I’ve been in private practice as a psychologist for 42 years. When I first started my career, I worked extensively with children, adolescents and families. I remember seeing troubled children enter treatment, and often saw extreme dysfunction in the family system. Things seemed to make sense. Children were experiencing problems as a result of experiences they had within their families. That realization only lasted a short while, however.
I remember, very early in my career, a young girl was going through severely difficult emotional problems, combined with significant drug abuse. Her parents and family were wonderful, smart, supportive, communicative and concerned, and did everything they could for her; they provided all the professional help they could. In spite of their positive parenting, the young woman was quite troubled. And to make matters worse, the parents blamed themselves, felt guilty, felt they didn’t do enough and felt fully responsible for their daughter’s problems.
I have been struck ever since how willing parents are to take blame for their children’s problems. If their child is depressed, anxious, using drugs or alcohol, in trouble with the law, doing poorly in school or some other problem, parents are quick to blame themselves, and question what did they do wrong. Interestingly, I have never met a parent who has taken responsibility for their child’s successes. Never do they proclaim “my child is an all-American athlete” or “my child became CEO of XYZ” all “because of me.” It is only when things don’t go well that they feel responsible.
The truth is, parents DO have a major role/responsibility in their children’s development and well-being, but by no means are they fully in control of the outcome. When I work with parents on learning to “be kind to themselves,” I help them recognize that in addition to factors at home, children are influenced by peers, teachers, magazines, movies, television, music, rock stars, celebrities and more. In addition, they come into this world with a genetic makeup and a unique personality. If there are mental health issues or addiction issues in their genetic background/history, they will be more prone to those kind of problems than their peers. If children experience adverse childhood events, or trauma, often outside of parental control, their chances of having mental health or substance abuse issues are greatly increased. Of course, there is social media, quickly becoming one of the strongest influences in the issues that affect your children, and one of the major contributors to stress, depression, anxiety and drug/alcohol abuse. I compare social media to nuclear power: used properly, it can light up a city, but used incorrectly, it can blow up a city.
So as not to be mistaken—parents have a critical, crucial and overwhelming role in the well-being of their children. I am only expressing that all problems are not a result of parental mistakes, and even the best parenting cannot prevent children from experiencing problems. The most powerful parental second guessing I have worked with is the number of parents I have seen who have lost a child to drug issues. Clearly, nothing could be more painful. Every parent I have seen have wracked themselves thinking “could I have done more,” or “I should have done more” or “did I enable too much.” Everyone I have personally worked with had spent years doing everything they could for their child. I cannot ease their pain and their loss, but I work hard to relieve them of the guilt they feel, and remind them that they are not in control of what happens to their children and we never know how things would have turned out if they had acted differently.
Parents have a role, but they are not fully responsible for what difficulties their children experience. As parents, we need to work on our parenting, and learn how to communicate effectively, provide unconditional love, strengthen self-esteem and provide appropriate boundaries and consequences and much, much more. At the same time, parents need to engage in self-care, pursue their own interests and friendships, learn how to experience joy and meaning in their lives and not have all of their own self-meaning revolve around their children’s successes or failures.
Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at email@example.com.
Moe Gelbart, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center