For better or worse, consciously or not, lessons from your own childhood will affect the way you raise your children. But can the cycle ever be broken? Emma Cook reports
Are you turning into your mother? Ask your child

"I feel so angry when I remember how my mother treated me," says 37-year-old Martha, mother of 8-year-old Julia. "She never kissed or hugged me. When she lost her temper she would hit me again and again for no real reason. I was terrified of her." Parenting is thought to be a largely instinctive skill passed through the generations like writing through a stick of rock. But in Martha's case, she has had to re-learn mothering skills from scratch - to break the cycle of bad parenting. "I realise now my mother hit me because she was beaten herself as a young girl. She had the most terrible childhood. I was absolutely determined to break this pattern. I didn't want to pass on all that anger to my daughter and so I had to learn how to show affection."

Martha knew that she didn't want to repeat the same mistakes with Julia, and yet she was unsure of exactly how to behave differently. Denise Knowles, a counsellor for Relate, explains that parents from unhappy childhoods often experience this sense of confusion and fear. "Someone may come for counselling and say, `I don't know what's expected of me as a mum'. They can be quite scared of their child, almost as if it's some kind of monster. It could be their parents were similar or they were never terribly demonstrative - in that case people will often say, `I don't know how to get close.'"

In Martha's case, she decided to seek help. Through therapy and parenting skill sessions at the NSPCC, she was taught how to control her anger. "If Julia starts crying, I know how to calm myself down and how to relax. I never scream or shout like my own parents did. I couldn't bear my daughter to view me in the same way I viewed my mother." She has also learnt from those around her how to relate more effectively. Paul, her husband, says, "In terms of parenting there was a hole and she had to fill in the gaps. I think she was able to pick up from me some of the ways you can naturally show affection."

As Martha has proved, parenting skills are never set in stone; there's always room for conscious change. Psychologist Dr Marilyn Aitkenhead says, "We're learning a lot when we're very tiny, but we also spend a whole life time learning. The important message parents give the child is, `I love you, you're an important person.' If you get other messages like, `I didn't want you' or `I wish you'd been a boy', you may use those as learnt responses. But all of this is an interruptible process."

Charlotte, 34, a part-time teacher and mother of two small children, says, "The things we don't want to pass on are remembered - the things we've learnt the hard way. The other stuff is innate. The notion of what not to do seems stronger than what to do." Charlotte is keen that some of her conscious memories of being mothered stop with her. "I will absolutely try hard never to be depressed in front of my kids and to always put on a brave face," she says.

Stephen, 41, and father of six children, also tries consciously to behave differently. "If I get angry with my children I always try and explain why and make-up with them quickly. My own father would never express himself - he would get angry, create an awful atmosphere and I could never get near him afterwards." Stephen also remembers his own father's physical distance - another thing he doesn't want to repeat. "I've probably put my arm around Dad about twice in my life - judging by the look on his face, I wouldn't want to do it again. But I'm very tactile with my sons and get involved in the rough and tumble with them. It's a very good way of bonding and it really does relieve tension."

No doubt, their own children will think differently when it's their turn to parent. But it's the stuff they've absorbed subliminally - beyond conscious thought - that has more chance of being retained and repeated. The question is, how far back does such learnt behaviour extend? Some mothers feel their reactions are based on very early experiences, when they were still babies themselves. "One thing I do notice in myself and other friends is how we instinctively use that same baby talk as our mothers," says Charlotte. "I can't remember mum speaking to me when I was a baby - she certainly never told me about it afterwards - but I know from talking to her now that I use the same words and vowel sounds as she did. I'll ask my mother about lots of details like that and it's reassuring to know I do the same."

In this case, maternal response seems to pre-date memory and, in Charlotte's case, spring from a sub-conscious source of learnt behaviour that has only surfaced during motherhood. Karen has also compared notes with her mother and discovered certain habits are absolutely parallel. "Instinctively, I feel there's a lot of my mother in me in the way I treat Alice. I've got this bank of knowledge that I act on - not that I was aware of it before I had her. Even the pet names I use are the same. I find it strange that I never consciously remembered them."

It's hard to establish if young babies actually assimilate messages about parenting at such an early stage, although Judy Cooper, spokesperson for the British Association of Psychotherapists, suspects they do. "I'm absolutely sure that how one is mothered from the earliest time has an effect on everything. Even the way a mother looks at the child, holds and feeds, is assimilated at an unconscious level."

If, as with Martha, this sort of affection has been absent from a very young age, it takes a great deal of conscious effort to do things differently. But at least she felt she had the power to change - some adults decide not to have children because they feel unable to alter the damaging cycle. Yet parenting can and should be an opportunity for reparation. As Charlotte says, "A lot of my childless friends say they wouldn't want their kids to go through what they had to. But I say it's the one chance you have to make amends and really turn things around."

All the names in this article have been changed

Gertie, Mary and Rosanna represent three generations of one family. All are aware of the methods and messages of mothering that have been passed down from Gertie's own childhood and even before.

Gertie McDarby, 68, is mother of Mary and grandmother to Rosanna, 8. She lives in south London

`I wanted to be closer to my daughter than I was to my mother. While Mary was growing up she would always confide in me and tell me everything, which I never did with my own mother. I've noticed that Mary has more patience with the children than I did. I'd lay down the law a bit quicker, whereas she always listens to them and has time for them.'

Mary Coyne, Gertie's daughter, a housewife in her thirties, lives near her mother

`My mother is very practical and never made a song or dance about bringing up her children. I'm exactly like that too. I tend to get on with it, just like she did. Like my mother I've had two children - a daughter and a son. As a girl, I always felt my mother spoilt my brother and I vowed I would never treat my daughter differently to my son. I'm ashamed to admit I do - I take after my mother in that way.'

Rosanna, aged 8, is Mary's daughter

`I really like my granny and my mother because they both treat me in the same way. They're both kind to me, reliable and very loving. I think I want to be a mother and if I do I hope I'd be like mine.'