What Emotional Heirlooms Are You “Passing Down”?

Posted December 15, 2014 by

With the holidays approaching, I’m starting to take out some favorite family heirlooms, like a bowl that was once my grandparents’ and wine glasses that were handed down to me by my beloved Aunt Mary.

While holding these things from the past, I started thinking about all of the things we pass down to our children, not just the material ones. More valuable than crystal are the emotional heirlooms we leave behind—the good and the bad. For better and for worse, our children learn how to manage their emotions from us.

“Raising children is a lot like watching yourself up on the big screen, flaws and all,” says Debbie Pincus, a therapist and author of The Calm Parent. “Kids track us carefully and watch how we react to people and difficult situations,” says Pincus. “If we haven’t learned how to manage our emotions, then we can’t really teach our children to manage theirs.”

Ask yourself this:  what emotions or emotional baggage am I unknowingly passing down to my children? Are you a yeller? Was your mom or dad a yeller? Have you noticed that your children are yellers too? Do you tend to hold grudges when you’re angry? Have you noticed your son doing the same thing? Or do you have some emotional baggage, like a fear of flying or driving, that you haven’t overcome and just might be passing down to your children?

I’ll start the confessional: My four-year-old son has a fire evacuation plan.  You might think that’s cute, or maybe even smart.  But, what I see is my little guy absorbing my fear of fires.  Nine years ago when my oldest was only three months old, I woke up to the sound of firemen knocking on my front door. They explained that there were flames coming from the apartment above, and we were told to leave immediately. I didn’t even get a chance to grab a diaper. Our apartment was destroyed, and we never went back. Yes, it was a traumatic experience for me—but I don’t want to pass that trauma to my kids.

When I saw my anxiety about fires “up on the big screen” as my 4-year-old talked through exit strategies, I realized that I need to be more aware of the messages I’m sending to him. I want to do a better job of “unpacking” this family heirloom so he doesn’t have to years from now…because this is not the emotional heirloom I want to pass down.

Have you ever thought about the emotional heirlooms you’re passing down to your children?


Jennifer is freelance writer for The Wall Street Journal and several national magazines. Earlier in her career, she was a journalist for “60 Minutes.” She lives in New York with her husband and their three children, ages 9, 7 and 4. You can read her other work at www.JenniferBWallace.com.

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