Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

What did you learn before you were eight?

"Before we're 8 years old, we have almost no capacity to filter out information that comes to us. So if parents or teachers, people we count on to nurture us, say something hurtful to us before the age of eight...it goes in quite deep and we carry those misbeliefs with us. They profoundly affect our relationship to ourselves, to others...our sense of value in the world."  -- Dr. David Simon

What did you learn before you were eight? That you're a capable person, worthy of adoration and an abundant life, lovable exactly as you are, even with all of your messy imperfections, bodily functions, anger, fear, and neediness?

Or maybe that you somehow aren't lovable enough to have your needs completely met, that some of your feelings and body parts are shameful, that harsh words or even blows might rain down on you at any time?

I'm hoping the former. But if you're like most of us, you learned some things before you were eight that no child should learn and carry for the rest of his or her life as motivating beliefs. Most of us have long since driven those tough early experiences into the dark regions of half-memory, or tried to cover them with bravado, but unfortunately they still have power over us.

The bad news is that whatever we haven't worked through keeps repeating, giving us a chance to work it out. So if you have some upset from childhood, you can count on reliving it. And it doesn't just make you miserable. Once you have a child, your unresolved issues will become issues for your child as well.

So if you were anxious about being good enough academically, your child may be, too. Or if you were yelled at, you will find it hard not to yell, even though you know it hurt you and will hurt your child. If you suffered sibling struggles, your kids' fighting will drive you crazy. If you still chafe at how you were slapped for disrespect, your child will almost certainly find ways to disrespect you, and it will make you crazy. 

The good news is that if you can release that tight knot inside you that gets triggered about that old issue, you'll be better able to help your child. Whatever your child's challenges may be, they'll soften and begin to dissolve, as you heal your own contribution to them. (And yes, we always contribute to our child's issues, if only through our own anxiety.)

The even better news is that you can free yourself from these old beliefs that limit you. It takes work. It takes courage. But this is something you can do, and it doesn't take years of therapy. Here's how:

1. Notice the places in your life where you're unhappy, stuck, worried. For instance, any negative situation with your child that repeats. Write about it in a journal. Talk with a friend who won't feel the need to fix you, or to pass judgment on you or your child. Express your emotions about the issue as it relates to your child, but go deeper -- into the source, which is always your own childhood. What in your childhood relates to this? What feelings did you feel then? What conclusions did you draw about your worthiness, about what you should be like, about life?

2. Feel those old sad feelings. Notice the old fear and pain. They'll show up as sensations in your body. Just breathe into them with love. Resist the urge to jump up and do something, anything, to run from them. Just sit, breathe deeply, and welcome those sensations for a couple of minutes. Notice that while those feelings might have been unbearable for a child, they're not unbearable now. Notice how those feelings are beginning to lessen as you breathe through them; that you're feeling lighter.

3. Give yourself a new thought: "I am more than enough, exactly as I am." Look in the mirror and say it. Let that love sink into every cell of your body. Feel the gratitude of that truth. (Does that feel awkward? That means you're surfacing some old shame. Don't worry. That will melt away as you keep doing this.)

That's it. Shining the light of awareness on our toxic beliefs -- by simply noticing them, loving yourself while you feel the old emotions, and correcting the limiting belief -- helps them dry up and blow away. Of course, messages we got before we were eight might take repeated attention.

Which is why I focus so much on supporting you to speak to your child with compassion. Whether they're four or fourteen, your words have tremendous power in your child's psyche. What beliefs do you want your child carrying for the rest of his or her life? Notice the words coming out of your mouth today. Adjust accordingly.


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