Unconscious Beliefs: What you learned before becoming a parent may be hurting your relationship with children

When I became a parent, I thought one of the most important things I could do was learn as much as possible about babies, child rearing, the birth process, anything I could find to support my new role.

As the children in my life got older, I realized that what I had learned about childhood and parenting before becoming a parent was my biggest block to creating relationships with children based on trust and respect.

I couldn’t learn how to parent from place of trust and respect until I began to unlearn parenting from a place of control and power.

We underestimate the impact of the subconscious beliefs and values we created as a result of our experiences as children.

As we grow up, all of our experiences and interactions create a framework from which we view the world.

If adults around us used their greater power over us to manipulate or control us, we believe that is a normal way of being in the world.

These experiences create beliefs about the way the world works. They become part of our subconscious. We don’t notice them because we have created a frame of reference based on these experiences.

We create unconscious patterns of thinking, behaving, and reacting to the world.

We also create unconscious thoughts about who we are based on what was reflected back to us from the adults on whom we depended.

So here we are. We have a strong commitment to changing our parenting from power and control to trust and respect.

We are successful to some extent. Then we get stuck.

We see where we want to be and we struggle with hitting roadblocks to sustaining that change.

What we may not realize is that our actions and behaviors as parents are like the tip of a pyramid or an iceberg.

We need to go below the surface to understand how to create change at the top of the pyramid.

If all we try to do is change the surface, we can’t sustain that change.

Think about what you already do as a parent.

You know that the actions of a child are merely the surface. When there is some need that is not met within the child, it may show up as “negative” behavior.

So you go below the surface.

You try to figure out what the child needs beyond the behavior. You partner with the child to meet that need.

You don’t punish or judge, you seek to understand what is happening inside the child.

(Okay sometimes when we’re triggered by the behavior, it is harder to do this, but I know this is what we’re doing our best to practice with children.)

As parents, we need to do this same work with ourselves. We need to practice acceptance and love, AND go deeper within ourselves.

Like the illustration below, we need to see our behavior as merely a reflection of everything underneath.

Our experiences as children, our subconscious beliefs, values, and attitudes, our fears, our automatic thoughts, all of those things are reflected in our actions.

We are conscious of our controlled thoughts and our known values and beliefs.

For example I consciously made a decision to embrace the values of justice and equity. In spite of my conscious choice, I had many childhood experiences where children as a group and individually were not treat with respect.

Even through I wanted to treat children with trust and respect, the unconscious beliefs were an even stronger influence, a block. These beliefs were grounded in a childhood and institutions where control and distrust of children is the norm.

Because it was normal, it became unremarkable and submerged into my unconscious.

It was not until I was willing to question what I learned was “normal” that I could understand how those unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and values were a barrier to living with children with respect and trust.

It is the unconscious that we must bring out in order to sustain the change we wish to see in our relationships.

My own journey as a parent has been this continual process of bringing the unconscious to consciousness.

It resembles a spiral.

I uncover different parts of my subconscious thoughts, beliefs, or feelings and move them into the light where I can see them more clearly. I develop a greater understanding of how they operating below the surface.

Bringing these into the light is an opportunity for me to question and critically self-reflect on my unconscious beliefs.

The spiral goes something like this:

  • I would be faced with a challenging situation with a child.
  • I needed to acknowledge the automatic thoughts and feelings that would come up for me.
  • Then I needed to go deeper to understand the underlying and unconscious fears, beliefs, and attitudes.
  • Once I connected those fears, beliefs, and attitudes to my past experiences, I could reintegrate the emotions from the past.
  • I could move forward to creating and sustaining new behaviors as a parent.
  • I then continued upward in this learning spiral. sometimes revisiting the issue/challenge again, but from a new perspective and with new insights.

Copyright 2012, Teresa Graham Brett, Parenting for Social Change

This is essentially transformative learning.

Transformative learning is a process by which we make the unconscious conscious. Transformative learning theory was first introduced in the mid-70s by Jack Mezirow.

It is a process by which we begin to question our frame of reference. We critically examine our previously held assumptions, beliefs, and values.

Often transformative learning occurs because of some critical incident.

It may also happen as a result of participating in a learning process where someone (teacher, facilitator) challenges us to see a different perspective and we begin to critically examine our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

For many, becoming a parent is one of those of critical incidents. It often gives us an opportunity to think critically about our own experiences as children.

Sometimes the child who shares our life challenges us to critically examine the role of parent and our beliefs about that role.

The transformative learning process becomes real as parents when we are faced with the day-to-day interactions we have with the children who share our lives.

One of the reasons I focus on the details and specifics of parenting behavior in my writing and consulting is that I believe we must bring into the light the small ways in which we control children and the resulting harm of that control.

We might easily agree that hitting a child is harmful, but examining the small ways in which our power and control over children harms them is an even more powerful way of bringing to consciousness the unconscious.

Our feelings and reactions are another way to make conscious the unconscious.

When I am triggered by something a child in my life does, it is an opportunity for me to critically self-reflect and uncover the truth of why I’m triggered.

It could be I have some expectation that they should behave differently that comes from my past experiences. I can challenge myself to think about why I have that expectation.

Perhaps I am reacting to some unintegrated emotions from my past and this is an opportunity for me to work through the emotions in order to be present with them (both my feelings and theirs).

Transformative learning as a parent doesn’t have to happen in big, dramatic ways.

It may manifest itself that way, or it might be in the small ways we stop, breathe, and are willing to go within to challenge our automatic beliefs and assumptions.

It may be that our spiral learning process happens in just a few moments.

We suddenly gain access to some new insight.

Perhaps an issue we’ve struggled with becomes clear. It may be that sitting and spending time writing, meditating, or some other way of creating space for our learning prompts us to move further up the spiral.

Whatever method we use, bringing to consciousness the unconscious beliefs we formed about parenting begins the process of liberation from control and power in our relationships with children.


Patricia Cranton and Merv Roy, “When the Bottom Falls Out of the Bucket: Toward A Holistic Perspective on Transformative Learning,” Journal of Transformative Education 2003 1: 86


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