Are parents responsible for how their children turn out?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

Kahlil Gibran

“I blame the parents”, is a common judgment, often muttered under the breath when in the presence of a badly behaved child or young person.

This kind of judgement highlights why being a parent can bring up a lot of anxieties, when it comes to what sort of person the child develops into.

And it can be a heavy burden, if a parent believes that he or she is responsible for “negative” character traits or behaviours, or for a child’s seemingly unhappy disposition.

But sometimes I believe that parents can take too much responsibility and can even beat themselves up for not being good enough.

Donald Winnicott, a pioneering paediatrician and psychotherapist, came up with the idea of the “good-enough” parent. This referred to the parent who provides a good-enough environment in which the child feels loved but is also given healthy boundaries.

It’s important to recognise that this does not mean parents can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable – perfection is not possible. The idea of being good enough gives us permission to be imperfect and to be compassionate towards ourselves as parents.

I remember one mother, who was distressed when she saw her daughter behave in an insecure and “needy” way, convinced she had passed this onto her. Even if there was some truth in this, it would have been passed on in an unconscious way. We cannot help but pass on messages to our children through our own behaviour.

But judging ourselves harshly as parents is not the answer, I believe, as long as we have done our best given our own conditioning.

In any case the kind of person a child develops into will depend on different factors. Good-enough parenting is one factor, while inherited characteristics will be another. As the child gets older, peer pressure will play an increasing role as will the values in the society or culture the child grows up in.

But I believe there is also something else at play, which is harder to describe or measure. I’m thinking of the mysterious force which makes each person the unique individual they are.

Sure, we can look at children and make sense of their characters by referring to how they have uncle John’s creativity or mum’s dancing ability. But in his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman talks about the guiding force that all humans are born with. He uses the analogy of the acorn becoming an oak, arguing that every person arrives in the world with a possible calling or destiny.

Hillman argues that modern psychology has become reductionist, attributing a child’s obsessions or “pathologies” to poor parenting or genetics.

A different response would be to welcome the uniqueness of each child, even the parts that cause us pain or discomfort as parents. Perhaps we could then trust that the child will find its way in the world, following its own calling or destiny.

The value of allowing conflict

Most of us are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. We are taught to be polite, to be sensitive to others, to hold back any “negative” feelings.

Of course, it is generally good to be polite and to think of others. But if this becomes a habitual way of avoiding any conflict or disagreement this way of living can drain us of passion and energy.

This is particularly true in close relationships, where a desire to not upset our partner or friend, can leave us sitting on uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This can lead to an underlying resentment.

Danaan Parry, author of Warriors of the Heart, says that we have got the message as children that conflict is not okay, it is dangerous and should be avoided: “ Furthermore, we are taught that if you avoid it, if you pretend there is no conflict when there really is, then it will all ultimately, ‘go away’. “

The problem is that conflict, when ignored, does not just “go away” – it goes underground and festers.

I often see couples in which one or both partners is holding back difficult thoughts or feelings because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But when certain feelings or thoughts become taboo it can affect the entire emotional quality of the relationship and passion can begin to slip away.

I often hear clients say they avoid conflict with their partner, or with others, because they are worried they won’t “win” the argument, that they are not articulate or clever enough to justify their feelings.

But part of learning to allow conflict is letting go of the need to be right. It is getting away from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” perspective and moving towards a more open, less judging stance in which we are both allowed to express strong feelings and feel heard by the other.

As Parry says, it is only when we let go of the need to be right at all costs, that we can genuinely listen to the other person. But it is very difficult to let go of this need to be right because in some sense we feel identified with our opinion or feeling and that we must defend it or else look stupid.

In allowing conflict in our relationships we also need to allow ourselves to be emotionally touched by the conflict.

That may mean acknowledging that we may be feeling some sadness, fear or vulnerability, as well as anger. It may mean acknowledging that we have a range of different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

Trying to find a solution too quickly can detract from the value of simply allowing these different feelings to be present. When we can lean into this emotional uncertainty, instead of resisting it, something new can emerge.

John Welwood, author of Journey of the Heart, says that recognising these different parts of oneself can be difficult to do: “Yet if I can stay on this edge where I don’t know what to do, without falling back into some old pattern – such as blaming her, justifying myself, or denying my anger – then for a moment my awareness flirts with new possibilities.”

Are you a rescuer, persecutor or victim in your relationship?

Many couples that run into problems find themselves on the ‘drama triangle’. This is a model that maps the unhelpful behaviour patterns couples can find themselves in. It was developed by US psychiatrist Stephen Karpman in the 1970s.

The persecutor, rescuer and victim are all roles that people in relationships can play. These roles interact with each other, so there is always someone in a more powerful position and someone with less power.

triangleWhile individuals may shift between the different roles, they usually feel more comfortable in one of the roles, due to their personality and the behaviour patterns in their family growing up.

What are the roles?

A rescuer will often have grown up in a family where the child’s needs were not acknowledged and so he or she grew up looking after others’ needs in order to feel loved. The rescuer was the good, responsible child who avoids confrontation.

The victim got the message from their family that they were not able to handle their own problems and so grew up expecting others to step in and make things okay. They can often feel anxious about things.

The persecutor is the person who criticizes their partner. But it is important to realise that underneath the persecutor is a victim – someone who, as a child, did not have their needs met and often feels powerless. Putting their partner down helps them escape their inner self of low self-worth and makes them feel powerful.

A rescuer can be controlling

Often couples will begin their relationship with one of them in the rescuer role and the other in victim role. The rescuer gives the victim the message: “You need me to help you – just do what I tell you.” While the rescuer seems helpful and nice on the outside, they are actually being quite controlling of their partner.

The person in the victim role often feels their problems are overwhelming and they can’t cope.

The two make an unofficial deal – that the rescuer will get to feel good about themselves and feel that they are in charge, while the victim gets looked after and doesn’t have to take responsibility.

Becoming the persecutor

What can happen is that the rescuer gets fed up with their role, maybe they feel their efforts are not fully appreciated or they just feel tired out. So they then start to criticise their partner, therefore becoming the persecutor.

Another possibility is that the victim gets fed up with being the victim and becomes critical (the persecutor), which makes their partner into the victim.

The way out

The way to help a couple step out of the drama triangle is to, first, get them to see what is going on and how the two of them are usually playing one or other role. With this awareness the members of the couple can be encouraged to take more responsibility for their needs by accessing their inner ‘adult’.

The adult is that part of us that does not take too much responsibility for our partner (the rescuer), neither does it expect our partner to make us feel good (the victim). The adult is able to clearly express what he or she wants, instead of trying to manipulate or intimidate their partner to get what their needs met.

 

 

 

 

Subpersonalities – who is driving our bus?

Many of us see ourselves as coherent, unified individuals making our way through life.

But, when we really think about it, we may recognise that actually we are made up of many different parts that come into play in particular situations and which sometimes seem to take over our normal personalities. We may sometimes wonder who is really in charge, or ‘driving our bus’.4055369011_500bb75fc1

These ‘subpersonalities’ can play a very important role in our lives without us realising. But the more aware we can become of them, the more fully we can live our lives and be present in relationships.

For example, we may have an inner exhibitionist who comes to life when we sing karaoke, an Incredible Hulk who suddenly erupts when we lose our temper over something trivial, an inner martyr, saboteur or perfectionist.

A common example is the man who is domineering at work but henpecked at home, or vice versa. Then there is the meek person who becomes extremely aggressive when behind the wheel of a car.

The idea of subpersonalities is similar to, but takes further, Freud’s idea of ego, superego and id (or Berne’s three ego states in Transactional Analysis).

Disowned or unconscious parts

Often subpersonalities represent disowned or unconscious parts of our personality. If we have been brought up to be well behaved and respectable we may try to avoid letting ourselves go, but then find we have an inner hedonist when in certain situations.

Subpersonalities can help us in areas of our lives where we are struggling.

I sometimes suggest to clients who find it hard to acknowledge their angry or assertive side that they imagine an animal to represent this. They come up with lions, tigers, panthers and so on, which can then be developed into subpersonalities and find a more conscious place in the individual’s life.

A client may then say, “When I was asking my boss for a rise and felt nervous, I imagined the panther we’d talked about in therapy and that gave me the courage.”

It can help to give names to our subpersonalities and to imagine them as particular characters. What do they look like? Sound like? A rather quiet and serious man I knew had a subpersonality called Paulo,  who was a South American womaniser and adventurer. Paulo would appear very occasionally in this man’s life and the man was rather afraid of this part of himself. Giving a name to it helped him to get more in touch with his disowned exuberance and spontaneity.

Accepting our subpersonalities

It is important that we learn to accept all our subpersonalities, even though we may feel more comfortable with some than others. There are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ subpersonalities as all are legitimate expressions of our being.

In fact, subpersonalities only become harmful when they control us and that is usually only the case when we are not aware of them.

As well as these subpersonalities there is the part of us that can observe, sometimes called the aware ego.

It can be helpful to work with subpersonalities in therapy. The therapist can facilitate the client to have a conversation with a subpersonality, perhaps using an empty chair to represent the subpersonality. Or different subpersonalities can even ‘talk’ to each other. This can be a great way of helping heal inner conflicts.

Further reading

Subpersonalities:the people inside –  John Rowan

Embracing our selves – Hal and Sidra Stone

Photo from Multicriativo at Creative Commons, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/multicriativo/

Handling conflict in relationships

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When we are annoyed or hurt by something our partner has said or done, how can we express our feelings in a way that they will really hear what we are saying?

A common approach in couple conflicts is to accuse our partner of ‘making’ us feel angry, upset or sad by their behaviour. While at times it might be ok to use this approach – sometimes we need to blow off steam – it often fails, as it tends to put the other person on the defensive.  It also allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our feelings.

This kind of criticism is often accompanied by words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, such as, ‘You always take the kids’ side against me’ or ‘You never listen to me’. Again, this kind of blaming language is unlikely to get the other person to genuinely talk about the grievance you have.

While there needs to be a place for argument and conflict in any relationship, if a couple is in the habit of dealing with conflict in an accusatory and blaming way it is unlikely to help resolve problems.

Compassionate communication

One approach to avoiding this kind of blaming is called ‘compassionate communication’, also known as ‘nonviolent communication’. This approach, developed by American Marshall Rosenberg,  can be used with our partners or anyone else we may find ourselves in conflict with. It has four components:

  • Observation – we tell the other person what they are doing that we don’t like. But we do this without judging the behaviour.
  • Feelings – we say how we feel when they behave like this: afraid? Sad? Hurt? Irritated?
  • Needs – we say what needs of ours are being affected by their behaviour. For example, our need to be respected.
  • Requests – this is when we tell the other person what we want from them that will improve the situation.

An example: Sue is feeling more and more frustrated by how little emotional contact Michael is willing to offer. Many women would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so closed off? It drives me up the wall!’ While understandable, this kind of response is likely to make Michael even more closed off.

Shifting the energy

But when the complainant can be specific about exactly what behaviour she is unhappy with and what her feelings and needs are it can shift the energy away from blame.

So Sue could say: ‘When I get home and you don’t ask me about how my day was I feel lonely inside and distanced from you.’

She may add that this means her need for emotional closeness with her partner is not being met. She may then make a request. This could be that they agree to spend some time, perhaps over a glass of wine or while cooking the meal, re-connecting with each other by talking.

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg says that when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.

He says:  ‘Through its emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as to others – nonviolent communication fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.’

 

 

The danger of wanting our children to be happy

When I think about what I want for my children sometimes I feel I should be more pushy – get them to apply themselves more, learn more, aim higher. At other times I’m able to take a more relaxed approach – let them find their own passions and interests and let me support them in this, I say to myself.

At these times the over-riding feeling is often, ‘I don’t mind what they choose to do when they grow up – as long as they’re happy.’

On the face of it this attitude seems commendable for many liberal parents, especially those whose own parents had very fixed ideas about ‘acceptable’ jobs and careers.

But underneath the apparently supportive and progressive stance there can be a more subtle, unspoken, pressure. It is something like, ‘Do what you want to do, be who you want to be. But don’t let me down by being unhappy, even if that is what you are feeling.’

Novelist James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has highlighted the problem when discussing his own experience of being a parent. Saying you don’t mind what your children to as long as they are happy can actually be a very controlling message to give your children, he argues.

This is because it only makes them feel more unhappy when they realise they cannot live up to your unrealistic expectations.

Even with young children there is a danger that they will get the message that it is somehow ‘wrong’ to feel unhappy, upset, angry or lonely.

When my six-year-old son says he is sad because no-one would play with him at school my first reaction is to try and reassure him – ‘I’m sure you’ll find someone to play with tomorrow – let me talk to your teacher in the morning.’

It is much harder for me to simply listen to him and to acknowledge his feelings. There may also be a role for reassurance and practical help, such as helping him develop more social skills.

But if I try to immediately rescue him from his painful feelings too quickly he is less likely to confide in me in the future as he will not have felt genuinely listened to.

It is only when our children feel they are not failures if they are unhappy, upset or sad that they can more authentically experience happiness and fulfilment.

At a deeper level perhaps we need to accept that we cannot control our children’s happiness and that apparent symptoms of unhappiness are not necessarily problems to be ‘fixed’. Instead, as psychologist James Hillman argues, a child’s ‘problem’ of tantrums, shyness or sadness may be expressions of that child’s ‘calling’ or destiny and have some meaning connected to their development that we are unaware of.