I’m Learning To Be The Parent My Children Need, Not The One I Wish I Had


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“I don’t like it when you compliment me all the time,” my then four-year-old daughter told me in response to my consistent affirmations of her hair. I was taken aback.

During childhood, I wanted someone to tell me I was beautiful more than anything. I couldn’t comprehend why my daughter would refuse reminders and affirmations of her beauty. A lack of confidence and other unmet needs were the core of my determination to raise children who felt affirmed holistically; but her needs conflicted with my traumas and triggered my ego as someone who was raised to see “talking back” and challenging a parent’s absolute authority as disrespectful. I didn’t believe she was wrong, but I hadn’t expected such a visceral reaction to her asserting her own needs (or for the process to start so early).

The moment forced me to see that much of my parenting strategy was rooted in my unmet needs, not my children’s best interests. I shared my experience and reaction online, and hundreds of comments told stories of folks who were affirmed based on their assumed needs instead of authentic ones.

Addressing Their Needs Vs Hiding Behind Yours

Amber Thornton, a licensed clinical psychologist and host of the Dr. Amber’s Know and Grow Podcast, says sometimes aiming to “meet our children’s needs” is about fulfilling a need of our own, and if we’re not careful, we can miss our children’s actual needs.

“We often assume that our children will be similar to us or have similar needs, but that is not always the case,” says Thornton, noting unmet childhood needs can be loud, demanding, and all-consuming. “An over-focus on our own doesn’t allow us the mental and emotional capacity to learn and understand our child’s unique needs because you are basing your parenting off of what you wished you had or hoped you could have.”

Thornton says our unmet childhood needs can go beyond helpful clues to behaviors that overshadow our children’s needs if we are not careful. Of course, there are foundational qualities we should bring to our parenting, like ensuring kids are safe, loved, and provided for, but the specifics of how and what makes a child feel loved vary. It won’t always align with what we need as children.

Throughout my parenting journey, my trauma has had plenty of time in the driver’s seat. It told me, “If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready,” and that I needed a strategy to keep my children close and curate all of their experiences. My husband and I agreed raising them to advocate for themselves directly was central to their well-being, even when we disagreed on execution. But I regularly entertained a host of anxiety-based “what if” scenarios of the horrors waiting if I didn’t prepare my children for everything I’d experienced. I hadn’t realized I could push them further away in my hopes to keep them safe.

Signs You’re Parenting From Unmet Needs 

Jasmine Price, a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in intergenerational historical trauma and its impact on lineage, parenting, and trauma responses, says when our inner child is triggered, we do whatever is necessary to soothe them, even if it goes against our child’s needs. She highlights how prioritizing our traumas surfaces in parenting, saying it shows up as overprotectiveness, hypervigilance, emotional reactivity, difficulty recognizing and validating a child’s needs, and avoidance and detachment, even if the desire to connect is there.

“Despite efforts to self-soothe, these behaviors can have a long-term impact on the parent-child relationship—notably, the intergenerational transmission of trauma,” says Price. 

I’ve seen these qualities in my parenting behaviors. I wanted to feel protected more than anything as a child. There were many moments when I felt alone and wanted someone, especially my parents, to intercede. When they couldn’t, I became anxious and conflict avoidant. To protect my children from this feeling, I would step up to advocate for them quickly, handling any situation as soon as I was aware. However, I realized that behavior unintentionally silences them and becomes a barrier to owning their voice.

Moving Toward Their Needs

When these behaviors are unaddressed, our children may struggle with communication or self-advocacy. But change is possible. First, it starts with actively listening to our trauma so we can recognize when our inner child overshadows our actual children. The second is actively listening to our children when they communicate who they are and what they need. 

“To get into the habit of practicing discernment, I suggest that parents process their feelings about how they were parented and be clear about what they do not wish to continue,” says Price. 

The journey humanized my parents as well-meaning and rightfully vigilant individuals who supported me based on their experiences. But I realized that I have to encourage my children to pursue their interests over my comfort. Admittedly, I didn’t remove affirmations completely. Still, I connect with my daughter to see what contexts and conditions feel good to her. I asked how she wanted me to support her in problem-solving and telling others she doesn’t like excessive compliments. We started with her teacher. “Do you want me to tell her or would you like me to support you as you start the conversation yourself?” She picked the latter. (It went phenomenally.)

I realized my childhood desire to feel protected and validated occasionally took my children away from their desire to feel empowered. The moment opened my eyes and resonated with thousands online, as a video I created on the matter garnered half a million views. But more importantly, it encouraged me to ask some version of “How can I support you?” Overwhelmingly, my children chose to lead the conversation themselves.


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