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Adults who grew up unhappy

Hank Glorie

Clinical Psychologist

Perth, Western Australia

Children internalise or introject their early environment and for better or for worse it becomes part of them and their inner landscape. Parents are, of course, the most important part of a child's environment. Who they are and how they behave is passed on to their offspring. Because we are born 'blank slates', as children we see as normal the circumstances and family we grow up in. We adjust to survive the given environment partly through idealisation of our parents. They are the reference point that gives meaning and direction. If childhood guardians are adequately nurturing then there is harmony between the child and its needs. Put simply, the child whose parents provide consistent sensitive attunement, regard, respect, and safety is more likely to grow up carefree, relaxed, responsive, realistic, resilient, and competent to deal with adulthood and all that it demands and offers.

Similarly, and as a generalisation, parenting that provides a more psychologically impoverished environment is just as likely to produce an adult who displays levels of dysfunction equivalent to that early medium, and struggles to thrive as an adult. A range of factors can cause family dysfunction. Parents who are otherwise devoted to their children but suffer some internal sense of inadequacy such that they suffer low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression, (reduced availability) for example, may pass these states on. Insensitivity, neglectfulness, lack of interest, domineeringness, unreliableness, inconsistency or instability, abusiveness, strange or bizarre behaviour, alcohol or drug addicted parents, describes increasing levels of dysfunctional parenting. Finally, sometimes other factors, such as illness or societal dysfunction, can disrupt a child's development.

Difficulties in Adulthood

Some of the likely outcomes of a significantly less than 'good enough' upbringing can be listed.

Confusion about normalcy

Someone who grew up in a family where parenting was somehow inadequate or abusive may not have a frame of reference for what is naturally healthy, or typical, and can have a preoccupation about what is 'normal'. That person may have little experience of feeling safe and relaxed, may be hyper-vigilant, may chronically repress feelings, be unsure how to feel and respond. A chaotic early life can lead to living in fantasy ('a world of your own').

A tendency to underachieve

In adulthood there may be difficulty in being effective, in following through, in completing - in doing things beyond initial enthusiasm or when it gets a bit tougher. There may have been modelling of things not completed, or a lack of support and encouragement, or poor training in problem solving, all of which can lead to tendencies to procrastination, to be easily discouraged, to be disorganised, to be quickly overwhelmed.

Denial and indirection

Dysfunction in families usually involves denial that something painful exists, e.g. sexual abuse, alcoholism, drug dependency. Lying and denial can become ingrained. Retreat into fantasy is preferred to dealing with reality mostly as a means of survival. Concealment of intent (manipulativeness) rather than directness is used in order to get one's way or get attention. Because life was about surviving rather than thriving, simplicity, straightforwardness and openness were not fostered. (There is a different 'straightforwardness' that arises out of insensitivity to the feelings of others.) Critical parenting can produce unauthenticity in adult children.

Habitual self-criticalness

Ongoing criticising of children is a signifier of dysfunctional family life. Criticising is really an expression of rejection. This rejection can range from blatant expressions of hatred ("You brats have destroyed my life. If it wasn't for you...") to criticising dressed as encouragement ('tough love'). The child grows up feeling 'not good enough' or somehow inadequate. The criticised child can become successful in the world but they tend to suffer from perfectionism. They are responsible if something goes wrong, while achievements are minimised or unrecognised.

Angry and joyless

A home that carries a chronic atmosphere of anger and joylessness is dysfunctional. The adult who grew up in such an environment can have difficulty enjoying life and may be often grim, angry, and chronically serious. There may be a tendency to black and white thinking or to some form of fundamentalism (lack of nuance) in outlook and understanding. Psychotropic drugs might be attractive in order to feel positive and find a sense of safety, control, and spontaneity. Shame is not far below the surface.

Difficulty with long-term intimacy

We all tend to repeat/ replay what we grew up with. There is no frame of reference for a good nurturing relationship if we did not grow up with one. Parents and early environment is the template for relationships. So, difficulties may surface through avoidance of intimacy or a dynamic of push-pull (intense ambivalence). Feeling loved or feeling frightfully rejected can oscillate as the basic need for love collides with the terror of potential rejection/abandonment.

In a home where mothering was inadequate a child can learn to disavow experiences and needs, producing an adult who is disconnected from, or has limited access to, feelings and vulnerability. Or the opposite extreme may be evident: someone easily hurt, angry, depressed, anxious, and dependent as they strive for confluent engagement as protection from potential pain.

Differentiation

It takes many years of good nurturing for a strong full sense of constant identity to develop in a person (individuation). A strong healthy sense of identity is needed to be at ease with being an individual who can maintain this sense of self in the presence of others. The child whose parents could not tolerate their child's fears or distress leads to an adult who can't deal with their own fear and distress in an integrated way. They rely on denial or splitting to cope, and will do anything to avoid their fears and distress e.g. addictions, chronic rage. There may be a need for excessive control (rigidity, controllingness, inflexibility) in order to feel safe from the threat of disintegration (i.e. to maintain a sense of wholeness or adequacy).

A child living in an environment where parental care is ambivalent, inconsistent, unreliable, or contradictory can grow into a confused adult who is uncertain about his or her own value. Such a person may constantly seek approval and affirmation. The unloved child can develop a lifelong sense of being 'different' and not have a sense of belonging or fitting-in, or being part of (family, group, community), and experience themselves as an outsider. Loneliness and fear are constant companions.

Inadequate parenting can produce the adult who is fundamentally irresponsible or conversely, indiscriminately responsible. As family is the source of survival at a profound biological level, children are intensely loyal to their family. The adult from the inadequate environment may be loyal to people and situations that don't deserve that loyalty. There is a misguided sense of obligation, and difficulty leaving bad relationships. Often there is clinging to the known unhealthy relationship and a fear of challenging the dynamics of the relationship, or leaving it.

Impulsivity

The unhappy child of an unhappy upbringing can produce the adult who may be impulsive in ways that are more appropriate for children, and that lead to poor outcomes. The need for immediate gratification is overwhelming. Thoughtful consideration of consequences or alternatives is not undertaken. Impulsiveness is ungrounded, whereas spontaneity is grounded in awareness of realities. Impulsiveness involves a lack of self-control and has an 'only now matters' quality with no sense of learning from the past or planning.

Conclusion

So, the early environment, and all that was good and bad about it, is effectively recreated in the life and relationships of the adult. What we learn in childhood, and the deficiencies and traumas we experienced, become normalised and goes, by and large, out of awareness. We can, and are, driven by beliefs that we have limited awareness of. Lack of awareness means lack of choice about how to perceive and respond. We become victims of our childhood, to some extent, in that we contribute in part to recreating our early unhappiness. Only with increased self-awareness can we gain more choice about how we experience and understand our lives.

If you would like more information, or to make an appointment in relation to the above article, please feel free to call or email Hank Glorie.

Hank Glorie
Clinical Psychologist
0400 186 760
hankglorie@gmail.com

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