The Unknowing Parent & the Wounded Child: Patterns of Dysfunction within the Family System – PAR


Parents do not come with a parenting manual or a relational certificate. Their script is inherited from their own parents, who, in turn, had inherited theirs from their families of origin. And the cycle continues inter-generationally.

Unconscious parenting creates a painful sense of shame, inadequacy or false superiority in children. Left unacknowledged and unprocessed, this results in carrying these wounds into adulthood. When events in the life of adults who carry these wounds trigger unconscious memories of the original wounding, they enter a cycle of re-experiencing the shame or grandiosity of childhood and react to situations immaturely and dysfunctionally.

These primal problems of relationship that originate in childhood are sent back to the recesses of the mind and are hidden from view by layers of dysfunctional adult adaptation. With the authentic self completely usurped by the layers of coping defenses, healthy intimacy for the adult becomes elusive. Healthy intimacy requires the trusting offer of our true self to another (whether partner, spouse, friend, sibling, son, daughter, etc.) and our trusting acceptance of the other’s true self in return.

The Wounding Dance:

Stress destroys our ability to be mature parents and to have authentic relationships. In a perpetually stressful and demanding world in which many of us today struggle to raise our children, we tragically, though inadvertently, traumatize and burden our children with the pain of psychic wounds that may last their entire lives.

To stressed parents, particularly first-timers, the job of parenting can be overwhelming. With no script to follow except the inherited one with all its inaccuracies and falsities, parents are unaware of how inappropriately they are parenting. They are often confused, saddened, enraged, overwhelmed or depressed as the task of parenting brings to the surface the parents’ own childhood wounds. The parents overreact to their children and do one of two things that begin the whole problematic cycle: They falsely empower or they disempower their children.

All trauma results from disempowering abuse or falsely empowering abuse (which is also disempowering because it is not authentic). The unaware parent either shames the child into silence as a way of managing his/her own external stress, thereby disempowering the child, or assigns the child roles for which the parent should be responsible, thereby falsely empowering the child.

Under false empowerment, the child is asked to take care of parents (whether physically and/or emotionally). Parents make children believe that assigning them this role has given them power and importance. What parents are actually doing in false empowerment is robbing the children of their childhood. Examples of assigned roles include: Hero, Heroine, Counselor, Friend, Confidante, Mediator, Daddy’s Little Girl, Mommy’s Little Man, and the Clown (who is assigned the task of bringing lightness and humor into the family). Burdening children with the task of caring for their parents traumatizes children by silencing their true, authentic selves. They wind up with a false sense of value that makes them believe that they are “better than” or “one-up” over the parents they are caring for.

Falsely empowered children become adapted to a role that damages their childhood spontaneity and gives them a premature sense of maturity. These children lose contact with their own authentic selves, and although they know that something is not quite right, the praise they get for “being so good and making their parents proud” keeps them content in their delusion of power. Both parents and children are living a lie. For these children, the source of value is external. They never learn the concept of inherent worth. Their value comes from taking care of other people, and instead of developing “self-esteem” they develop “other-esteem”. They live their lives playing a role, disconnected from their authentic self and from the place of real self-love.

As adults, these falsely empowered children enter into relationships with a role to fulfill. They feel empowered when they are taking care of other people. They feel they must do the right thing and always appear to be “good”. They are often vey successful individuals who abandon their spontaneity in order to act according to what they consider to be the best plan for success in their role.

Eventually, their need to be mature “stars” becomes a burden and their resentment to this role begins to surface. As impossible as it may seem for them to abandon their role of “grandiosity” for which their parents praised them and their grown-up friends and colleagues continued to do the same, the split between their authentic self and the adaptive self begins to make itself know. These successful adults in the external world plunge into spiritual crisis and begin to suffer from anxiety, depression, boredom, or the feeling of “emptiness” or “stuckness”. Their adaptive processing had long validated their sense of worth and belonging to the family system by the role they played within that system. As adults, as they approach spiritual emergency, they develop a sense of emptiness that can only be filled by becoming risk-takers, indulging in such things as secret and promiscuous sexual encounters, extreme sports, substance abuse, etc. On the surface, these individuals are highly praised for their successful careers and good deeds. Below the surface is a desperate and “immoral” attempt to find vitality, which, if discovered, the individual feels it will bring them “shameful demise”.

At times these falsely empowered individuals are smart enough to recognize that their parents who had bestowed upon them false power are quite faulted individuals themselves. They come to realize that they had received their authority from a false source. This realization is tremendously shaming and will often make them feel worthless. In turn, they become the “worthless heroes or heroines”; they continue to achieve wonderful things in life, but they are unable to enjoy their accomplishments because they now know that their drive has always been falsely empowered. Unless they change their inner narrative, the shame within will continue to make them feel smaller and smaller from within.

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*Part II of this series will continue with the dynamic of the “disempowered child”– the child who is shamed overtly or covertly by the parent. Stay tuned!

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