Ask Alice — Advice for All

Plagued by the Past

Dear Alice,

I am somewhat embarrassed to be writing to you about a longstanding family problem, which I need to move past. I am a 40-year-old man with a wife and three children. The issue that continues to plague me is the way my parents treat me versus how they treat my brother, who is two years my junior.

For as long as I can remember, I have been viewed as the lesser of their children and continue to be compared unfavorably with him. In my parents’ eyes, he is smarter, more successful, and better looking.

Strangely, my parents’ words motivated me to try harder in order to please them. While I have had a successful career, I continue to have the sense that I’m not good enough. Further, I fear that this pattern has started to show up in my own parenting.

I don’t want to do to my children what was done to me, but I sometimes hear myself saying similar, critical things to them. My wife is very angry with me about these remarks and urged me to write to you for guidance.

— Past Imperfect

Dear Past Imperfect,

You are wise to address this now, before it gets so ingrained in your children that they, too, carry with them distorted views of themselves. How parents behave toward their children and what they tell them is powerful. These experiences have a lasting effect on a child and become the “truth” of who he or she is unless the negative view is ultimately challenged.

Recognizing where you began to believe you were not good enough is important. Now you can begin to leave these distortions where they belong: with your parents. We can never know what led to their thinking, but we can surmise that they thought this would motivate you. They were likely unaware of the damage such statements could cause. I am very pleased that your wife has not gone along with this and has insisted that you change your behavior.

Now that you have children of your own, you have an opportunity to offer them a childhood that does not cause them the harm that you experienced. Start by acknowledging to your children that you have been wrong in ever stating or suggesting that others are better than they are. Explain that you are sorry for any time you have said this, and tell them that you plan to behave better. As you are careful over time with your words, they will begin to develop trust in you.

Let each of your children know what you especially value in them. This may be challenging for you at first since it is so unfamiliar, but over time you will find it more natural and begin to see the benefits. When you realize that no one more than you and your wife deeply affect your children’s sense of self, you may find it easier to deal with them in a positive manner. As a result of your new approach, their motivation to succeed won’t come from a negative place, as yours did. Their sense of self-worth will increase because you and your wife are supportive, not denigrating.

You are the proof that parents’ words are powerful, since you continue to carry the negative messages from the past. Your recognition of how you still struggle with their words should remind you that you want more for your children. You know the damage your parents caused you. Perhaps you can heal your own painful past by offering an especially loving environment to your family. Your children will begin to carry positive messages from you and your wife that will enrich their lives. In addition, you will be preventing harm to the next generations.

Children learn to be parents from their own parents. As you teach your children a kinder way, they will be more likely to replicate this with their own children.

Remind yourself that any time you degrade your children you are treating them as you were treated. Human beings can change their behavior if they are committed to it. Make the decision and do it.

— Alice