You’re having a lovely, Instagram-worthy day with your family until someone knocks over a pitcher of lemonade and you let loose a string of expletives. As you hug your child and beg forgiveness for your overreaction, you realize in horror that you’re becoming your mother.
Only you’re not becoming your mother. You already are your mother.
That’s the finding suggested by a recent review article published in Neuroscience. The article’s authors examined the available data on “adverse parenting styles,” both in animal and human populations, to determine how early-life experiences affect later-life mothering.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that how people are treated as kids impacts how they treat their own kids. This phenomenon, scientifically referred to as “intergenerational transmission of parenting,” stems from psychological, physiological, and perhaps even genetic factors.
Children’s early adversity led to psychological problems. They had lowered perceptual responsiveness; that is, they were more responsive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. They had impaired executive function, meaning that they were less successful at regulating their emotions and inhibitions. They experienced emotional dysfunction, meaning that they were more likely to experience depression and other mood disorders.
All of these psychological issues created barriers to good parenting. Parents who have lowered perceptual responsiveness may be inadequately prepared to respond to their baby’s stimuli. Parents who have poor emotional regulation may be more likely to lash out at their kids both verbally and physically. Parents who are depressed may be less effective caregivers.
The overall picture suggested by the research is that childhood adversity results in psychological and physiological changes that affect parenting later in life. In short, you’re not turning into your mother because you turned into her decades ago.
Childhood adversity can often result from societal pressures to low-income, low-education households. The review underscores what we already know: Address poverty and education and you can help alleviate early childhood adversity.
But the review also suggests that by focusing solely on the children, we only address half of the problem. The researchers promote “interventions that focus on parenting difficulties,” that is, addressing parents’ perceptual responsiveness, executive function, and emotional dysfunction, alongside other physiological factors.
One possible intervention is better education for parents. Many women take childbirth classes in order to prepare for birth. Those classes help prepare women for a single medical event, but not the surge of challenges that take place in the years to come.
Instead of placing our focus on child birth, perhaps our attention should shift to child rearing. In many cases, the resources are already available: Hospitals, community centers, regional parenting magazines, and even local schools all offer parenting courses that can help parents learn emotional behaviors that will help their children to thrive.