"Whenever my 9-year-old daughter experiences the nastiness of little girls, their clubbishness," says Chicago family therapist Richard Schwartz, "whenever she gets rejected, all of the parts of me that ever got rejected well up, and I feel all that pain and hurt I felt when I was very young."

For Arnold Medvene, a University of Maryland psychologist, his son Paul's 22nd birthday triggered an emotional deja vu. "That was the age at which I experienced my father's death. Even though I've done an enormous amount of work on death, the old feelings and memories were resurrected. It reawakened the old stuff I had with my father, a lot of the unfinished business, a good deal of anger for me at not having enough emotional closeness, of a sense that he never cherished and valued me enough."

Such reactions are typical. As parents, when your children face a difficult situation that mirrors one you endured as a child, or when your children reach the age when you suffered a trauma, your old sorrow often floats to the surface. "It's normal to experience these old feelings," says Schwartz. "Parenting is an incredible reliving of your childhood. You cannot avoid that."

How you handle your remembered heartaches, however, is crucial. Your behavior either will be a help or a hindrance to your children.

If the child within you still bristles at having sat as the 4th-grade wallflower, or rages at the pummeling by a 10th-grade bully, then it may be difficult or impossible to help your child through a similar situation.

Says Medvene, "An unresolved issue stirs up some conscious and unconscious fears often not even known. It can be damaging and scary for the adult because it reawakens old stuff. Then the person becomes more frozen or numb emotionally. The parent, instead of going forward and helping the child, might become aloof and retreat."

When that occurs, instead of sending aid in a time of need, you send your child "shock signals." From your reticence or fear, the child receives such messages as, " 'My parent doesn't love me.' 'I saw my parent afraid.' 'I saw my parent with a loss of hope,' " warns Medvene.

"Your presence or your absence," he says, "can have a dramatic impact, not only then, but for a long time in the future."

How do you know if your child's trauma triggers memories too painful for you too handle? You might start denying your child's troubles.

Says Schwartz, "The parent might try to push the feelings away by pooh-poohing the bad feelings. The child might try to talk about the situation, and the parent might say how it wasn't really happening. 'Think of the bright side. Everything is peachy keen.' "

Not only does the child get no help, but he or she gets the not-so-subtle message: Don't talk to me about this.

There's also another shock signal: overreacting. Says Gerson, "Often the parents want the child to go through it {the situation} in a way to make up for the way the parents went through it. The parents want the child's experience to be healing for the parent."

Gerson cites the example of one client "who continually wanted this teenage girl of hers to be 'Little Miss Perfect,' to do everything perfectly because the mother felt that when she grew up she didn't get pushed at all. Because she didn't go to college and take advantage of her talent, she wanted her daughter to fulfill her ambitions." This parental shoving created an overanxious teen.

Another common parental reaction: doing to your kids what was done to you, however painful. Warns Gerson, "There is a multigenerational projection process. The unresolved issues from one generation get passed down to the next."

Linda Silverman, a Denver psychologist and director of the Gifted Child Development Center, says she sees this all the time. The archetypal case for Silverman involves a boy, usually in 7th grade, belligerent and goofing off in school, whose report card reeks with 'D's, and 'C's.

His angry father thinks the boy is a lazy goof-off. But after the son undergoes a battery of tests, Silverman discovers he has a hidden learning disability.

Says Silverman, "I start to question the father. I ask him if he had trouble in school also. He says 'Yes.' What was your dad's reaction to you? He says, 'Oh, my father was always on my case telling me I was going to turn out to be a no-good bum.' I ask him how he felt about his father. He says, 'I hated my father.'

"I say, 'Do you want your son to hate you?' Then there's dead silence. He begins to realize that he's creating an intergenerational pattern. He's just become his father with his son."

The healing begins when Silverman explains that the father had a hidden learning disability, too. "I get the father to become the advocate, the friend, the helper and I turn around the dynamic between father and son."

Armed with this new knowledge, the parent rethinks his or her past. "Usually, the dad really bought into the feeling that he was a bad, lazy kid. He never realized the damage that was done to him.

"When I get the father to look at his son and himself in a different way," she says, "then the father's able to make a shift. Parents have told me that this kind of discussion has made a monumental difference."

To help, when your daughter is teased for her braces, your son taunted for missing the soccer save, or your teen is stuck in the same school-skipping rhythm you rocked to, use your hard-won memories as ballast to steady your kids.

"The parent can be a real nice mentor," says Medvene. "Talking about his or her experiences can be lovely and incredibly helpful and supportive."

Such discussions, however, calm a frightened child and inform an experimenting young adult, only when delivered with the finesse of high-stakes diplomacy. A finger-wagging "Don't you dare, dummy," a callous "Whatsa'matter," or a distant "That's cute, dear," overloads an already weighted-down child.

By using the painful parts of their past to guide present behavior, parents create a more positive intergenerational pattern. Advises Silverman, "Ideally, parents should step back and say, 'What would I have liked the response to my behavior as a child to have been,' instead of repeating exactly the response their parents had to them."

Judy Steele, a District architect, did just that. When her son turned 14, the age she was when she began dating his dad, a flood of old emotions and fears came back. "I felt like I had lost something. I felt sad," says Steele. "I didn't have an opportunity to have feelings of independence. It was scary to think I was so emotionally tied up so young."

But Steele, determined to give her kids, A.J., now 15, and Sandy, 13, more support than she got, remembered what annoyed her: her parents' condescending remarks.

"I dated their father for four years, and married him at 18. It was first love, mad romance, nobody else mattered. Whenever my parents or relatives said, 'That's puppy love,' I got totally angry, and felt I had something to prove."

So when her A.J. at 14 started dating one girl, Steele remembered and broke the pattern. Because "it looked very similar to the situation I began with, it made me very nervous.

"I have a very acute awareness of how I speak and what I say so that I do not perpetuate the pattern," she says. "I try to treat them as equals, like I trust and respect them.

"My parents," she notes, "would say 'Oh you kids, you do not really know what's going on.' I do not make any condescending remarks about who they're with. I consciously do not make fun of them about their romances. I try to be supportive. And I tell them how wonderful college life is, being a young, unmarried adult."

Often, people reap what they role-model. By working through old issues, parents can gain the strength to support their children in their growing-up difficulties.


There are a number of indicators that experts suggest will help you discover whether your child's troubles are bothering you too much:

Your reaction to your child's problem is out of proportion. For example, your child's low grade on a math test causes you to stay up all night worrying.

Your personality changes -- you go from being productive to unproductive, or vice versa.

You suddenly start picking on your kids all the time.

You start to dream about earlier, painful times in your own life.

Resolving Your Own Issues

To truly help your children in their troubles, you must try to work through your own unresolved childhood issues. Among suggestions by experts for healing old pain:

Try to discover the old feelings. Chicago family therapist Richard Schwartz suggests "internal dialoguing," a process of asking yourself why you feel so strongly, and staying with the feelings until you get an answer.

Try to resolve the old feelings. Schwartz suggests trying to isolate the part of yourself that hurts, create an image, and "talk" to this part.

Says Schwartz, "For me the part that holds all this rejection comes in the image of a 12-year-old boy. He'll be telling me how bad he feels, and I'll tell him how much I love him."

After this exercise, Schwartz feels less anxiety about his daughter's squabbles with school friends.

Talk with your spouse or partner. "Get feedback from that person about what's going on," says University of Maryland psychologist Arnold Medvene. Therapy for a brief time may be helpful.

Go back and talk with your own parents. "Often when you are more accepting of your own parents, then your anxiety about your own children decreases," notes Randy Gerson, an Atlanta psychologist. One client, in talking with her own mother, "discovered that her mother had an alcoholic mother herself, who was totally unavailable to her so she didn't get a lot of nurturance and didn't know how to be available to her daughter," notes Gerson.

"Once she found this out, she was able to forgive her mom, and this lessened her anxiety about her daughter. The daughter, who was anxious, fearful and phobic, then smoothed out and did better with her peers."

Prepare extensively before you talk to your parents. Before talking with a parent Gerson suggests people do an enormous amount of role-playing, thinking what the parent's reactions might be, and practicing talking in a non-accusatory manner.

"The first reaction is often to go back and read them {the parents} the riot act. Tell them all the things they did wrong.

"That is not helpful," says Gerson, who suggests writing a letter to parents, but not sending it if it's an angry one. Then, rewrite the letter so parents can understand the issues.