How Your Upbringing Might Influence the Way You Parent

Dr Olga Szymanska, Clinical Psychologist with Victorian Counselling and Psychological Services, says that although interactions between child and parent can be a repetitious pattern, it is just as common for people to go to great lengths to avoid repeating what they perceive as their parents’ mistakes.

“People tend to do either exactly the same or the polar opposite of what their parents did,” she says. “Somewhere in between the two is probably best. However, simply recognising an issue is a significant first step many people never take.”

We asked four parents to share their struggle to break a parenting pattern, and asked Dr Kimberley O’Brien, Principal Psychologist at Quirky Kids in Sydney, to provide some advice on how they could do this.


Fiona Joyce* studied ballet from the age of five and continued the hobby for a decade. Only, it wasn’t a hobby. She didn’t enjoy it and was forced to do it by her mum. By the age of 10, she was practising ballet ten hours a week. “The message that gruelling routine sent was, ‘you’re not good enough until you’ve suffered for years’.”

Fiona seeks to protect her children from the same fate by pulling them back from long-term projects that take disciplined repetitive application.

“As a result, I am scared they aren’t learning that some self-renunciation and practice is necessary to achieve things,” she says.

Doctor says: Introduce a new rule: Ask your kids to commit for at least a term when trying a new activity.


Sarah Thomas* grew up with a tyrannical father. One of three children, she vividly recalls the decorative wooden paddle that hung menacingly on the wall, ready for the next beating. No matter the crime or who committed it, all three children were belted as punishment.

Although she hasn’t spoken to her father for many years, and he has never met her three children, Sarah has made a conscious effort to avoid repeating her father’s mistakes. Now she wonders if she’s gone too far.

“With my own children, I am too consultative,” Sarah says. “I have always been very uncomfortable issuing consequences for poor behaviour. Sometimes I’m not sure my kids respect me.”

Doctor says: The first step is to address your own history with a psychologist who specialises in trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder. Work together as a family before starting a new behaviour management system.


To celebrate turning 37, Alison Chen* had a birthday steak, not cake. “I put a candle in my steak, that’s how crazy I was,” she recalls. “I remember feeling morally superior to all those ‘poor fools’ who eat cake.”

The meaty ‘treat’ came at the height of Alison’s clean-eating obsession when meals were strictly timed, protein was a priority, and dairy, fruit and anything processed was out of the question. It was a lifestyle Alison’s two children also followed, until the now 42-year-old witnessed the pair in deep distress arguing about the clean credentials of popcorn. Alison’s mum had dieted all her life and growing up in a food-focused environment created a pattern. “I realised I’d passed it on,” she says.

Doctor says: Providing consistent messaging around food is important for kids. Seek advice from a nutritionist.


Julia Seggi*, 63, worked hard to provide for her six children. Perhaps too hard. “I had come from a very poor upbringing and I really thought that the main way to provide for my kids was financial,” says Julia. “I spent a lot of time working and trying to make a lot of money. Because my kids were brought up in such a dysfunctional environment, they’re still struggling. That causes a lot of angst for me, knowing that I caused that.” She now takes a very different approach as a grandmother.

Doctor says: Recognising past mistakes will make you a better role model for your kids and grandkids. Put energy into your parent-child relationship too.


#1 Record the details. Keep a journal of your behaviour: a food diary might show you don’t give your kids junk food as much as you thought.

#2 Experiment. Try an alternative behaviour for a day or a week and see if that has a positive impact.

#3 Check in with your child. If your kids are old enough, ask them what they think. They might give you useful insight.

*Names have been changed

Words by Kate Symons / Image by Scott Web

Guest Contributor