I was standing in the lobby of an auditorium in which I had just spoken, talking with a small group of attendees, when a 30-something woman took me aside and told me that her parents were bad role models. One was verbally abusive; the other, distant and emotionally unavailable.
She tells me that because of her parents’ negative examples, she yells a lot and is often insensitive to her children’s emotional needs. She asked, “How can I overcome that handicap?”
I have been asked variations on that question more than I can count. The list of parental defects in question is short and predictable: alcoholism, addiction, abuse, a string of failed marriages, lack of affection, mental/emotional disorder, sociopathy and abandonment.
Having experienced family dysfunction (my mother’s second marriage was a 10 on a dysfunction scale of one to 10), I empathize with people who grew up under such circumstances, but I also know (been there, done that) that childhood experiences of that sort are not reasons; rather, they are excuses. In other words, such circumstances do not explain why an otherwise responsible, reasonably intelligent individual is struggling with parenting issues. The person is struggling because he has convinced himself that his childhood is a handicap and believes in the Freudian myth of parenting determinism.
If a person knows that his parents were a mess, then the person also knows how not to be a similar mess. The negative can be transformed into a positive. “My parents were bad role models” is a form of self-enabling. The problem is not the parents; the problem is the person’s persistent use of his childhood to avoid personal responsibility. The person describes his childhood as a handicap; therefore, it is a handicap. The positive, functional statement is “I know how to be a good parent precisely because my parents were such miserably bad parents.” The difference between being handicapped or not being handicapped is a choice, a difference of point of view only.
Sigmund Freud, the so-called “Father of Modern Psychology,” proposed that parenting produces the person. That amounts to a denial of free will. It also gives people permission to create soap operas out of their childhoods. Freud was wrong. Examples abound of people being raised badly who turned out well, and vice versa. But the myth persists, which is why so many therapists make so much ado of their client’s childhood.
People believe that their less-than-desirable childhoods explain why they are not the parents they want to be, because they believe in parenting determinism, but the problem is their belief, not some inescapable cause-effect relationship.
So, to the mother’s question of “How can I overcome that handicap?” I answered, “You change your way of thinking. Begin by celebrating the wonderfully paradoxical examples your parents set for you, and move on from there.
“It’s a much better use of mental energy, believe me.”
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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