This past week, I was emailing with a blog reader who reached out to me after my last post about being the identified patient came out.
This reader mentioned that setting and managing boundaries with challenging family members didn’t feel as salient of a topic to them because they were totally cut off from family now.
Instead, the pressing topic for them was and is the question of how to raise a healthy, functional family when they themselves don’t come from one.
I think so many of us (myself included!) ask this question and while there are seemingly millions of parenting books, blogs, and podcasts out there, few address the nuanced aspect of this question: how to raise a healthy family when you yourself don’t come from one.
When you’re estranged, cut off, distant, or dealing with strained, dysfunctional, or challenging family dynamics, there’s a panoply of unique questions we have to address when raising our little ones:
- Am I even equipped to be a good parent given what was modeled for me?
- Should I carry on my line given who I genetically come from?
- How do I do my own healing work even while I show up for and raise my kids?
- How do I explain to them that they don’t have grandparents/that there are gaps on the family tree when they have to make one in second grade?
- What will I say to them when they learn they have more aunties/uncles that they’ve never met or when and if those family members abruptly leave their lives?
- How do I make sure those parts I hated about my parents don’t come out in me as a parent?
- How can I give them a great and wonderful childhood when I didn’t have one and am not even sure what this even looks like?
And so forth.
You probably could add another half dozen questions to this list that ruminate in your own mind.
Regardless of whatever specific questions dance in your own mind, if you relate to any part of this – wondering how to raise a healthy family when you yourself don’t come from one – then today’s post is for you.
Raising a healthy family when you don’t come from one: set your intention and clarify what healthy means to you.
I say this all the time to my therapy patients and I say it to myself nearly every day: our intention counts for so much.
The mere fact that we want to be healthy, functional parents for our children and do the best we can speaks volumes about us and can also predispose us to being this, I think.
So that’s the first thing that I want to say: it’s beautiful and powerful that you are even asking this question and that you have the intention to show up differently and better for your children.
Next, I would invite you to consider what healthy and better actually means and looks like to you.
Does it mean providing your child with financial security and a stable home life?
Does it look like being a happy and fulfilled parent so you don’t place your resentments on your child?
Does it mean having family agreements about not yelling, about modeling skillful conflict?
Does it mean prioritizing healthy food and high-quality education?
Does it look like prioritizing your retirement savings over their college fund so they don’t have to worry about your financial future?
Does it look like being connected and in community, having friends who support you and not being isolated?
Whatever and however healthy and “better” means to you, get clear on this.
Write it out, talk it out.
And, very importantly, if you’re partnered and raising children with someone else, talk it out with them.
Clarify together what doing better than your parents (or both of your parents) might entail.
Dialogue and see if you are aligned in your values and intentions.
It’s possible to raise healthy, functional children if you hold different values around this, but I think it’s so much easier when you’re on the same page.
So talk openly and extensively about what it might look like to do better by your kids emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, relationally and in whatever other ways you can imagine.
Raising a healthy family when we don’t come from one: and then we do the work…
Once we get clear on our intent and on our vision of what raising a healthier family means to us, we then do the day-in, day-out work to make this dream a reality.
In my experience, both personally and professionally, doing the work to ensure we raise a healthy family when we don’t come from one includes the following:
Doing your own personal growth work.
I’ve said this before one hundred times, but I’ll say it once again: the bulk of our healing work when we come from an adverse or dysfunctional childhood will require us, at some point, to turn backwards, face our past, grieve it, feel all our feelings about it and then make sense of it so we can understand more clearly where we come from.
It’s so, so important to understand and really acknowledge the impact of the intergenerational patterns that came before you across the constellation of relationships down your line.
It’s important to soberly and honestly acknowledge the pain you endured, the context in which your parents were raised and how they may have come to act the way they did, and, if you can, to even understand your grandparents’ contexts.
I think when we do this genealogical digging, we can be better equipped to be curious about those patterns that came before us and what it would look like to proverbially “break the cycle” and create something different for our own children.
This personal growth work can happen in therapy, of course, but it can also happen through self-led journaling, 12-step programs, pastoral counseling in your spiritual community, on the yoga mat, in a silent retreat, in online psychoeducational courses, etc..
However this work looks, to raise a healthy family when we don’t come from one will require us to do our own personal work.
Invest in yourself.
Along with doing our personal work to grieve, make sense of, and heal our pasts, in order to raise a healthy family when we don’t come from one, it’s equally important that we invest in ourselves in whatever way that might mean to us.
This may mean investing in your career.
This may mean investing in your financial well-being.
This may mean investing in your physical. In your mental health.
This may mean investing in the quality of relationships around you.
This may mean investing in your creative outlets and/or developing a spiritual life.
Whatever this means for you, it’s important to clarify what investing in yourself looks like and then doing it so that you can be supported and nourished even as you nourish and support your little ones.
As the old adage goes and as the flight attendants always remind us, “you have to put on your oxygen mask first in order to really help someone else.”
Invest in your relationship.
Another big part of raising a healthy family when we don’t come from one is, I find, investing in your relationship if you’re partnered with someone and raising children together.
What do I mean by this and why is it important?
Our romantic relationship has a big impact on our children.
They witness us constantly – how we treat each other (whether this is with kindness or contempt).
They watch how we demonstrate (or withhold) affection.
They watch how we disagree, argue, and resolve conflicts.
In us, they see their earliest models of what love is and what they can expect from a partner.
If this sounds like a huge responsibility it’s because it is.
Now, that’s not to say that any of us are getting it “perfect” in our relationships every day.
But we should aim to have as healthy, functional and good of a relationship with our partner as we can in order to support the well-being of our children.
To that end, doing whatever work we need to on our relationship – whether that’s through couples counseling, self-study courses or books, etc. – is, I think, important if we want to raise a healthy family.
But, I will add, a successful marriage can be one that ends just as much as one that endures.
The longevity or permanence of a relationship doesn’t have to negatively impact your children provided you and your ex-partner try to co-parent skillfully and respectfully.
So do whatever work you need to on whatever iteration of relationship form you have, to support raising a healthy family.
Look for models.
If you were not raised by or married into a family that’s healthy and functional, it’s OK.
We can borrow examples either from people we know in real life or from the media.
I talk about this often when it comes to re-parenting ourselves, and I think the thought tool is applicable, too, when we’re trying to do something we haven’t experienced before: raise a healthy little family.
It doesn’t matter if those models are flesh and blood or pen and paper.
What matters is that the models you choose spark some hope and possibility inside of you of what you could possibly model for your children.
So consider what models are out there either in real life or in fiction/other sources, and be curious about who inspires you to raise a healthy family when you yourself don’t come from one.
Be compassionate with yourself when you mess up.
Let’s face it, no parent is perfect.
The best we can ever hope to receive and to be is a “good enough parent,” a term coined by famed psychotherapist Donald Winnicott.
So please, when you see yourself modeling behavior that’s familiar and reminiscent of your past, of your parents, be easy on yourself.
Yes, you may have whispers and imprints of actions, behaviors, and responses that are akin to what your earliest caregivers showed.
And really, how could you not?
You come by those patterns honestly because that’s what was modeled for you!
But, just because you feel an echo of your parent inside of you does not make you your parent.
Be patient and kind to yourself when you mess up.
Parenting is so, so hard.
And remember, in addition to the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect parent but rather only a “good enough” parent, remember, too, that we want to improve on the generation that came before us, not achieve perfection in our parenting.
That’s not realistic and that’s not self-compassionate.
Do the best you can, realize you will mess up, and be mindful of the overarching patterns across the arc of time.
Do you generally do the best you can day after day, year after year?
Wonderful. Let that be okay.
In closing: raising a healthy family when you don’t come from one.
Nothing I’ve written here is rocket science.
Raising a healthy family when you don’t come from one is simple but not easy: you get clear on how you want to be as a parent, and then you do the hard work, day after day to make your vision a reality recognizing you’ll stumble along the way.
And then you practice patience and self-forgiveness.
Remember: your intent means so much.
Your desire to raise a healthy family when you yourself don’t come from one is so important and can change the future for your children.
I often tell my therapy clients: you may come from the background you do, but the fact that you’re sitting here in my office wanting and working for something different for your own children tells me you will make it different for your children.
It just won’t be the same.
Please remember this: your history is not your destiny and no matter where you start out in life, no matter how poor your earliest relationship models, change is always possible if we’re willing to do the change work ourselves.
The world desperately needs esteemed, psychologically healthy, whole and integrated individuals to challenge and decry the systemic macro and micro abusive forces in the world.
When you have the intent to raise a healthier family than the one you came from, you support raising little people who will become empowered adults who can be those healthy, functional global citizens we need more than ever.
Your work as a parent trying to break intergenerational cycles of trauma, abuse, neglect, chaos and dysfunction is enormously important.
The longer I practice as a therapist and the more months I log as a parent myself, I truly think the heroes of the world are those who are giving children childhoods they won’t need to recover from.
So thank you for caring enough to be curious about this question. It speaks volumes about you.
Do you struggle with knowing what to say during challenging conversations?
I created this list of 25 scripts to help you feel calm and empowered when communicating with the difficult people in your life.