Although most people understand, or at least feel intuitively what is appropriate and what isn’t in family relationships, in most families there are still quite a lot of unhealthy patterns and a huge load of imposed guilt. Those patterns hinder many people from acting in the way they feel is healthy and appropriate, even from questioning their behavior and behavior of other family members from a rational point of view.
Integrative Systemic Coaching looks at the family as a system. Most systems strive to keep a balance, and if some parts of the system become dysfunctional, other parts will try to take over their functions to compensate. It is similar with families, in which children, being the most sensitive and receptive members, unconsciously try to bring the balance back if it’s lost. They might take too much responsibility, or resort to problematic behaviour, so to redirect family activity and attention. Some children express feelings and behaviour which are either forbidden or suppressed within the family.
If a child, even after growing up, compulsorily and overly expresses certain emotions or needs (e.g. sexuality or anger), it is possible that this is just an unconscious expression of an emotion or urge that one or both parents have been denying or have avoided expressing. This is the consequence of “systematic“ behaviour – keeping balance in the family as a system. For such a person, and for the family, those compulsive urges can be not only unpleasant but also completely incomprehensible, so the person can develop a lot of shame and guilt because of those feelings.
From time to time, we’re contacted by parents who are confused with depression, fear or aggression shown by their children, saying that there seems to be no apparent reason for this and that they put a lot of effort in the child’s upbringing. In many such cases it becomes apparent that there are many suppressed and unexpressed emotions between the parents or within one of the parents, and sometimes even in other family relationships.
In those situations we focus primarily on working with the parents and their feelings. And, as the parents change their self-image and experience and start to feel relief, very often they’ll say that the children, without any obvious reason, started to act differently, e.g. to communicate more calmly or even became motivated to study without extra encouragement.
In short, many adult people have emotional urges which are irrational, compulsive and unconsciously motivated, and for children it’s even more difficult to rationally and willingly control such urges. Unfortunately, many people do not recognise unhealthy patterns until they escalate in the child’s behaviour, and even then they are very often justified or ignored until some serious crisis happens, or someone from outside has to intervene, but then the blame will often be put on the child again.
After ignorance, the second most common reason for this kind of attitude is shame of being labelled. What is important to understand is that it is not shameful to have emotional problems, but that it is totally common and normal, as opposed to a perfect outside appearance that we usually try to present.
I will briefly list the basic principles of healthy family behaviour the way I see them:
Healthy and mature adults take responsibility for their feelings, actions and life circumstances, and do not expect their children to share this responsibility (responsibility for parents’ emotions).
A healthy and mature parental role is to support children in growing up, developing their own identities, and finally in separating from parents and becoming independent. In this process, both parents and children can create an atmosphere in which they see each other as mature and responsible human beings.
A healthy role of children is to respect their parents, their history and experiences, but to focus on their own lives; to be aware of the fact the parents are adult human beings, able and responsible to take care of their lives.
Sometimes parents expect from their children gratitude, “paying back of the debt“, and sometimes this means that children are expected to sacrifice their personal needs in return, even their own individuality and independence. Mature and responsible parents understand that the children do not owe them and especially that they are not obliged to sacrifice their happiness for the parents’ sake. Life by itself, just like investing time, energy and money in a child, is an immeasurable gift for which a healthy child, when adult, will feel gratitude, but in the instant when parents start to demand expressions of this gratitude or even the child’s sacrifices, it stops being a gift given freely, and becomes trade and blackmail. For children this is an extreme burden, not being loved or brought to the world for themselves, but only to pay back for this “gift” someday. In a very small child this will create a huge felling of guilt and lack of self-esteem.
It’s natural that young adults give their own lives and families (partner and children) priority. Taking responsibility for parents’ needs, feelings and happiness, sacrificing oneself, trying to make parents happy – automatically means putting the parents into a child’s role and perceiving them as weak instead of adult and able people. The parents’ expectation that the child should fulfill their emotional needs and should live their desires is one of the most common sources of suffering, emotional disorders, guilt and problems in relationships, which are often carried over from generation to generation and can be difficult to release.
I don’t claim that people should abandon sick and old parents – but some physically healthy parents expect their offspring to neglect their own families to take care of them. Healthy adult children will give necessary help to disabled parents and still see them as responsible adults.
Unhealthy parents: consequences
Children need to trust the important adults. This need is so strong that it is at the root of many traumas and toxic beliefs: these are created as a way for children to continue trusting their parents. Beside the need for trust, there is also the need to love and to be loved, so small children create many defense mechanisms to be able to keep on loving people who are close to them.
For children, especially if younger than three years of age, when they are extremely dependent on their parents, the awareness that they can not rely on the parents or their love is too frightening an experience to bear. So they spontaneously and unconsciously justify their parents. In situations when a parent acts improperly, children often take responsibility and create toxic beliefs about themselves. Beliefs like: “I am not good enough”, “Something is wrong with me“, “My feelings are not important“ then become rooted in the foundations of personality and affect the adult life. We can feel them especially in situations that remind us of circumstances that originally triggered such beliefs.
For example, if a parent is shouting, insulting or ignoring the child, for a relatively insignificant mistake, which can often happen if the parent is frustrated by other life circumstances, the child must either recognise that the parent is acting in an immature, unjustified and unreasonable manner or trust the parent and make a conclusion that their own mistake must be so big that it justifies such a strong reaction. An older child could feel relatively safe to recognise the parents’ imperfection, but a child who is two or three is not able to do so. A small child will almost always choose to trust the parent – creating the belief that even small mistakes are unacceptable. It is very hard, if not impossible, to be “perfect”, especially if you are a child, so naturally the next step for children is to convince themselves that they are not good enough and that something is wrong with them. Some older children will try to defend themselves from this feeling by rage and spite, but these are just defense mechanisms, not solutions.
Adults often hold children responsible for own feelings – an adult that is in any way irritated by a child’s behaviour, might automatically conclude that the child is at fault, rather than checking the background of their own feelings, or other possible causes of the child’s behaviour.
Lack of respect for children
Many adults treat children without much respect, just because children are less experienced and have fewer ability to express themselves. Adults that communicate in a rough, cold and commanding way, even with a certain level of disregard towards children, are unfortunately still more common than ones who communicate with children as with equal human beings who are intelligent, valuable and capable to feel, although inexperienced.
Even accumulated experience does not necessary mean that adults are always right. This is more obvious when we look back into the past, when children’s healthy behaviour and needs were opposed by cruel and rigid beliefs of adults – who, of course, assumed that they were right. Even today similar behaviour is common, although in subtler ways.
I think there is a difference between wisdom and “plain“, rational knowledge: wisdom is when emotions, experience and logical mind all cooperate in harmony. In this area, children may sometimes have an advantage over the adults, since they are much more spontaneous and allowing their feelings to flow. Their handicap is the inability to consider perspectives and information which can be acquired only through experience and learning. For children it’s also much more difficult to find the right words to express themselves.
When we talk to someone in a foreign language we might feel uncomfortable and insecure, not because our thoughts were inferior, but because we are not able to find the right words to express them. Children can feel in a similar way in front of a confident, verbally and logically skilled adult. Adult people often use this fact to their advantage, not thinking about injuries caused to children.
Power and expectations
Sometimes, therapy means not only to resolve traumatic experiences, but also consequences of subtler circumstances that might even seem positive at a first glance. Parents might enjoy the feeling of power and importance, and the fact that they have more knowledge and experience than a child – for some people that might be the only chance to feel competent – while others, with best intentions, might have too high expectations from a child, or expect the child to be somehow “special“.
A child is likely to idealise parents who present themselves as powerful and smart, to admire parents and wish to fulfill their expectations, especially of the opposite sex parent. Occasionally I work with people to whom such circumstances left quite unpleasant consequences – the feeling that they are not able to fulfill expectations, that they are never good enough. Often they are attracted to people who impress them, but who make them feel less competent and valuable.
Exactly in those areas of life where we spent most of our energy and time pursuing our interests, it might be difficult to allow our children to be different and live their own lives and beliefs. People focused on material goods will expect their children to follow such values, and the children’s interests and feelings will be less important. People who are intellectually focused will care less of formalities and material goods, but it might be even harder for them to accept that their children have different interests and values. When something is important to us, we wish that people who are close to us agree with us, and we might try to control our children quite rigidly, or love them conditionally.
Books about child psychology and upbringing are increasingly popular. As with other forms of personal development, however, methods can be used superficially to achieve external results, without much understanding of the meaning and purpose of a particular approach. Some people, on the surface, may seem to apply appropriate communication skills, but without truly understanding children; they just hope for fast results. Their nonverbal communication – especially their tone of voice and facial expressions – will still show lack of patience and respect (especially if the results are not as desired).
Children are generally more sensitive than adults and will be more influenced by nonverbal signals and emotional energy than by words alone. If non-verbal signals conflict with spoken words, it is natural that the child’s motivation to cooperate will not increase. The parent often attributes this lack of success to the child’s character.
Most parents believe – and in some way they are right – that they give the best they can to their children. When children start to behave in unwanted or unhealthy ways, this is usually attributed to the influence of other children or the media.
The influence of peers and mass media becomes important at a somewhat later age, after the critical years of personality development are over (the first three years of a child’s life). But even when those outer influences become stronger they can’t influence a child’s personality as quickly and powerfully as those early and unconscious impacts do, they just enhance the existing elements in the child’s experience and feelings.
I want to emphasise that children’s personalities are not only created by what is present and given in their surroundings, but also by what is missing. For many families this is difficult to understand, since their point of view is, although not verbalised, that children are a kind of “tabula rasa” and that they can’t miss something they never even knew.
Many people who start researching their feelings and subconscious minds discover that, as children, they needed and expected much deeper and better quality love than is usually available in our society, especially considering the organisation of society and its demands of children and parents. It’s interesting to ponder where this need comes from if we never had a chance to experience and know this kind of love before.
In every communication among humans, no matter what age, most nonverbal communication is perceived and processed on the unconscious level and influences the relationship through vague impressions about the other person, rather than through conscious interpretation. When a child is very young, which is the most important stage of development, nonverbal communication is much more influential than the verbal, which the child can’t even yet understand well. Here lies the reason for many problems in behavior that parents later can not understand and often deny responsibility for.