As we go through our day-to-day lives, we don’t often think about the impact of our family’s behavior on how we act today. The truth is, our family behavior patterns often dictate how we navigate through our lives. We learn from our family-mostly our parents-how to parent and manage stress. Without our conscious awareness, what we learned in our families influences our thinking patterns, as well as how we respond to a variety of stimuli.
Family patterns of behavior are often handed down from one generation to the next. For example, if our mother cried over little things and was easily stressed, we are more likely to experience the same kind of behavior. On the flipside, if our grandfather modeled how to not stress over little things, we may be more likely to display a high tolerance for stress.
We have learned a lot about the impact of family behavioral patterns through family systems theory, which draws on systems thinking in its view of the family as an emotional unit, with each part having an interplay. There are generational influences on family and individual behavior and relational patterns that unconsciously replay in all families.
When it comes to parenting, we may find ourselves disciplining our children in the same way we were disciplined. For some of us, we pass down the same good parenting we’ve learned from our parents; for others, we may feel stuck repeating the same negative parenting patterns our parents used. Understanding family behavior issues or family patterns is an important step in finding effective ways to deal with everyday or difficult family situations.
While each family style of behavioral control is different, there are four basic types: rigid, flexible, laissez-faire and chaotic. Based on what is and what is not acceptable within each family system, families develop standards of behavior. Through regular, day-to-day interaction, these standards may be reinforced or extinguished. Depending on family need, behaviors may adapt or change. More flexible families are better able to change as the demand arises and have healthier communication. In contrast, rigid families not only have more difficulty in adjusting to stressful family situations but are more likely to have family conflict as a result of the change. When family behavior patterns are good, then communication is good, and the family tends to be happier and vice versa.
While parents may feel limited in our ability to break the cycle—and are heavily influenced by what we have learned from our family—it doesn’t mean we have to stagnate and can’t change. Change is always possible if we want that change. As parents, hopefully we are capable of evolving, taking from our parent’s positive experiences while also adapting to what our unique children need.
There are several techniques to begin the process of changing dysfunctional parenting patterns and breaking family behavioral patterns that influence parenting.
To evolve and change, we need to be introspective, mindful, and attentive to patterns of behavior that influence parenting and trigger those behaviors. When we pay attention to those thoughts and behaviors, we open our subconscious and gain conscious control, rather than letting our ingrained family behavioral patterns limit us.
Ask If This is How We Want to Parent
Does our parenting feel authentic? If it doesn’t, then there’s work to be done. That doesn’t mean parenting is all roses and sunshine, but good family communication typically reflects good parenting.
Identify Functional and Dysfunctional Patterns in Our Lives
Without attending to the underlying patterns of behavior that create, and therefore drive, our lives and our experience, we can end up constantly repeating patterns. Not all family behavioral patterns are bad. Take and use what makes sense to you or adapt to new ways to behave.
Stop Limiting Beliefs and Negative Self-talk
We are often our own worst enemies; how we view ourselves and our negative thinking can limit our capacity for change. One of the first things to do is to identify negative thoughts that interfere with our behaviors. Next, when we find ourselves in that situation, we can challenge ourselves to think differently. With repeated repetition and practice, we can learn to break that constant negative inner chatter.
Create a List of Alternative Behaviors
Start with one alternative behavior and practice. This is often the hardest part, as we can typically see the problem but feel stuck in taking that first step toward change. The problem didn’t happen overnight, and it will likely take time to change it, so have patience with the process. Change will happen if you commit to it.
Learn Coping Strategies
What we think is a stressor is just as important as what actually is a stressor. If we view a car accident as no big deal, and another person views the fact that their favorite show isn’t on tonight as the worst thing in the whole world, then the latter individual is always going to experience a higher level of stress. Having a coping skills toolkit to pull from when stressors occur is key to managing stress.
Recognize when a behavior is a trigger. As wonderful as the notion of having a child is, children aren’t perfect. Sometimes children come with behaviors we don’t expect or know how to address. These behaviors can be a real trigger for our own childhood traumas or issues. The good news is going to therapy can often be helpful. We can learn to break family behavior patterns, as well as learn new or adaptive parenting strategies and coping skills.
When family communication has broken down, family therapy can help. By having a mediator to support families’ communication and behavioral patterns, families can learn to adapt and be more flexible. Having explicit guidance can put us on the right track, and help to make everyone feel supported.
Working with a therapist who can coach a parent on how to change communications and behaviors can save a lot of time and frustration. In a family system, there is an interplay between all the parts; if one part is having more difficulty than the rest of the family system is as well. Children who are struggling or with special needs can often disrupt the family system. Parents without explicit coaching aren’t sure on how to deal with the behavior so learning ways to address specific behaviors can be empowering.
Recognizing how family behavioral patterns impact parenting is the first step toward positive change.