Our birth family can play a role in the development of depression
Trying to understand why you are struggling with depression, can sometimes take you back to your childhood. The way we react to situations was really hard-wired into us while growing up. Our parents, our birth family showed us who we were by how they responded to us and our needs as little people. Our self-image started being formed.
Our ‘growing up’ environment also gave us ‘messages’ about who we were and had an impact on what we grew up believing about ourselves. A person from a minority group, subjected to racial prejudice would have received a message of inferiority ingrained into them while growing up. Internalizing this belief of inferiority certainly makes one more vulnerable to depression as an adult.
A person’s most important emotional need is for unconditional love. Experiencing unconditional love enables us in turn to love unconditionally. Children need the security of knowing they are loved even when their behavior is not so great. Unconditional love means never having to feel a threat of love being withdrawn. Giving unconditional love to ‘bratty’ children can be difficult, especially if you never received it while growing up yourself.
Parents are ‘God-like‘ to children
Children believe what their parents say to be the absolute truth. ‘Mum or Dad said it, it must be true’. So when a child is told that ‘nice children don’t get angry’, the child has little choice but to suppress the anger, pretend it’s not there in order to be a so-called ‘nice’ child. ‘That way I’ll be loved’, the child thinks unconsciously.
What about comments like:
- ‘Boys don’t cry’
- ‘Don’t do that -what will other people think of you!’
- ‘You don’t really feel that way, you’re oversensitive, overreacting’ etc.
These comments cause emotional damage and the person gets emotionally stuck at that developmental level. These sorts of comments usually trigger people appeasing behavior, which continues long into adulthood. These sorts of beliefs need to be assessed and discarded.
Think about it. Why do parents criticize their children like this? Their inner intentions must be good or else they wouldn’t do it. To put it bluntly, it’s because when they were children, their emotions were criticized and what their parents said ‘must be true’!
Then as adults they’re not equipped to deal with their children’s emotions and the cycle passes down from one generation to the next. Emotions are God given and all emotions have a purpose.
Name the Feelings!
Instead of criticizing a child for being angry, rather empathize with words like ‘I can see you’re feeling really angry’. A statement like this shows acceptance and allows the child to express what’s happening. If you’ve told your child to stop being angry, it actually just makes it worse as the child starts feeling unloved and unheard. Giving a name to the child’s emotions, or mirroring the emotion back to the child, can really help them.
Accept the emotion as a part of them, which it really is! The child can then be helped to channel the emotion in a more acceptable way. This is far healthier than criticizing the child’s emotion in which case they have no choice but to ‘split off’ that emotion, suppress it and pretend it’s not there. The ‘monster’ will then come back to ‘bite’ them as adults!
Childhood Experiences affect Adult Behavior
Imagine a young boy growing up in poverty, life is hard. He looks at people with money and decides that money would make him secure and happy. ‘Money makes life easier and will bring me happiness’, is the thought that could get hard-wired into him as a child, and then goes into the unconscious. This belief operating from the unconscious then dictates his behavior as an adult. As an adult he becomes a workaholic, makes stacks of money. His behavior matches his internal belief about happiness.
However, his family might not agree! If they complain that he doesn’t spend enough time with them, he would probably react quite defensively with statements like ‘I’m doing all this for you, I thought you’d be grateful, but all you do is complain!’ They have challenged the truth of his hard-wired belief that money brings happiness.
How does this affect the next generation?
Children are very self-focused and tend to blame themselves for things that seem wrong in a family. So in this case, they would probably conclude that there is something wrong with them and that’s why Dad spends so little time with them.
- What about Dads who run up and down the side of the sports field, berating their children when they play badly. What’s the actual message reaching the child? ‘To be loved and accepted in this world, I must be at the top, the best, perfect’. Fast forward the scene a bit to the adult businessman who has to get to the top and it doesn’t matter who is sacrificed on the way up. This could have been hard-wired into him as a child, maybe on the sports field!
- What about the child brought up in an alcoholic home. His emotional needs are seldom met and this child will experience emotional problems in adulthood, possibly even alcoholism. As alcohol abuse has been the child’s role model, it will influence his behaviour as an adult. The damage continues from one generation to the next. Whether it results in alcoholism, or an extremely anti alcohol stance, it does have an effect. A child brought up in a home with alcoholism often suffers from depression as an adult. It’s even known as a syndrome called ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics’.
- A perfectionist parent unconsciously gives the message that the child is only acceptable if they are perfect. This is an impossible goal as we are all imperfect. A perfectionist continually berates himself for his imperfection. As a perfectionist you are continually striving to please that parent voice within you.
- A parent with a caregiver type personality can give a confused message to the child. The child sees far greater care being given to outsiders than to the immediate family. This might seem strange but the caregiver is trying to get ‘her need to be needed’ met. And where better to get this need met than outside of the family, they are far more appreciative. What message does the child get? Mum seems to pay attention to everybody else; there must be something wrong with me.
We’ve all felt rejection. It certainly feels awful and most of us would rather behave in a way to avoid it. We all have a need to feel loved and secure, and have a sense of belonging and it all starts in childhood. Children start taking on roles to get their needs met, to feel accepted and to lessen the possibility of rejection.
- The rebel, or scapegoat – some attention is better than no attention
- The achiever in the family who gets high praise for academic achievements
- The family clown who has the ability to distract the family from its pains
- The withdrawn child, fearful of expressing himself.
These roles might have helped you get your needs met as a child but when continued into adulthood, they are often very dysfunctional! Temper tantrums might have worked as a child but they are not suitable adult behavior! Examine your behavior, recognize the source and then start practicing more ‘adult’ behavior.
During childhood our self-image is laid down and we behave in a way that matches our self-image. Your self-image will have an influence on the type of person you get involved with.
- People with a good self-image won’t allow themselves to get involved in an abusive relationship.
- Often an abused child will marry an abuser because it matches the self-image. It’s not nice but it’s familiar.
- A girl whose father is distant might marry an emotionally distant man. Unconsciously she’s thinks that if she tries hard enough she’ll succeed in getting the love she felt she didn’t get from Dad.
- A man who had a controlling mother and was never affirmed as a competent man, might marry a very competent, controlling woman. He will probably love and hate her at the same time, as he sees her competency as a reflection of his inadequacy.
Helping a friend in need
All our behavior is motivated by a need. If you want to help someone don’t criticize the emotion, rather look at what need they are trying to get met. The greater the emotion, the greater the need. Criticizing the emotion will only make the person feel unaccepted and they’ll withdraw.
Look behind the emotion to the need.
For example, in adolescence, the lack of feeling loved can lead to promiscuous behavior in order to get the need for love met. Sex is incorrectly equated with love.
We become more compassionate and less judgmental if we take our eyes off the behavior and look to the underlying need. Trying to then meet that underlying need will be far more effective in helping the other person.
Evaluating your past
While you’ve been reading this article maybe some events from your own life have surfaced. It could have been painful, even very painful, as long forgotten memories resurfaced.
Blaming people in your past isn’t going to help, as it gives others control over your life. As you come to a greater understanding of events that shaped you as an adult remember that you are responsible for your behavior. It’s no good saying ‘I can’t help it, after what happened to me in my childhood …’ Understanding can help you move forward, rather than staying stuck in the past.
Rescript your life story
We all enter adulthood damaged in some way, but we don’t have to live our lives as victims of our past taught to us by our birth family. Part of the task of growing up is to look at the belief systems that we were taught as children and decide whether these are valid or not, whether they help us in life or not. If of no help, we need to dump them as unwanted baggage.
Any good story has a consistent beginning, middle and end. Your life story also needs to make sense. The good news is that you can rescript the rest of your life and discard the unwanted baggage that you took on when you were an innocent child.