Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of parents in both the community mental health system and private practice. Among all the parents I’ve worked with, I’ve found that one particular group – regardless of socioeconomic status or any other factor – appears to be the most conflicted as they parent their own children: those who were recipients of bad or neglectful parenting when they were young children. Can this group rise to the occasion years later as parents and provide consistent love and nurturance, despite the fact that they didn’t get it themselves when they needed it most as children?
Conventional wisdom tells us that each generation of parents tends to get better over time, or that parents try to reverse the trend of bad parenting they received by doing things better than their own parents did many years before. In general, I find this to be true based on anecdotal clinical experience. Yet while parents who received bad parenting are often better parents to their own children, it doesn’t mean that these individuals aren’t still conflicted about meeting the gamut of emotional needs the young child has.
Not long ago, a male client in his late 40s sat on the couch of my office and talked about how he sometimes resists giving his teenage son attention, especially when his son seems most needy and follows him through the house in the hopes of getting more attention, sustained eye contact and one-on-one connection. My client’s reaction is part and parcel of the emotional package that comes with not having gotten what he needed from his own parents many years ago. After his father abandoned the family, his mother became more alcoholic and neglectful than ever, leaving him lonely and confused much of the time. Years later, he has eclipsed the quality of his parents’ parenting by light years. The dutiful father, he drives car pool and ushers the kids to the very best schools; he comes up with creative bedtime stories and cooks loving meals without any hesitation. And yet there are moments when he sees the emotional needs in his son’s eyes and flat-out doesn’t want to meet the needs. Instead, he becomes withholding.
My male client is like so many other clients who received bad parenting and, years later, still feel occasionally conflicted about wanting to meet all the emotional needs of their children. A female client in her early 40s recently took a phone call in the middle of a session and snapped when she realized it was her daughter. “What?” she asked angrily as she spoke into her phone, as if to say a daughter should not be ‘bother’ a mother. Simply put, this woman viewed her daughter as a sort of nuisance or obligation, a dynamic that was mirrored by her own parents a generation before.
For men and women who didn’t receive enough of the good, consistent attention that all kids need starting out in life, the phenomenology of parenting – what it ‘feels like’ to be a parent – is more conflicted and frustrating. These men and women aren’t bad people, but they are – deep down – still pissed that they didn’t get theirs. Like the metaphoric chip on the shoulder, kids who don’t get enough attention and loving support never forget, and I’m not sure they ever heal completely. The truth? I've found that a child who felt overlooked when it mattered most will always feel a twinge of that old sadness - even twenty, thirty, forty years later.
From the perspective of the conflicted parent, the logic goes like this: ‘Why should I give everything when I got a fraction myself?’ In darker moments of stress, the thoughts border on spiteful or even sadistic: ‘You have no idea how good you’ve got it, and you don't even know what I got from my mom or dad.' Make no mistake: The spite and anger are real for these men and women, having been stored and carried all the years since childhood. The sad reality is captured by what I frequently tell my clients who didn’t get what they needed when it mattered most:
"There’s no compensation for what you didn’t get. You will probably always feel at least a slight loss – or even emptiness – because you missed out on something so important during such critical years of development. The positive for you is that, as an adult, you have total control over whom you let into your life. At this point, you have the ability to carefully select individuals who will meet your needs so that you can, at least, get what you need once you're an adult. Remember, adults, by definition, have the freedom to control their interpersonal environment."
Norman Polansky, a true social work visionary, wrote extensively about child neglect, and what we're discussing here with resentful parents is related. While Polansky focuses on the type of neglect that is severe enough to merit contact with Child Protective Services, scores of modern-day parents display some neglectful traits and behaviors without ever reaching the point of outside intervention. Polansky identifies some of the key traits of neglectful parents in his 1981 book, Damaged Parents: appears to be indifferent to the child; appears apathetic or depressed; denies the existence of or blames the child for child’s problems in school or at home; or sees the child as worthless, bad or burdensome.
It’s the last trait – seeing the child as burdensome – that I see most frequently among conflicted parents who received bad or neglectful parenting themselves. In other words, many of these mothers and fathers do the right thing much of the time, but the overall parenting style is defined by inconsistency, where the parent doles out love and attention when it’s convenient or ego-syntonic. My clients described above fit this pattern: So much of the time, they put their child first, but that old resentment inevitably creeps back in and causes moments of emotional conflict. Sometimes, they get stuck internally questioning why they have to give something so consistently that they, in fact, got so inconsistently and sparingly.
In my clinical work, I find that times of stress for the parent, or periods where the parent is emotionally depleted, tired or worried, are the most commonly occurring conditions that precipitate moments of parental resentment. In these moments, seeing the child's needs can induce disgust in the parent, and the parent accordingly cannot have a positive, mutual interaction with the child once triggered to this extent. Inside, the parent can only feel resentment.
Ultimately, men and women who received insufficient parenting as children can largely heal and act as good parents to their own children. They can reduce feelings of frustration, resentment and sadness by becoming more aware of their feelings as they parent and talking openly about those feelings with trusted adults, including family and friends. Many men and women find that psychotherapy helps them work through some of these very old emotional issues, but the truth is that accepting the loss from their childhood is a never-ending introspective journey.
Norman A. Polansky, Mary Ann Chalmers, Elizabeth Werthan Buttenwieser, and David P. Williams. Damaged Parents. University of Chicago Press, 1981, 51.