"I feel like it's my fault" is a phrase I hear more and more frequently from parents who've struggled, unsuccessfully, to have a good relationship with an adult child. Daphne, who had come to see me for depression and anxiety, began her first session by telling me, "My husband and I have a great relationship with our oldest daughter and our youngest son, but I've always had to walk on eggshells with my middle child, my daughter Alice. Ever since I can remember, Alice had to get her way and if she didn't, there'd be hell to pay. Temper tantrums as a young child, rebellious and disrespectful behavior when she was a teenager, and now as an adult she has cut off ties with us completely. We've tried as hard as possible to be good parents, and apparently succeeded with two of our adult children, and we've tried everything we could think of to have a good relationship with Alice, but nothing has worked. I feel depressed and upset almost all the time, and I can't help feeling like I'm not a good mother, that it's my fault Alice wants nothing to do with us or her brother and sister."
In my book "Healing From Family Rifts," I note that, "It's too easy to revert to harsh self-criticism when something goes wrong, and by ancient reflex become sure once again that ‘it's all my fault.' It's too easy to fall back to judging ourselves just as easily as we are evaluated by our grown children. That was Daphne's situation, succumbing to her daughter Alice's list of grievances against her. Most parents have struggled with this depressing thought that they are at fault for their children's behavior, however the notion is just as fallacious as parents taking credit for their children's achievements.
I, like most trained therapists, had until recently assumed an estranged child either had a psychiatric problem or their parents had been remiss in some fundamental way in parenting them. My professional bent and theoretical orientation led me to believe that either a difficult child has a psychological problem that needs treatment, or that their parents were in some way negligent, neglectful, or abusive. However, I've come to the conclusion that sometimes neither parent or adult child demonstrates psychopathology, that some people are not sick, but simply unpleasant or evil in nature.
Dr. Richard Friedman, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, wrote about this phenomenon in the New York Times. "For years mental health professionals were trained to see children as solely products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it." Friedman goes on to note "the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children."
In the course of my therapy practice I've seen many parents who have brought up two, three or more children who, like Daphne above, have one child that is unmanageable, be they toddlers, school age children, teenagers or adults. Parents come to me for guidance in managing their children, particularly parents of adult children who have either unmanageable relationships or complete estrangement from their adult children. Sometimes I can help them heal the rift with their adult children or manage to establish a more workable way of dealing with their younger children. Other times, however, the only answer to their problem is seeing their children as being, as Dr. Friedman says, "just not a nice person."
While not all difficult children can be classified as psychopaths, in a study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, neurological findings confirm that there are people who are "hard-wired" and shown to have "genetically driven difference in connectivity between parts of the brain that normally drive empathy, conscience and impulse control. These data thus suggest a specific disruption of the network connecting orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala in psychopaths, the degree of which correlated strongly with the subjects’ scores on the psychopathy checklist.
Leading British child psychologist Dr. Pat Spungin says: "There will always be children who are much more difficult to parent than others. While I am reluctant to label children bad seeds, I think certain children are born with much less susceptibility to influence. Psychologists recognize that there are temperamental differences in babies from birth. The nature versus nurture argument will always be an ongoing one, but I know, from my own work, that there are children who are born with less empathy and understanding of people and who care much less about the consequences of their actions and the effects on other people."
The conclusion I've come to is that when a parent feels, in their heads and their hearts, that they've done everything possible to repair their relationships or change the behavior of their children, the best resolution is to realize, as KJ Dell'Antonia writes in an article in Slate entitled ‘Good Parents. Bad Children,' "that admitting we may not be able to influence something so simple as how nice they are is just too difficult. We'd rather search for reasons and influences and things we can change than accept that maybe there are some things we can't. But the paradox is that accepting there are things about our kids that are fundamental and unchangeable might make us all enjoy parenting a little more."