The Complex Relationships Between Parents and Children

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “I hate my parents?” Probably the first images that come to mind are punk rockers, or teenagers, children under a lot of pressure or dramatic television shows or movies. But even in a ‘normal’ family, we struggle with the parent/child relationship well into adulthood, even after we become parents ourselves. Why is one of the most basic relationships, one that we are literally born into, so difficult to navigate? As it turns out this is a relationship that has been examined many times over from a variety of different angles and perspectives, and there is no easy answer to that question.

Oftentimes a parent or set of parents will project their own expectations of life on their children. Sometimes these are failed ambitions, or wanting better for the child than they themselves were afforded. One extreme example of the negative blowback from projecting ones ambition onto one’s child is the relationship between Nina and Erica in the film Black Swan. Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Weber Libby explores that blowback in an article on Psychology Today: “The parent’s ambition, cloaked in what is in the child’s best interest, seduces the child into a gratifying relationship with the parent, one in which the child is indulged as the favorite. Ultimately, this relationship limits the child’s emotional growth and personal development.” (Psychology Today- Libby) Because the child feels so much pressure to do as well or better than their parent, there is no room for them to grow as a separate, independent human with their own experiences. This is shown many times in the film when Nina is simultaneously praised for her perfect technique, but lack of passion or personality behind her skills. If the child never separates themselves from their parent, or if they are punished when they try to separate, they can easily grow to resent their parents for the very connection the parent was trying to foster and strengthen.

This connection is further complicated when there is more than one child in the family. In Black Swan, Nina is an only child–but imagine if she’d had a younger sibling or siblings and their mother continued focusing on Nina exclusively. While favoritism among siblings is normal and unavoidable, how the parent-child relationship develops as a result can be destructive. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph. D., explains in an article about sibling rivalry that even perceived favoritism can effect the ways in which siblings, and parents/children, relate to one another. This effect can and often does last well into adulthood and is frequently life-long. (Psychology Today- Whitbourne)

In fact, the parent/child relationship and its effects at large are nearly impossible to shed in adulthood, or simply “grow out of”. As Dr. Mark Epstein, M.D. explains in his article “Why We Hate Our Parents”, “Children, even angry, adult ones, never stop needing their parents’ love.” (Yoga Journal). The parent/child relationship is irreplaceable and cannot be reproduced with anyone else in our lives. While we can have multiple partners, siblings, friends, etc over our lives, we can never replace or replicate our relationship with our mother and father. Dr. Epstein explains how this effects the relationship from both perspectives: “The special challenge of childrearing is to relate to children as the individuals they already are, not to try to make them into people they could never be. This turns out to be the key to relating with parents, as well.”

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the ways in which parents and children relate to one another. Once you add in potential mental health issues, abusive relationships, or myriad other family members, things become even more impossible to generalize. Every parent/child relationship is different, even, as Dr. Libby explains, among children in the same family.

For more on the complex relationship between parents and children, check out A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, by John Bowlby and related titles.

Sources:

Epstein, Mark. http://www.yogajournal.com/article/lifestyle/why-we-hate-our-parents/

Libby, Dr. Ellen Weber. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-favorite-child/201104/the-black-swan-lesson-in-parentchild-relationships

Libby, Dr. Ellen Weber. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-favorite-child/201110/mom-liked-you-best

Whitbourne, Susan Krauss. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201501/why-you-and-your-siblings-may-still-be-rivals

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