Growing up in a neglectful or dysfunctional family usually leaves social-emotional deficits that follow us into adulthood. Learning to reparent yourself can help you heal and become the emotionally healthy adult you hope to be.
Are you self-critical and overly harsh with yourself?
Or are you too permissive with yourself – not setting limits and allowing yourself to do things that are unhealthy or unsafe?
Do you ignore your feelings, have trouble expressing your needs or regulating your emotions?
Is it hard to treat yourself with love and compassion?
If so, learning how to reparent yourself can help.
What is reparenting?
Reparenting is giving your adult self what you didn’t get from your parents in childhood.
Children depend on their parents for a whole lot more than just their basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter). For example, we need our parents to teach us how to set limits for ourselves, how to identify, express, and manage our emotions, how to soothe ourselves, and how to treat ourselves with compassion. And if we didn’t get age-appropriate discipline, unconditional love, models for healthy relationships, or the skills to understand and manage our emotions and behaviors, we’re likely to struggle with these issues in adulthood.
Adults often think they should just innately have these social-emotional skills – but these are learned behaviors. In order to learn them, we need compassionate caretakers, role models, and safe opportunities to practice these life skills (ideally, before we’re out in the world on our own).
Sometimes parents can’t give us what we need emotionally. They can’t teach us about healthy relationships, good boundaries, self-compassion, and trusting our feelings – often because they don’t know how; no one taught them either. This is often the case in families experiencing Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), parental addiction, abuse, or other forms of dysfunction.
It’s not too late to learn these skills and give yourself what your parents couldn’t. You can reparent yourself and fill in the gaps between what you needed and what your parents could give.
Learn to reparent yourself
We can start reparenting ourselves by identifying what we need. What didn’t you learn in childhood? Which of your emotional needs weren’t met? Sometimes the answers to these questions are obvious and sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Also, it’s common to uncover additional deficits as you begin to reparent yourself and learn more about emotional health and relationships.
Below are some of the social-emotional skills/needs that are often neglected in childhood:
- Communication skills: The ability to express yourself clearly and effectively. The ability to resolve conflicts. Being assertive rather than passive or aggressive.
- Self-care: The ability to identify your needs and meet them. Feeling deserving of care and comfort and the belief that your needs matter.
- Awareness and acceptance of your feelings: Being able to identify a wide range of feelings and to see the value in your feelings.
- Emotional regulation and self-soothing: The ability to manage your emotions – to calm and comfort yourself when you’re distressed, to respond rather than overreact or underreact to emotional situations, to tolerate unpleasant emotions, and use healthy coping skills.
- Self-validation: Affirming your feelings and choices; reassuring yourself that your feelings matter, that you matter, and that you’ve done your best.
- Boundaries and healthy relationships: Seeking and creating relationships based on mutual respect and trust. Voicing your expectations and needs. Caring for others and letting others care for you. Being emotionally and physically vulnerable/intimate with safe people. Recognizing unhealthy relationships and ending them. Enjoying time alone and not needing someone else to make you happy or whole.
- Self-discipline or setting limits for yourself: Limiting unhealthy activities and creating healthy habits (such as going to bed on time, limiting how much you drink or play video games).
- Accountability: You take responsibility for your actions. You apologize and/or make amends when you’ve harmed another. You learn from your mistakes. You encourage yourself to follow through on your commitments and goals. And you do all of this with compassion and understanding for yourself, not harsh criticism or self-punishment.
- Self-compassion and self-love: Treating yourself with loving-kindness – especially when you’re having a hard time or made a mistake. Doing nice things for yourself. Saying kind, supportive, and uplifting things to yourself. Noticing your good qualities, progress, effort, and accomplishments and feeling proud of yourself. Generally, liking who you are and knowing you have value.
- Resiliency: The ability to overcome setbacks, to persist, and to believe in yourself.
- Frustration tolerance: The ability to accept that you don’t always get what you want and things don’t always go your way; being able to handle such experiences with grace and maturity (not throw a tantrum like a toddler).
How do you actually reparent yourself and learn these skills?
Learn as much as you can about the areas you want to improve. There are millions of free self-help articles available online and plenty of books on these subjects in the library or for purchase.
Look for role models and teachers. You can also learn a lot by observing others. Identify some people in your life who have healthy boundaries and manage their emotions well, for example. Make note of what they say and do. If you’re close to them, you can ask them for tips on how they set boundaries or soothe themselves.
Try a 12-step group. Working a 12-step program like Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, Adult Children, or Alcoholics Anonymous can lead to tremendous growth and insights into your feelings and choices.
See a therapist. Therapists are experts in social-emotional skills. They can help you trouble-shoot and see your blind spots. They provide a safe place to practice new skills. And when your therapist treats you with compassion and respect, and models acceptance, validation, and emotional regulation, it’s both a corrective experience and an example of how you can treat yourself.
Practice A LOT. Parenting yourself isn’t easy!
Don’t expect perfection. Nobody manages their behavior, thoughts, and relationships perfectly.
And a few more specific suggestions:
- Write in a journal.
- Use a feelings chart to help identify your feelings.
- Pay attention to your self-talk. Make a point of saying nice things to yourself.
- Add more self-care to your routine.
- Give yourself a hug or a pat on the back regularly.
Most importantly, remember that you can act as a loving parent to yourself and give yourself what you didn’t get in childhood. You can guide yourself towards a more loving relationship with yourself, develop better emotional and social skills, create healthier habits, and encourage yourself through life’s ups and downs.
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©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. photo courtesy of Canva.com