Pioneer Parenting: Breaking Negative Patterns of Family Dysfunction

By: Vicki Bohling

Every family has strengths, but some families also have weaknesses. Research has shown that adults raised in dysfunctional families frequently report difficulties forming and maintaining intimate relationships, maintaining positive self-esteem, and trusting others; they fear a loss of control, and deny their feelings and reality. It’s true—our early influences can leave behind deep grooves—both good and bad— that we tend to carry around for the rest of our lives. Dysfunction can be a difficult cycle to break, but it is possible. In my work with families, I refer to this process as “pioneer parenting”. For all pioneers who have been the first to enter new territory, the road is often long and bumpy, but the destination points can be incredibly rewarding and the legacy is definitely priceless. Learn more >

An eyes-wide-open awareness of where you’ve been and where you want to go is critical to pioneer parenting. And keep the following principles in mind when venturing out into new parenting territory:

Ask yourself what specific things you want to do differently from your own parents. Is it managing your anger better than they did? Is it avoiding substance abuse, even though it might have been common amongst family members.

Set limits for your own children in situations where you wish you would have heard “no”. Provide encouragement and support even if you grew up with very little. This positive approach to parenting is especially important and favored by research. We know that parents are most effective when they adopt a loving, firm, and authoritative style of parenting. Learn more about positive parenting.

And remember, it is important to start small. Ma and Pa Ingalls didn’t make it to the shores of Plum Creek in one day, so be patient with yourself. Parenting is a craft that takes practice, patience, and honing. So if you have a bad day where you missed the mark, note the misstep and try again tomorrow. Asking for a do-over is always appropriate – whether you’re a grown up or a kid.

If you’re already a few years into parenting and are just now realizing that you are repeating negative parenting patterns from your past, know that it’s never too late. But be realistic. Know that it may take you awhile to feel like you’re getting anywhere as your children grow accustomed to new expectations and new ways of doing things. Learn more about parenting with patience.

Communicate honestly as you go along and connect your children to other caring, responsible adults who are modeling the same healthy behaviors and choices that you are trying to promote.

At the risk of overextending a metaphor, I would also suggest circling the wagons when the days get dark. When you are pioneer parenting, it is always better to travel in a group. Identify other parents you respect who are modeling good parenting skills. Talk to them. Ask questions. Watch what they do. Be a shameless copycat. You owe it to yourself and to the future generations to come.

And finally, remember the following bit of inspiration as you begin to practice positive “pioneer” parenting.

“It is not where you come from, or not even where you are; it is where you are going that matters most.”―Bo Bennett, digital entrepreneur and founder of
1. Vannicelli, M. (1989). Group psychotherapy with adult children of alcoholics: treatment techniques and countertransference. New York: Guilford Press. Accessed from Kansas State University online, January 26, 2011.

2. Carrie McVicker Seth, (February 2005). Parenting: Moving From Research to Practice, Child Welfare League of America, February 2005.

3. Elisha Goldstein, Parenting: What Happens When Our Subconscious Gets it Wrong?, January 2011.

4. Image via WackyBadger on Flick’r.


The first step is to be self-aware. To know who you are, what you are struggling to understand about yourself (things you do or don’t do), and a desire to be your best self. It takes guts to do this. It takes being honest with yourself, and requires action on your part. Don’t be paralyzed with fear, there are many family therapists and coaches who can help. You will be brave for doing this. Stronger than those who won’t or can’t. You are worth it.

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