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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

On Parenting Our Parents

We are so used to imagining that a parent’s role is to help their child with the difficulties of life that we overlook the extent to which – in secret – many parents are constantly asking their children to do some fairly fundamental favours for them. An unlucky child may spend as much effort unknowingly parenting their parent as they do attending to their own developmental needs.

Painting of a young girl in a red dress sat on a green lawn next to a dog.
Gertrude Fiske, Dorcas, c. 1920

— For example, a parent may need the child to help them to feel that they are capable and useful – and may hold back a child from their independence so that they can keep having a sense that they have a role.

— Or a parent may need a child to get a certain sort of result at school so that they can feel clever and prestigious.

— Or – more darkly still – a parent may need a child to fail and underperform so that they can feel powerful and successful by comparison.

— Or they may need to bully and humiliate their child so that they can feel strong and invulnerable and be certain that they are no longer the fragile person they are terrified of re-encountering.

What is unresolved in a parent has a tragic habit of showing up again as a live dilemma in a child’s life. The parent who is confused about their sexuality is likely to bequeath an anxiety about sexual orientation to their child. An adult who is continually worried about their status will surreptitiously communicate a panic in this area to their offspring. We end up inheriting not just photo albums or money from our parents, but also feelings of insecurity, hopelessness, self-doubt, fury or sexual turmoil.

Because these emotional inheritances are passed down invisibly, we benefit from stepping back to ask ourselves a basic question: what were the key things that my parents were likely to have been struggling with in themselves when they gave birth to me? It’s an unusual question which little in family life prepares us for. But there will be clues all around nevertheless. We might sense accurately enough that perhaps a parent was trying to deal with a feeling of intellectual inferiority or of social insecurity. They might have felt anguished about the claims of love on the one hand and of sex on the other. They might have been trying to resist feeling too much after a childhood trauma. They might have felt unacceptable and overlooked in favour of an older sibling.

Our parents, perhaps out of kindness, will not have let on about this. They might not even have been aware that this was what they were dealing with. But it’s in the nature of the laws of family life that their neuroses will become ours.

We can spend the greater part of our lives trying – without knowing we’re doing this – to solve the problems handed to us in silence by our parents: we’re working out how to feel intellectually secure, how to avoid sexual fear,  how to have sufficient status. We’re trying to find ways of life and solutions that would have saved them.  We may want to get as far away from our parents as possible; we’ll do this most effectively when we can figure out which of their problems live on inside us.

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