As a child our parents are God to us. We worship the ground they walk on; they gave us life and keep us alive. A father shows his son what it is to be a man, a mother, to her daughter, a woman. And yet this same parent, the one we worship, can come to make us feel as though we are inadequate, stupid, weak and worthless. Significant others can do the same to some extent - but our parents are different; their genes are a part of us, their behaviour toward us strikes at our very existence, our inner-self, our being and we cannot feel any way toward them without feeling the same about part of our self.
Throughout recent history, there have been changes in thinking about the influence of parents on their children. Parents have gone from being fully responsible or having no responsibility at all to a middle ground, where other things, such as peers, school, society, and media play a major part. And they do, but nothing influences us like our parents; their genes are our genes and from the day we are born we are shaped by their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, we are moulded by their hopes and fears and many people, well into their middle age, are still trying to please their parents and gain their love.
In her excellent self-help book about depression, Alexandra Massey estimates that around 80% of people that she has spoken to about depression are entangled with their parents and stuck. And research has shown an improvement in the phobic behaviour of adolescents when relationships with their parents improved.
Human infants are the most helpless of all the mammals when newborn; immediately after being born we cry in order to be comforted and we come equipped with a number of instinctual behaviours to form strong attachments to those who can protect and nurture us. As we grow this attachment grows to ensure our safety.
As such, the power of our parents is unquestionable. They are big and strong, we are small and weak. They can do things we can't: drive a car, mow the lawn, drink beer and change a light bulb - and they teach us how to do things; things that empower us, like how to ride a bicycle and how to swim and the meaning of things. Their knowledge and power shapes our sense of competence, what we can and cannot do, and our confidence. They feed, clothe us and keep us warm. They can do things we can't and know things that we don't; they must be right and we must be wrong.
They make us feel good and make us feel bad; almost all of the rewards and punishments that a child receives are mediated by the parents. They hurt us and they help us get better. To top it off, we cannot avoid them. Even as a small child, certainly as a teenager, if someone was nasty to us or treated us badly we would soon learn to avoid them - but we can't do this with parents.
Every child faces this situation, totally dependent on their parents who are so powerful and sometimes so rewarding, trying to deal with mixed up feelings about their parents and themselves. What we do next is something that strengthens the parent-child bond (for good or bad) - we start to identify with our parents, an identification which, positive or negative, can affect us for the rest of our lives.
Please note that the purpose of this article is not to blame, judge or denigrate our parents. Not to justify anger, resentment or hate, for in doing this - something that plays a large part in most people's emotional problems - we only hurt and damage ourselves. The purpose of this article is to understand what happens and why: the power that parents have and how, for many people, this power determines how they come to feel about themselves, their confidence and for many, their whole emotional life.
And once we begin to understand how we learn to feel about ourselves and its connection with emotional problems, anxiety disorders and depression, there are things we can do to cure these problems completely.
By Terry Dixon B.Sc.
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