I made a joke on Facebook the other day that phrases like “My parents are amazing” or “I had a great/good/normal childhood” always raise my red therapist-flag. One of my friends who is a parent threatened to start downing both xanax and parenting books after reading this. I promised to try to explain it.
Kids go through a couple different phases in how they relate to their parents. First, young children idealize their parents. This feels good, to both the child and the parent. It feels good to the parent because it’s great to be The Best Person On Earth in someone’s eyes. And it feels good to the child because his nascent identity is linked to his view of his parents. Mom is amazing, SO I’M AMAZING! Dad is the best ever, AND I BELONG TO HIM, SO I’M GOOD TOO!
Then, right about the time the pituitary gland kicks into high gear, kids have another developmental task: To create an identity that is completely separate from mom and dad. The problem is, the adolescent brain can’t handle ambivalence (feeling two opposite things at once). So that means it’s impossible for a 13 year old to know that Mom/Dad is a mix of both good and bad, and I am also a mix of good and bad. If I, a 13 year old, want to see myself as “good,” then I must think of Mom as “bad” (or embarrassing, stupid, annoying, etc). Thankfully, I think most kids do their parent-hating in fits and spurts, and it’s over soon enough. During this phase, the parents need some extra oxygen, patience, and probably wine.
So while all this idealizing and/or devaluing is going on, the most reliable, and terrible, rule of families remains constant: Parents UNCONSCIOUSLY turn to their children to meet any of their own UNCONSCIOUS emotional needs.
This is where idealization can get sticky. On the one hand, our kids must idealize us, it’s a normal developmental phase. But, the child will also pick up on any UNCONSCIOUS needs of his parents, and he will use his idealization to try to comfort, uplift, and soothe the parent.
The parent who carries her unmet AND UNCONSCIOUS emotional needs into the child’s adolescence won’t be able to tolerate the necessary developmental phase of devaluation. This parent will UNCONSCIOUSLY demand that the child return to, or at least pretend to be in, the former state of admiration and adoration. A parent’s unconscious manipulation can take a variety of forms, from a raised eyebrow, to withholding praise, to overt statements of Right and Wrong.
This is where “My parents are great!” makes me tread carefully in therapy. There is almost certainly some truth to that statement… most people, unless they’re really far gone, have good or great qualities. But, a blanket statement of goodness makes me wonder if the speaker was ever allowed to go through the necessary phase of hating their parents.
Attachment research supports this idea that “My childhood was wonderful!” is indicative of problems. Adults who have an insecure attachment style (formed in their own families of origin) almost uniformly report their childhood was “good” or “wonderful” or “happy”… but they are unable to provide details of WHAT was good or happy.
In contrast, adults with secure attachment histories have rich detailed stories of their childhoods. They don’t rely on labels like “Dad was funny” or “Mom took care of us.” They talk about the time that mom got stressed out over something at work and yelled at the kids to go to their room for no reason, and how that was painful and confusing, then mom apologized at the dinner table and it helped a little but we were still mad. Or the time that Dad told a joke and I didn’t understand it, and I was too embarrassed to ask because I didn’t want my dad to think of me as stupid so I laughed.
You’ll notice my yelling of the word “UNCONSCIOUS!” I want that word to stand out, because our needs and failures are not a problem in and of themselves. The problem comes when we’re unaware of our own shit. As Alice Miller, in her book Drama of the Gifted Child writes:
A child can never see through unconscious manipulation. It is like the air he breathes; he knows no other, and it appears to him to be the only breathable air.
This is why I’m such a therapy advocate. Because most (all?) parents have unmet needs, places of insecurity, and failures (including parenting failures). The problem is when these things are UNCONSCIOUS. Therapy’s only real job is to bring the unconscious into consciousness. In therapy, we can name and claim our fucked-up-ness, and when we do that, children can know that it’s not their responsibility. If we are aware of our missing pieces, our gaps, our works-in-progress, then we can make a conscious choice of how to respond to those bits of our selves. Which means we don’t have to rely on the still-tender psyches of our kids to fix what’s broken within us.
So, what do I do when I hear “My parents were great?” I ask for stories. What was great? Not surprisingly, I don’t usually get much at first. When the details do come out, they are often painful ones, memories of feelings that were not seen as acceptable, so they weren’t processed. Some of my clients believe their parents were “good” because any “bad” feelings were quickly banished from the home. They never got the chance to develop rich, multifaceted stories, to articulate the complex feelings about their parents that are hallmarks of all truly intimate relationships.
My friend who threatened to take the Xanax and OD on parenting books once told me, “As soon as my son can hold this thought, I am going to teach him that MOMMY IS HUMAN.” That’s the statement that makes me not worry about her as a parent. Her boy, still very young, might refuse to believe mommy is anything less than perfect for a while yet. But as long as my friend knows the details of her own humanity—in its strength and glory, and in its messy needy screwed-up-ness— then I am confident her son won’t be one of the minions that mindlessly upholds his parents’ egos too far into adulthood. To be human and know it is, I think, the best gift we can give to our kids.