| Family Reflections |

Product of Parenting

We can’t blame a child’s mental health solely on his parents



arents raise children; they don’t make them. Parenting is an important job and, like any job, should be performed as well as possible. Acquiring parenting skills helps make a parent more effective in every way. A good set of parenting skills helps prevent all sorts of harm. But parenting, good or bad, is only part of the developmental picture.

The Healthy Child

It would be great if we could take credit for raising a successful, emotionally solid, all-around wonderful human being. What an accomplishment! Our hard work paid off. We reaped what we sowed.

Alas, it isn’t that simple — as any parent of a large family knows.

Our “difficult” child, or our sensitive one, or our neighbor’s completely dysfunctional son or interesting daughter, isn’t necessarily the product of parenting gone wrong. This is very important for all of us to remember, both for our own sakes and for the sake of our humility and compassion for others.

We already know that any project we undertake succeeds only due to Hashem’s blessing, but this is nowhere more evident than in the parenting journey. Normal, imperfect parents manage to raise fine kids all the time. Conscientious, intentional, and caring parents can easily have one or more highly challenging and challenged children. This is because there is so much more that goes into the making of a human being than parental input.

Parent Blaming

Nonetheless, for some reason we love to blame parents. At one time, psychiatrists were the masters at this game. In the two decades between 1950 and 1970, the controlling and rejecting “schizophrenogenic mother” was pinned as the cause of her child’s psychotic illness. Thankfully, that theory eventually gave way to broader psycho-socially influenced, brain-based disease models.

During the same era, “refrigerator parents” were held accountable for causing their child’s autism through their cold parenting style. This theory, too, eventually gave way to a more complex understanding of the condition.

But the fact that theories like these could get off the ground in the first place simply shows how embedded our belief is that parents can make or break their child through their parenting styles. The notion grew out of a kernel of truth that unfortunately sprang into a tree of lies.

The truth is that severe childhood abuse, most often occurring within a dysfunctional system, does appear to be a contributing factor in the development of all sorts of mental illnesses, including psychosis. We’re not talking here about parenting imperfections such as sometimes raising one’s voice, pressuring a child, or failing to offer sufficient attention or praise.

Rather, we’re talking about behaviors so heinous that it would be easy for any of us to understand how they could be a factor in the destruction of a human being. And even then, it’s important for us to know that not all children are equally vulnerable even to that kind of abuse.

While some will never enjoy normal lives or relationships, there are some who — growing up in the very same family — will be spared by their own resilient genetic constitutions and/or their access to at least one healthy, supportive relationship.

Effects of Culture

Moreover, there are factors beyond personal qualities and family experiences that shape personality. The surrounding culture is one of them. Although people of all ages learn to express and address their stress in culturally “normal” ways, adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to social influence. This has been posited as the reason that different mental health problems tend to manifest in large numbers of young people in different places at different times. In a particular decade, and in particular parts of the world, anorexia becomes a common illness. In other parts of the world, young women succumb en masse to “resignation syndrome” (reported by neurologist Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan, a sort of coma common in Sweden in the past decade).

Parents of children who develop these or any other disorders aren’t necessarily responsible for their child’s particular journey. Indeed, they may play no role at all. And of course, children themselves don’t choose their malaise; rather they’re products of all they’re in contact with. Genes, personal experiences, academic experiences, social encounters, religious experiences, cultural influences, family relationships, free will, and more, all converge in the developmental journey of a human being.

Let none of us point fingers at parents to “explain” the behavior of a child.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 827)

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