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5 Ways to Break the Cycle of Hurtful Parenting

  • Dolores Smyth Contributing Writer
  • Updated Mar 21, 2024
5 Ways to Break the Cycle of Hurtful Parenting

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” -Leo Tolstoy

Many parents strive to give their children the type of happy childhood they had. These parents eagerly emulate mom and dad’s parenting style in the hopes of creating fond childhood memories for their own kids.

But what about the adults who were raised in negative or abusive households and, because of it, view their parents’ parenting choices as something to avoid rather than emulate? Adults raised in these types of homes may well find that they’ve adopted the poor decision-making and interpersonal skills they witnessed from their first teachers—their parents. 

If you endured an unhappy home, know that your past does not have to determine your future. Instead, you can take steps to recognize and break learned patterns of dysfunctional behavior to “start anew” and cultivate a healthier relationship with your children. 

Here are 5 ways to break the cycle of bad parenting practices, no matter your age or your children’s.

1. Acknowledge that your parenting choices need to change. 

When you become a parent, you’re overjoyed by the birth of your child and promise to never do to your child the negative things your parents did to you. Yet, you will often find yourself interacting with your kids in the very way your parents interacted with you, despite your good intentions to do otherwise. Remember that despite your past, your parenting choices now are vital, as they significantly impact your child’s development by teaching him how to view himself and interact with others.

To break the cycle of destructive parenting patterns, you must first identify your own learned reaction to stressors and determine what needs to change. Whether you find yourself turning to corporal punishment, shame, or criticism, there will be parenting practices that will “feel right” based on your own upbringing. But feeling right isn’t synonymous with being right and once you acknowledge your own harmful patterns, you can work to establish new, more constructive ways of dealing with everyday parenting situations.  

2. Reshape your thinking to allow for new parenting practices.

Learned behavior can be changed, even if it has been passed down from generation to generation. Part of the reason that bad parenting practices become cyclical is because the wrongful behavior was ingrained in you before you had the capacity to question or reject it.

If you find that your learned behavior is hurting your children, you can choose to reshape your thinking to implement more productive ways to react toward your kids. Even if you believe that you can’t be a good parent because you didn’t have one growing up, you can take steps away from the parenting choices you know don’t work and look to proven, successful child-rearing methods to apply in your life.

In particular, decades of research on how parenting affects child development shows that the most well-adjusted children were raised by parents who focused on the following four parenting responsibilities:

  • Maintaining a child’s physical health and safety to promote the child’s ability to thrive;
  • Promoting a child’s emotional well-being including fostering a positive sense of self and teaching appropriate coping skills;
  • Instilling the social skills necessary for the child to get along with and respect others; and
  • Preparing a child intellectually in age-appropriate ways to succeed in school and in life.

By learning to become the type of parent who employs successful child-rearing methods, you take the guesswork out of parenting in a way you never learned in your own childhood home.  

3.  Set boundaries to maintain your new, healthier parenting choices. 

Implementing more productive parenting practices is one half of the equation toward breaking a bad parenting cycle—the other half is maintaining that nurturing environment, and that means setting boundaries! Children thrive most when they have a clear understanding of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. 

In fact, research notes that successful parenting households are ones that combine warmth and sensitivity with defined behavioral expectations. By setting and enforcing disciplinary boundaries when it comes to a child’s behavior, parents are not only discouraging their child from behaving poorly, they’re also teaching the child self-control, self-direction, and the ability to consider others—all crucial life skills. 

It’s worth noting here that you can best stick to your new, more beneficial parenting routine by also setting boundaries with anyone who undermines your efforts to create a safe and nurturing home environment.  

4.  Use positive language to guide your child toward appropriate behavior.

In many dysfunctional households, excessive criticism and shaming are common ways to get children to obey the rules. This bad parenting practice can lead to shame-prone, obsessive children who pass those harsh parenting choices down to their own children. If you were raised in such a household, break the cycle of using abusive language as a child-rearing technique and, instead, use positive language to help your child behave. 

For example, you can use positive language in place of ridicule or guilt in the following common scenarios:

Instead of criticizing your child’s identity as a person by asking, “What kind of a person hits his little sister?” you can say, “Hitting hurts. That’s why we keep our hands to ourselves.”

Instead of shaming your child for his emotions by saying, “Only babies cry,” say instead, “I’m sorry you’re upset. Please take a deep breath and tell me what’s wrong.”

Rather than guilting your older child for his choices by saying, “You can’t be bothered to call your own mother, can you?” you can sincerely note, “I appreciate when you call me. I enjoy talking to you and look forward to speaking to you more often.”

These positive practices may take a while to make a difference, but they go a long way in encouraging fruitful communications between you and your child.

5. Forgive your parents and yourself for past parenting mistakes. 

Most parents don’t set out to hurt their children. In fact, parents from older generations were likely unaware of the psychological consequences their choices had on their children or may have been the victim of abuse themselves and didn’t know a better way to parent. Holding onto grudges against your parents for their harmful behavior during your childhood keeps you mired in feelings of anger and resentment instead of allowing you to release your emotional burdens. 

One option to avoid perpetuating bad parenting practices is to forgive your parents. In choosing to let go of your grudge against your parents (whether they’ve apologized or not), you’re allowing yourself to step out of your hurt and focus on repairing yourself and your relationships. It’s important to note, however, that forgiveness is something we do for ourselves to embark on a more positive life and does not require associating with anyone who continues to harm us.

Practicing forgiveness also includes forgiving yourself for your past parenting mistakes. Whether your children are young or grown up, you can break the cycle of dysfunctional parent-child interactions now by changing your behavior to cultivate more loving, constructive interactions with your kids going forward. In doing so, you teach your children how to be better parents themselves, and you become like the Biblical “Repairer of Broken Walls” who makes amends for ages of wrongful behavior that has harmed generations within a family (Isaiah 58:12).

Dolores Smyth is a faith and parenting writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online publications. You can follow her work on Twitter @LolaWordSmyth. 

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