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Michael Bader: Are parents always to blame?

Why do therapists always seem to blame parents for what’s wrong with their patients?

Aren’t adults responsible for our own screw-ups?

Isn’t it a self-indulgent cop-out to see ourselves as the helpless victims of our bad parents?

Well, yes and no.

First of all, our parents often did the best they could given the constraints of their own backgrounds.

Furthermore, as adults, we certainly do have a much larger degree of freedom to choose how we live our lives then we did as children.

And, finally, children come into the world with certain temperamental tendencies that are part of their biology and some of these hard-wired tendencies persist throughout the life span and are, therefore, no one’s “fault,” any more than our hair color is.

Parents aren’t abusing their children by passing along their genes.

Nature, in other words, sometimes trumps nurture.

So, let’s stop parent-blaming.

Regrettably, we are especially inclined to blame mothers, which reflects a sexist bias in psychology as well as in our culture.

Since Dr. Spock’s famous books about childrearing and the post WWII baby boom, we’ve been led to believe that parents — and mothers in particular — have an almost omnipotent power and responsibility for raising either healthy or unhealthy children, and the load of guilt and blame suffered by parents as a result has been unwarranted and unfair. Many a mother has had to bear the terrible weight of unfounded self-blame and doubt about her role in producing a child who is schizophrenic or autistic.

It’s only in recent years that the biologic underpinnings of these and other mental afflictions have been discovered.

Stopping the blame game, however, can also do a disservice to many people.

In my 35 years of clinical practice, I’ve seen hundreds of patients who are only too willing to quickly give their parents a pass when it comes to the cause of their difficulties and, instead, are quick to blame themselves.

Self-blame is extremely common in many — if not most — psychological syndromes. Patients feel damaged, defective, and “bad” in all sorts of ways, as well as enormously guilty about blaming anyone, especially their families of origin, for having hurt them. In other words, many if not most people have tremendous difficulty feeling innocent.

They can’t accept the fact that, as children, they were justifiably innocent and had a legitimate claim to feeling wounded. The reality is that in childhood, parents have an awesome power to define reality (the way things are) and morality (the way things are supposed to be).

Children are utterly dependent on their parents for their emotional and physical survival and have no alternative experience of life with which to oppose or discredit the one created by their parents.

They can’t just pack up and leave and find a different or better family.

Children are, therefore, powerfully motivated to adapt to their parents in order to maintain their primary attachment to these all-powerful beings.

Given the vital nature of these attachments, children are especially vulnerable to being hurt by intended or unintended actions of parents.

Kids comply with how they’re treated. They internalize it because they have to. There is an old saying that “children would rather be sinners in heaven than saints in hell,” meaning that children will always blame themselves, feel bad and exonerate their parents — rather than feel innocent and have to regard their parents as truly bad.

It’s often too frightening and guilt-provoking to confront the reality of mistreatment by people upon whom we depend for everything.

Better to condemn yourself and minimize the harm inflicted. This is the psychology of the abused child, although the underlying conflicts and confusion about guilt and innocence are ubiquitous.

So the answer to the question, “Who’s to blame?” is more complicated than it seems.

On the one hand, families of origin are responsible for most of the syndromes and suffering that psychotherapists see in their offices.

The past profoundly shapes the present. But locating responsibility or causation isn’t the same as blame. Our parents were, themselves, once children in families that created much of their suffering. Parents often wound children unintentionally or in ways that children experience but don’t necessarily correctly understand.

And, finally, it’s important to remember that parents are also responsible for many of our strengths and assets. In the end, the most important thing we can do is to try to restore a sense of our own intrinsic goodness and innocence, understand the origins of our suffering — and bend our efforts toward lightening the burden of our pasts in order to take responsibility for creating a better future.

Michael Bader is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com

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