Maybe you are now thinking: “how crude of therapists to blame parents, I would never do that”. Well, to be honest, I am quite sure we all have had some ‘parent blaming thoughts’. Moreover, society as a whole tends to blame parents for children’s behavior that differs from the societal norm. Though this can be short-sighted and unhelpful, it is correct that children are unavoidably dependent on their caregivers. An unborn baby nearly fully depends on them. Therefor, they are biologically programmed to elicit care from their caregivers, e.g. with their proportionally big and thus cute eyes. They need adults who interprete their signals of distress (often crying) to find appropriate solutions to it. Hence, when we start our life, our stress is co-regulated by our caregivers. Step by step children grow in their ability to regulate stress themselves – beginning with caregivers present in the background, slowly growing towards more independence. When stress gets really big, however, children and adolescents (and even adults) tend to go back to their primary caregivers to seek for help in regulating their overwhelming emotions or challenges.
When stress feels too big to handle, children enter with symptoms into mental health care facilities. Mental health care workers tend to mildly observe how children are not able to handle their difficulties anymore. The first ones to look at – most of the time less mildly – to be responsible for this disregulation are the parents. Parents are ought to be able to handle their children’s stress. They always attempted to help their children in various ways, yet this was insufficient to decrease or eliminate the symptoms. It is easy to blame them for not trying enough, or not being creative enough to help resolve their children’s stress. In conclusion, blaming the parents can be an automatic thought that does not need to be shamefully hidden but rather acknowledged and explored.
Let us look at it from the parental perspective. Children are often one of the most precious ‘belongings’ to parents. Inevitably, parents are most vulnerable in regards to their children. Parents coming into mental healthcare facilities always experience an ambivalent mixture of feelings like exhaustion, guilt, shame, anxiety and hope. Parents blaming themselves for the difficulties of their children is commonplace. To find blame in their therapist too, might increase the fear of not being a good parent, which in turn might lead to shutting off from the therapist or attacking the therapist.
Parenthood was never learned in school. Parent’s biggest reference for the upbringing of their children is their own upbringing. Often, parents combine elements of their own upbringing with things they want to do differently. When stress gets higher, people tend to lose this balance and want to either fully imitate their own upbringing, or do it in a totally opposite way. These extremes make parenthood less stable. To recognize something of their own upbringing that they tried to eliminate by all means can be disruptive. When parents’ own childhood was characterized by severe stress, deficit or violence – shaping their parenthood can be extra challenging. These parents often describe to lack ‘a reference point’. In addition, “it takes a village to raise a child” (African proverb). The network around a family also greatly influences one’s parenting. When that network is very little or mostly negative towards one’s parenting, this can be destabilizing and increases self-blame.