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  • Nina

The Parent-Child Dynamic

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

From birth, we’re taught that we have to be good and our said goodness is in direct correlation with our behaviour. We’re taught that if we do or do not do something, we’re good based on how we behave. Ultimately, this implies we’re not good already and when we’re constantly told to be a good girl/boy – it can be difficult to keep track of what falls into which category, especially when they’re different to whoever is looking after you.

Our parent-child relationships are the foundation we build every other relationship in life on. Whether we were brought up in a single parent home, adopted or in a nuclear family (loving or unloving) – how we interact with people outside of our immediate family is directly based on those four walls.

So, let’s talk about parents and how much weight their teachings hold when transitioning into adulthood.

The parent-child relationship has major influence on most aspects of child development – when we have the luxury of experiencing healthy parenting, it can have a positive impact on our self-esteem, school achievement, cognitive development and behaviour.

Unbelievably, so many of us cling to what we’ve prayed to be released from – and while a lot of our parents have not been as healthy as we’d hoped for, this doesn’t become apparent to us until much later in life. So, when it’s time for us to start building our own relationships we often repeat the mistakes of our parents.

Some of these character defects can only manifest in particular situations; i.e. we don’t know that we’re controlling in romantic relationships until we consistently dictate what our partner can and cannot wear, who they can/cannot talk to, etc. We don’t know that we’re a self-centred friend until all of our friendships have broken down because we don’t listen to detail unless it’s about us.

While a lot of us pray to be nothing like our parents (myself included), we become more and more like them the longer we don’t take responsibility for actioning all of the information we have access to. When we know better, we have a duty to do better.

Psychotherapists across the globe talk about the severe effects our parents can have on us - they can influence how we interact with people and cause unintentional damage simply by witnessing how they have managed certain situations across the span of our lives.

Growing up in a household where verbal expressions of love were not common can mean we find it difficult to articulate feelings in future relationships. Similarly, being brought up in households we’ve witnessed express love openly can teach us how to be open to expressing love ourselves.

Part of our own journey as adults, especially as believers and children of the diaspora, means that there is a lot of unlearning and relearning to do.

Boundaries expert, Nedra Glover Tawwab (@nedratawwab on Instagram), talks about the importance of establishing boundaries in the parent-child relationship. We have to go back to go forward sometimes and in this case, the ability to look back, assess our upbringings and behaviours that were considered normal, can help get to the core of issues that present themselves in our adulthoods.

Nedra Glover Tawwab helpfully lists signs of an unhealthy parent-child relationship:

  1. Your parents are hyper-critical of you

  2. Your parents are emotionally unavailable or distant

  3. Your parents are self-absorbed

  4. You argue with your parents a lot

  5. Your parents are controlling

  6. Your relationship with your parents is enmeshed

  7. Your parents are verbally abusive

  8. Your parents ignore your emotional needs

  9. Your parents are competitive with you

  10. You seem like a parent to your parents

These signs may not show up all at once, all of them may not even be accurate to your relationship but they are at least starting thoughts to consider.

We’re all better when we get to the root of our problems. The root starts at the beginning so you might need to go back.

I have learnt over the past year that I have a parent who is emotionally immature, distant and in part, harmful. This has meant some many things in my healing process but mostly, it has meant being painfully patient. It has forced me to relearn what authority means, what family means and what my non-negotiables look like. When things are unhealthy, they force us to take a closer look at what the problems are. I’ve also had to challenge my beliefs about family and how damaging they have been to my mental health over the years.

Ways I have learnt to get through it:

  1. Deciding how I want to show up in the relationship

  2. Not blaming myself

  3. Managing my expectations around what my parent can offer me

  4. Leaning on others for emotional support

  5. Allowing my parent access based on my ability to tolerate them

  6. Talking to them less frequently

  7. Addressing issues with them sooner rather than later

  8. Not fighting to be right

  9. Choosing my battles

  10. Stopped believing that because I only get one of each parent; “no matter what they do, I need to get over it.”

No one needs to be collateral damage in our healing process. We have to do the work, take inventory of where we are mentally and emotionally before anything else. Write it down, talk to someone, consider therapy. Therapy is for deeply painful past experiences and that could mean anything to anyone. The best time is now, it’s always now.

From birth, we’re taught that if we do or do not do something, we’re good based on how we behave. Something to note is “nothing you do or think or wish or make is necessary to establish your worth”, an excerpt from A Course in Miracles.

So while we're force-fed the idea that we can’t be good unless we do something or not do something as children, we have the ability to reinvent ourselves as adults. We subconsciously internalise the things our parents labelled us as children and whether you were a good child or a bad child, you can change it all.

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