I see this happen over and over. A client who was overfed or overweight as a child, takes a laissez-faire attitude about food with his children. Or a client whose parents ignored their children’s nutritional needs, micromanages them when she has children of her own. This kind of dynamic happens outside the food arena as well. Here’s why.

As adult as we may appear, there lives inside us that child that got too much of this and not enough of that. In an effort to make things right for our offspring, we often give them what we lacked. Or avoid giving them what we received too much of. For example, adults who were rigidly controlled by their parents as children, often give their children too much freedom, vowing to be nothing like their overbearing parents. At the other end of the spectrum, adults whose parents were off working or spending time with each other and who let their children practically raise themselves, may end up being over-protective and overly nurturing to their own brood.

It’s an old mental health axiom that we often give others what we want to receive ourselves. I observe a great deal of this dynamic in couples therapy. Typically, the female in the relationship wants more attention from the male. So what does she do? She hovers around him in the hopes that he will return the favor. He, on the other hand, only wants to be given space or left alone and believes that by backing off from her, he’s sending the message for her to act similarly. Of course, these kinds of “silent screams” don’t work to get anyone’s needs met and often exacerbate communication problems, which is why couples end up in therapy.

In terms of generations, I know of cases in which Mom tended to isolate and only focus on her own needs, producing Daughter who felt neglected and undervalued who then produced Granddaughter who constantly complains about her mother being on her case. Moreover, Granddaughter often says she wishes her mom would be more like her Grandmother. This does not make for a well-oiled, needs-meeting family system.

Think for a minute if you are caught up in giving those close to you what you want—space or nurturing, freedom to make decisions or unwanted advice, etc. Do you ever check in to see that what you are offering is what is needed? Does doing what you want done to you work with others? My guess is not very well. It’s always best to verbalize your needs very specifically and concretely and to ask others to be as clear and direct about what they want from you. That way, everybody’s happy and gets what they need.