Any time you find yourself being unreasonable with your parenting, consider that you may have a ‘ghost in the nursery’ influencing your behavior. The psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg coined that phrase back in 1974 to describe unresolved experiences or emotions from a parent’s past that can resurface and ‘haunt’ their parenting. She described these ‘ghosts’ as “Visitors from the unremembered past of parents, the uninvited guests at the christening”. They often do their mischief specializing is areas such as feeding, sleeping, and discipline depending on the parent’s past story. Let me give you a couple of examples from my counseling practice to illustrate this phenomenon.

Sami’s mom Liz had become overly concerned and involved in her two daughter’s sibling rivalry. She incessantly harped on the importance of family, constantly invoking the maxim that “Blood is thicker than water.” Liz tended to rescue the younger daughter Jamie and blame the older one Sami, causing resentment and becoming part of the problem. She also brought excessive anger to these situations causing everyone to escalate. So, what was the ghost responsible for Liz’s unreasonable behavior?

Liz had lost her four-year-old younger sister to cancer when she was eight years old. Unresolved grief had stricken her family, producing a lot of angry outbursts from her parents and resulting in her older sister Claire taking her anger out on Liz. Liz and her sister fought constantly, and they became estranged when Claire went away to college. The sisters had never made amends and rarely spoke to each other. After Sami’s birth, it took Liz and her husband seven years before they delivered Jamie, with 3 miscarriages in between. It was incredibly important to Liz that her daughters do it different than she had with Claire. Liz felt subconsciously that if her two girls got along and stayed close that it would resolve her grief over her and her sister’s lack of closeness. 

Kaitlyn’s dad Ray was way too invested in his 11-year-old daughter’s soccer career. He yelled at her constantly from the stands and coached her all the way home from every game. Kaitlyn had once told him through tears that she just wanted a dad, not a coach, but he hadn’t changed his ways. Like Liz above, Ray had a story from his childhood that was coming back to haunt his parenting.

Ray played soccer, basketball, and baseball as a kid, and his parents never once attended his games. Playing JV football as a freshman in high school, he broke his neck and wasn’t allowed to play sports ever again. It’s easy to see why he was reliving his childhood dreams through Kaitlyn. He had made himself a vow as a kid that “If I ever had children of my own, by God I would go to every game and be involved.” And was he ever.

The emotions that these two parents were feeling due to their past experiences were normal. The only time these feelings become a problem is if they are stuffed down below the surface and then subconsciously rise up and affect our behavior without our awareness. So, parents who were neglected as kids might tend to smother their own children. A mom I knew who was left out by friends growing up because she was shy might push her daughter to warm up to new social situations before she is ready. A dad I counseled who was teased for being extremely overweight as a kid and who now is a workout junkie may be hypervigilant about his children’s diet and weight. You get the idea.

There are always reasons why as parents we get triggered by our children, overdo, overreact, or parent unreasonably. Try to discover the ghosts in your nursery and work through any unresolved feelings or issues associated with them. This will free you up to consciously and reasonably parent your children. This concept also holds true for any irrational behaviors playing out between you and your relatives. Handling any ghosts related to these relationships might be a priority as holiday gatherings approach. 


These Dinner Dialogue Cards will make the conversations around your table livelier and deeper than ever before. A great gift to your family this holiday season and for years to come.

Dinner Dialogues
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