breaking the cycle

Once I read that breaking the cycle of abuse takes three generations. I don't know how they arrived at that number, but the idea that changing family dynamics is a gradual task that more than one generation must shoulder makes sense to me. Each person can probably only improve upon her upbringing but so much. And if the goal of completely breaking the cycle is to produce an intact, healthy family, that suggests a healthy extended family, and clearly a first-generation cycle-breaker cannot offer his or her children healthy grandparent relationships. It will take time.

Sometimes I wonder - which generation am I? How effective can I be? My mother's father was a pathological narcissist, and I know that she wanted to be a better parent than he was. She succeeded, but not by much; while she avoided some of the specific harmful behaviors that he committed, she kept the same controlling mindset, the same scornful view of children and their needs. Without a change in philosophy, how could she truly break the cycle?

When I started my parenting journey, I was still fairly enmeshed in my family. I accepted my mother's childrearing beliefs and most of her practices. I thought that my beef with her was limited to my adolescence and the occasional irritation in the present. Philosophies like Unconditional Parenting and gentle discipline seemed ridiculous to me, irresponsible, "lax". My son and some chance meetings with more open-minded people taught me differently.  With time, exposure to people who parented differently from my parents, and lots of reading, I came to have a different understanding of who and what children are, and how adults can relate to them.

Is that enough? I can tell you, I struggle with being a compassionate parent. My first instinct is often to feel angry and to criticize.  Author Naomi Aldort would call those "old scripts" - the way you've been conditioned to react, even though it's not consistent with who you want to be. With time, that's changing. I'm a much kinder, more thoughtful person today than I was ten years ago. But young children don't wait for you to heal yourself. They're here, soaking things up as they happen. I was not as kind a parent to my first child as I have been to my third child - and even with the third, I have trouble staying engaged and not sending them the "mommy's too busy doing her own thing, don't bug me" message. Did I change too late? Have I changed enough?

Will my kids' first reaction to their children be less irritated than my own? Will they have imprinted different reactions and behaviors than I did in my childhood? Will they have better emotional tools at their disposal? Are their children going to be the third generation, the one that grows up with parents who can access empathy easily?


  1. "Once I read that breaking the cycle of abuse takes three generations."

    Oh my gosh! That's what my dad says! I think I wrote about it on my blog once. I'll have to go and look back to see what I said about it. (Then again, maybe I never did and I just thought I mentioned it somewhere).

    Anyway, that's my dad's philosophy. He comes from severe dysfunction and has said that he is the first generation change coming from his own FOO. The thing is though, that it takes a lot of hard work and lifelong struggle to be a part of that "first generation change". Some people (like one of his sisters) like to claim that they are also part of the first generation change...but really, they aren't. It's not just the fact that you are technically part of the next generation that creates the "change" - it's the work you have to put in to end the cycle.

    Technically, this means that I am the second generation change from my father's dysfunction. And our children are the third. In order to erase his dysfunctions completely, we ALL have to work at it.

  2. I responded to that first line before reading the rest of this excellent post. So here are some more thoughts:

    There are so many open-ended questions here. I don't have too many answers for you because I, myself, have asked myself some of the same ones. You are not alone. And I think the fact that you even have the fore-thought and caring-enough to ponder them, shows a lot about how much you have already done to begin breaking those unhealthy chains.

    Have you passed along bad behaviors and unhealthy mindsets? I wouldn't doubt it. I have too, and at times I feel so sad about the damage I may have already caused. (I consider myself second generation change, but I also had a very strong and less-dysfunctional mother to help balance out my father's dysfunctions). I've had moments where I just burst into tears with my husband, telling him how disappointed I am in myself for doing things that I shouldn't have, saying things I wish I hadn't in front of our children, etc.

    It takes so much hard work to change, and even those of us who come from "less dysfunction" in the sliding scale of dysfunctional behaviors still have to work at breaking unhealthy patterns.

    If it helps, I try to live by the philosophy that our personal best can always get better. I've NEVER heard my father say, "I tried my best!" because he knows there are times when he wasn't. Having that mindset also means that you feel it can't get any better...that YOU and your behaviors can't get any better than what they already were...and those of us who are truly good and loving parents should always strive for just a bit better, in my opinion.

    I don't mean that we should beat ourselves up...but I also think there is a healthy medium between accepting our flaws and limitations and not allowing them to halt our progress towards even greater success.

    I think you're doing a good job so far, Claire. Just keep swimming!

  3. You're in prime kindred-spirit form today! I also dislike the "they tried their best" approach to things. Often we don't try our best. We might have good reasons for that, or we might just be lazy. And yes yes YES to the idea that we can always, always be better. I'm an idealist, by which I do not mean that I think anybody can be perfect, but I admit that I'm not perfect, and I always want strive to learn more and be a better person. I think the world would be a better place if we all worked to be just a tiny bit better today (or this year, or this decade) than we were before.

    LOL to "just keep swimming!" Thanks, Dory!

  4. Technically, maybe. But in my opinion, you already broke the cycle. You broke it when you woke up.
    Kids aren't made of glass. Even if you hurt them, they will grow up, learn to question you, learn to live for themselves, without you. They will break the cycle.
    Just be yourself. Of course you are enough.

  5. I have never met nor heard of a parent that doesn't lose it at times-we all do. Each child comes out of the womb with their own little personalities and no "Owners Manuel." (By "Owners" I'm not using the word in the same sense at all as a narc parent, OK?) But the one gaping hole in growing up with my narcmother was the lack of unconditional love.
    And that was one quality she couldn't fake.....because she lacked the ability to love anyone but herself. It seems to me as ACONs we're acutely attuned to any "failure" as parents-real or perceived.
    Claire, from reading your blog I'd have loved to have had you as my mom.

  6. HI Claire!
    I like that this post asks so many of the questions that we all have rattling around our brains and hearts at times. It's hard not to be certain that we're 'doing enough,' and if we are the first generation of change it largely has meant for me that in throwing out the old script I'm left with no established routine.

    Sometimes all I know is what NOT to do. And in my experience with my children, that's okay by them. My intentions seem to be what matter most to them, and the longer I've been getting well, the more transparent I've become. Most of the time, I AM doing the best I can with what I've been given, and my children are aware of that and express it.

    Whether they'll be completely free of this nasty Narc legacy remains to be seen, but I'm confident that they'll have more to work with than I did, and that I'll be right there with open arms and heart willing to help them heal in any way they can.

    I think that attitude is what makes me (us) better parents right out of the gate!

  7. It might take more than three generations to get rid of all the wrong scripts and crappy conditioning...

    But in the very first generation we who break the cycle can be Good Enough parents, parents who make mistakes but establish fundamental trust, honesty and respect with our kids and see them and treat them as human beings.

    I think you're doing a wonderful job.