Parenting on Autopilot: Why you parent the way you do

Categories: General Parenting

Often I find myself parenting my children in a way that, on reflection, isn’t how I feel the situation could have been best handled.

These instances usually happen when I’m tired, stressed or feeling overwhelmed. My parenting style at these times is reactive, almost primal, and something I really struggle with.

That was until I listened to Dr Kaylene Henderson talk about implicit memory and how it relates to our parenting.

Implicit memory is also known as procedural memory – and for good reason. It is what helps us automatically recall how to do everyday tasks like walk, drive a car or even sing along to all the words of your favourite song. When we do an action repetitively or have been exposed to it enough it becomes an implicit memory and allows us to act on “autopilot”.

Parenting is something we also tend to do on autopilot. Remarkably, many of these implicit parenting memories are formed well before we are parents ourselves.

From when we are very young we are storing procedural memories on how to parent, based on how we are being parented,” explains Dr Henderson. 

This means the way we were raised is our default script or template for parenting. That’s not to say we can’t deviate from this script but this information helps us to understand why we, or our partner, or even another parent, parents the way they do.

Differences in parenting style is a big source of conflict in relationships and this knowledge of how deeply we are impacted by our own upbringing helps to explain this. The parenting “hang ups” people have are likely to be a carry over from their own childhood and how they were raised.

For me this knowledge was a light bulb moment and explains some of my parenting triggers and why I sound just like my mother at times!

As mentioned before, this doesn’t mean we can’t be open to different parenting approaches and consciously adopt them. At our fingertips we have a wealth of information (some might say overload) on best practice parenting, so we don’t need to rely solely on our instinctual, pre-programmed parenting style.

However, now we know this is how our brains work, it does mean we should cut ourselves (and others) some slack when autopilot means we don’t always live up to the parenting ideal. No one is perfect, after all!

We all want the best for our kids and as long as that remains our ultimate parenting goal, the kids will be alright.

To hear Dr Kaylene Henderson talk about implicit memory and how it impacts our parenting, check out her video on ParentTV.