Not long ago, I snapped a photo of my oldest that may as well have been a magic trick. Caught in motion, she is captured with her pigtails flying and her lips pursed into a devilish little grin. The image is blurred just enough to dull the singularness of her; it is warped ever so slightly so that it appears to be two people in one: my daughter and me.
Since the moment this little one arrived, friends, family, and strangers alike have been awed by our similarities. It’s in the blue eyes, for certain. But it’s also in how we move about in the world, for better or worse. By toddlerhood, my mother had labeled my child as ‘reactive’ and ‘dramatic,’ two words that have tailed me all my life.
As my daughter grows, our similarities grow with her—and not always in ways that I am particularly excited by. Like me, she can be over-sensitive. Like me, she is prone to worry and obsessive-thinking. And, like me, she is a habitual second-guesser.
Why it’s so tough
As Nina Kaiser, a licensed psychologist and owner of Practice San Fransisco, a family wellness center, told me, there are plenty of pitfalls to raising a child who appears to be your mini-me. “When we see our own traits, (particularly the ones that we wish were different!), playing out in our kids, it can be really emotionally activating for us as parents,” she said. “We want the best for our kids, and that means wanting our kids to have the best of us rather than inheriting our struggles.”
We want the best for our kids, and that means wanting our kids to have the best of us rather than inheriting our struggles.
Sharing a similar emotional makeup with our kids can also trigger parents to over-identify in a way that’s far from helpful Kaiser explained. In doing so, we might allow our children to avoid experiences that would otherwise enrich them, for example, as a way of protecting them from the anxiety that plagues them. “If these traits aren’t ones that we’ve figured out how to work with, we might be setting an example for our kids that is counter to what we want them to learn, or how we want them to act,” Kaiser said.
How to deal
According to parenting coach MegAnne Ford, the key to surviving these pitfalls requires some nuanced thinking. “It’s important to remember that just because you see yourself in your child’s behavior does not mean you are the same as your child,” she said. “You are both sovereign humans learning and growing from each other.”
Ford emphasized that while we may share the same triggers, emotional responses, and behaviors as our kids, we must remember that our children are simply not us. For Kaiser, navigating tough moments with our kids, when both are similarly triggered, starts with recognizing what you’re up against. She explained that when you are able to label what you see—your child expressing undesirable traits they inherited from you—you can respond to yourself first with compassion.
While we may share the same triggers, emotional responses, and behaviors as our kids, we must remember that our children are simply not us.
“We can remind ourselves that our child is different from us and their experience is different from ours,” she said. “Our children are at the beginning of a path that could have any number of outcomes, and we are most likely to be able to be helpful or effective if we are able to stand back a bit and stay calm.”
The silver linings
If there are drawbacks aplenty to raising a child who mirrors your every struggle, there must be something useful to gain to balance the scales. The greatest silver lining that I can see is a seemingly endless well of empathy. When my daughter comes to me with the same flavor of anxiety I’ve often tasted, my instinct will likely never be a flip or annoyed response. I am never going to brush her off because I know, deep in my soul, how those flippant brush-offs feel. Instead, I often put myself in her shoes and apply the compassion and understanding that feel necessary in the moment. In a way, it’s like supercharged empathy.
The greatest silver lining that I can see is a seemingly endless well of empathy.
To harness it, though, Ford explains that we must first turn it onto ourselves. “Compassion, empathy, and kindness are a discipline that is best practiced on ourselves first,” she said. “When we can begin to turn those values inward it makes the work of solving conflict with our children so much more smoother.”