21 Sep 2018

Are our parents the reason we are so messed up?

“I keep fighting with my husband because my father never hugged me” and "My despotic mother destroyed my confidence” -- should we blame our parents for our problems?

Wysokie Obcasy
Bożena Aksamit Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Are our parents the reason we are so messed up? - NewsMavens
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The following fragments are from Bożena Aksamit’s interview with psychologist Manuela Schlaffke which appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in August 2018.

Many adults who put the blame on their parents are not ready for major changes in their life. Taking responsibility for themselves is the starting point of therapy. An interview with Manuela Schlaffke, psychologist.

Bożena Aksamit: Little children often see their parents as gods.

Manuela Schlaffke: Children’s initial certainty that parents are perfect and always right is crucial to their survival. It all ends when kids enter puberty and start criticizing, challenging and hurting their parents in order to mark their independence and establish their own territory.

Growing up is exasperating and painful for both sides. 

But this parental overthrow is necessary to set up healthy and satisfactory relations between grown-up children and their mothers and fathers.

BA: Do parents always frustrate their children?

Yes. Simply because they will never be able to satisfy their child’s every demand. For example, in large families, despite the fact that parents love all their children equally, they don’t treat them the same.  Consequently, if, years later, one of these children happens to struggle with life more than their brothers and sisters, they might put the blame on their parents.

BA: Because they paid more attention to the child’s siblings?

Not necessarily. One of the children might have been more emotionally demanding, but the parents failed to notice that. Or perhaps they were so overprotective towards the youngest child, they didn’t give him or her a chance to grow up and take responsibility for their own actions.

In adult life, putting the blame on our parents exempts us from making any effort and taking on new challenges. Sometimes it’s easier to blame our closest family rather than ourselves for our failures.

 BA: How do adults benefit from blaming their parents?

People who hold their parents accountable for their own failures and frustrations feel entitled to compensation. They expect special treatment not only from their mothers and fathers, but also from friends, colleagues or even from their employers! It’s a convenient position -- they’re treated favourably and, due to their parents’ supposed fault, they don’t feel obligated to change.

Many adults who blame their parents are not ready for the major changes in their life. Taking responsibility for themselves is a starting point of therapy.

BA: Why is it so hard to change our thinking habits?

As children, we create a certain vision of ourselves, of the world around us and of people we meet. This perception is also shaped by our parents -- everything we saw, heard and experienced at home, permanently affects our way of thinking. We’re not aware of this inner conviction, so in order to change it, we first need to recognize it.

BA: Apart from our childhood experiences, what else makes us who we are?

Plenty of different factors shape us, including our inborn personality traits, our family, or our cultural background.

In my opinion, although genetic inheritance and environment have a major influence on our development, the responsibility for our own life lies solely with us.

We’re fully liable for our choices, successes and mistakes. Sometimes I feel that we pay too much attention to our past and fail to focus on the "here and now".

BA: How can we help someone stuck in an old and unhealthy behaviour pattern?

The first step taken by therapists is digging up the negative thoughts patients “feed on” every day. A woman brought up by a toxic mother might feel apprehensive about raising her own child and despite her great desire to start a family, she might decide to never get pregnant. This kind of discordance between the woman’s self-esteem and her natural maternal instinct might have serious consequences and could increase the severity of emotions such as fear, sorrow or irritation. She could also start suffering from headaches, stomach aches and other vegetative symptoms or end up avoiding sex altogether.

BA: What if her concerns are justified and she wouldn’t be a good mother?

There’s always a certain amount of risk that she wouldn’t, but we don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t predict the future. Therapy, just like medicine, is not a precise and entirely reliable method. This woman could turn out to be a wonderful mother, perfectly able to take good care of her child. During the treatment, we try and introduce patients to different -- and equally possible -- positive scenarios and discourage this “black and white” way of thinking.

BA: Could this be done without therapy?

We can compare therapy to training at the gym. At the beginning we need a professional instructor who will explain all the exercises. Then, we can carry on practising on our own. Usually, the effects appear after a substantial amount of time, but there are patients who, having understood their problem, manage to work it out quickly and single-handedly. Obviously, therapy is not recommended to everyone simply because not everyone needs it.

BA: How do children build their autonomy?

It starts with dependency on their parents.

By hugging, showing affection and talking to her children, a mother provides them with a feeling of security and demonstrates that the world is a safe place.

This crucial foundation of a child’s courage and confidence will not emerge without an emphatic and mature parent.

BA: What’s the difference between mature and immature parents?

Immature parents fail to address their children’s needs, get angry, don’t respond to tears and avoid eye contact. The child with an emotional memory of safety starts building independence -- they learn to walk, talk and begin to show their natural need for exploration.

A mature, sensible parent encourages such behaviour and supports a child’s self-reliance while making sure their son or daughter stays away from harm.

They don’t scream with horror every time their kid stumbles, but also don’t hesitate to say “no” or “enough” when needed.

BA: And an overprotective parent?

They teach children that life is scary and dangerous and send them a clear message: “You won’t make it without my help”. Such an approach restrains the child’s progress. Finding the balance between wrapping our child in cotton wool and fostering self-reliance is the key to responsible parenting. We should also remember that our system of principles and restrictions is not permanent and at some point our child will most likely start to question or refuse to abide by it. Instead of stubbornly sticking to our rules, we should let them come up with their own hierarchy of importance, while trying to gently correct any inappropriate behaviours. Sensible parenting is not about being a perfect mother or father -- that’s impossible -- but about “going along” with our children; not walking ahead of them, but also not lagging too far behind.


Manuela Schlaffke is a psychologist specializing in clinical psychology.  

--Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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