There are a lot of personal problems I blamed my parents for, or at least that I used to blame my parents for. My failures in intimacy and relationships were influenced by my parents’ failing marriage and subsequent divorce. My problems assimilating to being a first-generation American was something I partially attributed to my upbringing. My aversion to values like power, appearances, and reputation was all attributed to my parents’ cultural values.
I love my parents, and despite sometimes rocky points in our relationships, they have done much more good than harm in my life. Plus, we often forget our parents are human beings too, not vessels that solely serve to protect, feed, and nurture us.
Throughout my life, I have cast away much of the blame I attributed to my parents — the older I’ve gotten, the more responsibility I now take for my own problems instead of blaming them all on my parents. I used to go through periods of resentment. Now, the “my parents are human too” message is certainly one I’ve internalized, and one that has been healthy for me to press forward and not see myself as a victim of circumstance.
Also, I’m not a child anymore. At 24, it’s less acceptable for me to blame all my mistakes and flaws on my parents than it was when I was 14.
Dr. Nassir Ghaemi at Psychology Today says it has become too easy for mental health professionals and clinicians to blame parents. Ghaemi attributes this trend in psychotherapy to Freudian ideas, which led many clinicians to believe “mental health problems stemmed from unconscious emotional problems rooted in childhood.” Especially before the 1980s, Ghaemi notes a big trend in therapy was to blame parents instead of the children.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the NIH (National Institute of Health) funded a research study that attributed schizophrenia to bad parenting, a finding that was later refuted by studies in Denmark that attributed schizophrenia to genetics. The American psychiatric community resisted these findings, insisting that parents were still to blame. Even in the late 1960s, when Freud’s granddaughter started studying to be a social worker, she was appalled at how hostile many psychiatrists were to parents of children with autism, now known as a genetic disability:
“Their theoretical framework led them to make foolish and malevolent interpretations.”
Beyond simply history, the trend of blaming our parents for our problems and struggles with mental health has validity. However, there come points where it goes too far.
I have suffered from depression phases of depression, and my parents were not to blame. No one was to blame — I simply had a set of very unfortunate circumstances anyone would have a hard time dealing with. Earlier in my life, my parents would have made a convenient scapegoat, but that burden was mine to shoulder, and honestly, no one was to blame beyond just unfortunate circumstances.
Likewise, I do not want to extrapolate my worldview to others. Some of us had parents who were outright abusive or absent. I have had neither — although there was significant childhood trauma associated with my family (not putting them on blast in case they read this article), it was the experiences, not the people themselves that are responsible. Amy Morin at Psychology Today talks about the biopsychosocial model and cites research that blaming parents leads to higher rates of mental illness. She differentiates between explanations and excuses.
An example from my own life is I usually avoid conflict and confrontation because of how often my parents fought, yelled, and screamed at each other. My father had earth-shaking explosions of anger. Many friends comment I never seem to get angry (I do, but I’m very wary about expressing it). The explanation version would be “where I grew up, my parents fought a lot, so I try not to be too confrontational with others.” The excuse version would be “I can’t do confrontation at all because my parents fought a lot.” Anyone who has been through life knows confrontation, at times, is inevitable — completely avoiding confrontation is a way of impeding my maturity and letting other people make the difficult choices.
For others, habits like yelling might be what resonate. There are habits our parents had that we try to emulate or we try to steer in the complete opposite direction. Mark Manson argues blaming our parents for everything is a form of self-indulgence, and Manson cites a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that outcomes for identical twins separated at birth and identical twins raised together were very similar. Basically, researchers found in both situations that 45% of personalities and behavior are based on genetics, while 55% is based on environment. Manson then logically concluded our parents don’t have effects, long-term, on who we are:
“The data suggest that our parents’ parenting methods have no noticeable effect on our permanent personality traits,” Manson says.
Again, my parents may have messed up at times, but other people’s parents may have really messed up or have done some horrible things. It’s natural to want to blame our parents for some things — those of us who have never seen a healthy intimate relationship modeled can easily blame our parents for our never having a healthy relationship.
But what use is it? Manson notes we’re not children anymore. No one is going to fix our problems for us. We can have great friends, great partners, and great mentors. But the fact is they have their own problems they’re dealing with, many of which might be similar to our own. The only people who can attend to the responsibility of fixing and doing the work are ourselves — yes, other people can push us, and as we all know, money certainly helps a lot too. At a certain point, being an adult means letting go of the victimization of a child not having their needs met by their parents.
Again, this is not meant to extrapolate to everyone’s experiences. If your parents were abusive, if they were absent, if they put you through experiences no child has been through, it’s ultimately your decision who’s responsible at the end of the day.
As compassionate as any of us might be, however, it’s hard to be around other adults who never take responsibility for anything and always have someone to blame. And I do this sometimes too — friends have to give me a wake-up call. As an adult, my parents weren’t responsible for my avoidance of confrontation. I am.
The last reason against blaming our parents for our problems? It’s bad for us, and research shows it’s bad for our mental health.
Dr. Darya Gaysina and Ellen Jo Thompson at the University of Sussex note adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are very universal — in England, one in ten adults had four or more negative experiences in childhood, which adversely affected their mental health in the long run. But Gaysina and Thompson also cite a large 2013 study suggesting that blaming parents does not help people move away from negative consequences of adverse experiences, and dwelling on native experiences and blaming parents leads people to have greater risks for mental illness.
“The study therefore suggests that psychological processes such as blaming parents can be more dangerous for mental health than the past experiences themselves,” Gaysina and Thompson say.
Ultimately, Gaysina and Thompson suggest seeking more positive adult experiences like social support and exercise to improve mental health and to seek professional help and therapy for severe mental health problems. Taking responsibility helps us grow more than blaming our parents, whenever we’re ready.
Originally published on Invisible Illness on May 23, 2021.