Most parents do their absolute best for their children but there are situations that can cause psychological damage. As the famous Philip Larkin poem goes:
“They **** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you”
Healthy families are open to the ideas and personalities of each member and willing to admit their feelings and get them out into the open, rather than repress and control. Parents need to manage their own feelings to set the example for the whole family. Feelings are the currency of all relationships and the more we accept them and deal with them, the better (particularly the ‘difficult’ ones). For some practical tips on the day-to-day management of different family relationships, see our pages on Families here.
Families tend to unconsciously give each member a role or label, usually influenced by inter-generational patterns. There’s always a label we grow up with. The serious one. The clumsy one. The responsible one. The clever one. The jokey one. The peacemaker. Or even combinations of labels. Many of the ‘family scripts’ (assumed roles that families assign each other and play out) can be good for our sense of self and can help us grow up into thoughtful, happy and confident adults. Sometimes, though, the subliminal expectations and assumed roles can be restrictive and unhealthy for us, and it can feel nearly impossible to break these rigid ideas of behaviour and attitude.
We can inherit patterns of trauma from the generation before us, and even the generation before that, and these patterns are deeply buried so that we are not conscious of them. For example, a mother who was adopted might have a child who carries a deep sense of terror about being abandoned, even though their mum hardly let’s them out of her sight; a grandparent who fought in a World War might have grandchildren who are excessively afraid of loud noises or who take risks with their lives; a man who was sent to boarding school at a young age might have children who find being away from their parents terrifying and won’t even have sleepovers. Feelings, just like other things that are inherited, or passed down, from one generation to the next, are transmitted chemically within our DNA in our genes as much as ‘brown eyes’ or ‘the way you walk like your dad’.
Buried feelings and attitudes do not disappear – they go underground and exert their influence from behind a wall of defences until we let them out and listen to them properly.
Mental ill-health in the family
Big, often un-named, feelings like depression or anxiety in a family member can be impossible to ignore – it’s as if you enter their orbit and catch the gloom and sadness they are shrouded in. When it’s a parent who is down, it’s very hard not to get down too – to take on the burden and feel bad that we can’t sort them out and make them ok. And angry that they are down and making others unhappy too. We can get caught between feeling sorry and feeling angry, and we tend to feel it must be our fault somewhere along the line. Someone else’s feelings are never your fault. Your reactions are, however, your responsibility.
If a parent or carer is depressed or overly anxious or you can see that they are not happy too much of the time, you can get help. Often it’s very hard to bring this up with them, but you can go to get counselling or advice for yourself and then you will be helped to find a way to deal with the effects of the problem.