Problem Parents

Are you a parent? How would you rate your parenting skills out of ten? Maybe more to the point, how would your children rate you?

A few weeks ago psychotherapist Philippa Perry posted a brief (five minutes) but informative clip ( on the Financial Times website entitled ‘How to parent: a psychotherapist’s view’. I’d recommend a viewing. Whether it makes you feel good or bad about how you handled parenting yourself, remember that perfect parents don’t exist. ‘Good enough’ is good enough.

Now if we flip this round, how would you rate your own parents? My bet is they weren’t perfect either. But if they were good enough you probably don’t have too much to complaint about.

But what if they weren’t good enough? Suppose there was some form of physical or emotional neglect or abuse? And suppose this was never recognised but just accepted without question because that was just the way things worked in the family, so that the behaviour became ‘normalised’? Well that’s not okay.

Parent/child relationships are a major area of difficulty for many clients. Usually, such difficulties originate from personal problems that the parent has struggled with, often in their own childhood. Typically, the child will blame itself in order to preserve their dependent relationship with the parent. Even when the ‘child’ later reflects on these difficulties in adulthood there is still an innate reluctance to ‘blame’ the parent for fear of feeling or appearing disloyal.

This is difficult territory and one needs to proceed gently. While it might make sense to try to understand what really lay behind the parent’s behaviour, it is important to remember that however understandable the reasons, they do not in any way invalidate or justify the pain inflicted. We all have the right to be adequately nurtured. The hurt is real and should not be downplayed or minimised.

In Rosjke Hasseldine’s 2017 book The mother-daughter puzzle, she refers to the tendency of some parents to make their children responsible for the parent’s own unhappiness. She refers too to how this syndrome can be a legacy of emotional neglect through previous generations. In some cases the child may even find itself recreating these inherited patterns of behaviour.

I have seen a number of clients who continue to battle with such relationship difficulties with more elderly parents today, feeling that if they give up it will be their fault and that they will be responsible for failing. Also, there can be an acute sense of disloyalty in facing up to the fact that the parent might be in some way responsible for the lack of genuine emotional connection between them.

In time, many parents do in fact adjust and empathise more. Almost certainly they have been hurting too. Ideally, this will eventually facilitate the development of a genuine sense of emotional connection between parent and adult child. Ideally.

Sadly though, many parents may be impervious to attempts to resolve historical issues and may continue to expect more of their children than they have a right to. As Hassledine points out, such role expectations are toxic to emotional wellbeing. And when we see toxicity in a relationship perhaps it’s time to redirect one’s energy, which will almost certainly mean changing the habits of a lifetime. The task of reconciling oneself to the fact that a key relationship cannot be fixed is extremely difficult, and will need support and understanding.