Pathological Parenting — Is There Hope?


Some of us were lucky and really had good mothers and fathers, or at least good enough mothers and fathers. As a trauma therapist, I see more than my fair share of people who didn’t get so lucky, and some of us got more unlucky than others still. The good news is, however, that the effects of having negative parenting can be overcome, and our senses of self can be restored through a number of means.

First blessing that we have is the power to observe the things we say to ourselves that we picked up from our environment. Through the help of the connections between the limbic system (the emotional parts of our brains), our prefrontal cortices and the language part of our brains (Broca’s area), we can reflect on our inner dialogue and identify what is helpful versus what is harmful to us. Sometimes we need another person’s perspective to do that, because we grew up thinking of ourselves a certain way so what seems normal to us is appalling to another person who wasn’t raised similarly. But if we leave room to pay attention, we can identify which thoughts make us feel sad, angry, shameful or frightened, and which ones make us feel calm and happy. We can use our own body’s responses to help us do that — when I think this, my shoulders cave and I slouch, or my eyes hurt like they want to cry. What really helps us do this reflection is regular quiet time spent going inward, observing our mental process without judgment or caring what other people think. You are your own audience, and you get to bear witness to your own experience. Some call it meditation; other people can achieve this through prayer. I don’t think it matters how you get there, as long as you can observe without judgment.

The second blessing is what is called “neural plasticity.” This means that the brain changes and adapts depending on our experiences and interactions within ourselves and with our environments. According to Louis Cozolino, PhD, “genetic expression is controlled by experiences throughout life, and …changes in the environment, both good and bad, continue to have positive and negative effects on us” (p. 324, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, 2nd Ed.). This is great news because even if we didn’t get everything we needed psychologically from our caretakers as infants and children, we are not lost and broken forever. Our neurons (nerve cells) can fire differently when we’re in a more positive, supportive environment, and even the organization of brain structures can change in response to skill learning. Even if you had very negative relationships with other people in your family or with your peers, there is hope to have more satisfying, mutually beneficial interactions with your current peers and important people in your life.

I find both these notions to be very encouraging and try to share these ideas with clients because sometimes people have been talking to themselves negatively for so long, they are convinced they cannot change. It takes work, but that notion of being broken doesn’t have to be the case. I’m sure there are some people whose parenting was so pathological that it would take a monumental effort to change their self-talk and behavior, but for most of us, I think that we can overcome that type of history. It takes hope, and it also takes help. But at least our brains can be cooperative allies in the process.

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