, you are in essence teaching your child to do the same. Perry calls it “an experiment…creating a new link in the emotional family chain.”
Realize this isn’t a match-up
One of the fundamental objectives of Perry’s book is to break down the idea that the parent-child relationship is somehow adversarial. She argues that you get much better outcomes when you move past that idea.
Of course, small children in particular can be incredibly strong-willed, and need boundaries to understand what is and is not acceptable. But it’s the way in which those boundaries are laid out and explained that is different in Perry’s book.
Many parents, myself included, see disciplining as a key parenting skill, and something essential to raising socially acceptable humans. However, that’s only true if it’s done right. Discipline can often tip over into “telling off,” which might feel right in the moment, but, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced, usually just makes things 100 times worse.
Instead, Perry recommends something incredibly simple (but also at times pretty difficult): when things go south, try to figure out what to do next with your child, not against them. Realize that you are getting to know each other, that it’s a gradual process that will take years, and that they are an autonomous unique person with their own way of seeing things.
So, set your boundary. Explain it to your child. And ask them “What can we do about this?” I’ve tried it, and while it won’t be the right approach in every situation, you’ll be amazed at how understanding and creative you can be together by taking this approach.
Acknowledge and respect feelings
I’m British, and everything you’ve heard about our attachment to the “stiff upper lip” is, I regret to say, true. We Brits are not generally an emotionally literate group of people. So learning how to understand and talk about feelings is something that parenting forced me to get better at.
Perry talks about “feeling with, not dealing with,” particularly in going through moments of unruliness with your child. How often have you heard yourself saying something like “Don’t be silly, it’s just a little (insert grievance here)”?
This “pull yourself together” approach is totally understandable; we’re often in a rush and a major tantrum over something we don’t consider to be a big deal can be exasperating. What Perry’s book taught me is that it’s so easy to miss something that, to your child, is a big deal.
So instead of the don’t-be-silly-pull-yourself-together approach, try to be with your child in that moment of distress. Help them to describe how they are feeling. So try, “You feel sad because someone else is sitting where you like to sit” and then help them to understand why it’s ok, that there are other places to sit after all.
Perry’s approach reveals the enormous gift we are giving our children by helping them to understand and describe how they are feeling at any given moment. Even better, it helps to de-escalate tantrums much faster than yelling “STOP IT” ever will.
This book is full of amazing and simple ways to make the stress of parenting a little easier, but it’s also a lot more than that: it’s a little journey of self-discovery which may just make all of your life better, not just the parenting bit. It’s a great read from beginning to end, but also a reference book you’ll want to go back to again and again.
So when was the last time you caught yourself treating your kids exactly how you hated being treated when you were little? If you want to break that cycle, then this book is for you.