Many people have a role reversal with a parent where the child is more like the parent to their parent. This can start early on in life – and continue until the parent’s last breath when the child has been an adult for many years.
This happens because for some reason the parent is excessively needy. That reason is most often due to the parent having a mental health issue, including depression and anxiety disorders.
Excessive neediness like this often arises due to unmet needs as a child.
It could be due to an addiction. This can be to alcohol and drugs or it can also be a behavioral addiction to such as gambling, exercise, love or work.
When looked into it is seen that most addicts have more than one addiction and frequently have dual diagnosis. This could be such as suffering from alcoholism and depression.
How a child is affected by a parent with a mental health problem
A child growing up under the “care” of a parent with a mental health issue, including addictions will experience profound difficulties. This is because basic human requirements that any child needs are not met.
Overwhelmingly this is the need to feel loved. Anything we love we give our time to – and yet so many parents who are suffering from mental health problems do not give this precious time to their children.
This means the children won’t feel validated. That can lead to a lifetime of striving to feel loved and validated.
In fact many people that our society sees as “successful” are very frequently struggling with this. Their extreme efforts are a desperate attempt to feel the love they didn’t receive as children.
Tragically it doesn’t work this way. It is one reason why we see the many tragedies of celebrities who seem to have it all, at least materially and externally.
The other side of this is that some people feel so worthless that by the time they leave home they think they are so unworthy of love that they have given up on it. Due to such low self-worth their lives can be one long succession of underachievement, including loveless relationships.
Perhaps a parent disappears from a child’s life. This could be due to a mental health problem that they are not dealing with effectively.
Or it might be that the way they are attempting to deal with a mental health issue is through, say, workaholism. So the child hardly sees them and when they do the parent is working instead of playing with or listening to them.
Either way, the message a child hears is clear: you don’t really matter to me. If both parents are delivering this message then of course it’s even more damaging.
Everything we say and do shapes the world around us
“A child can experience her feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her, and supports her,” psychologist Alice Miller wrote in her 1979 bestselling book The Drama Of The Gifted Child: The Search For The True Self. “If that person is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother’s love of her substitute in order to feel, then she will repress emotions.”
Most parents who neglect their parental duties like this are not bad people. They are unwell people who are fighting their demons.
These may be as addiction expert Dr Gabor Maté described it in one of the bestselling recovery books of these past few years, In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, as “the compressed torment of generations”.
The actions of a parent trying to deal with this can be at the least sad and at worst extremely damaging. For instance, a mother who’s chronically depressed will just not be able to be there for her children.
Or it could be that a little boy who was physically abused in some way grows up to be a father who lashes out at his own children in a futile bid to deal with his shame and anger at what happened to him.
It can be seen how this type of pain and suffering can easily be transferred from one generation to the next.
“Child abuse is still sanctioned — indeed, held in high regard — in our society as long as it is defined as child-rearing,” Alice Miller wrote in The Drama Of The Gifted Child. “It is a tragic fact that parents beat their children in order to escape the emotions from how they were treated by their own parents.”
Not only parents, it can also be another major caregiver that the child sees often and who plays a big part in their life. But it is a fact that as children, we are being shaped.
Then as we grow older due to the family or another bond we may start to become our parent’s or caregiver’s carer. That is even while we have mental health issues ourselves that are a consequence of our upbringing.
Skeletons in the closet
“Family secrets can go back for generations,” says counselor John Bradshaw in his recovery classic Healing The Shame That Binds You. “They can be about suicides, homicides, incest, abortions, addictions, public loss of face, financial disaster and so on.
“All the secrets get acted out. This is the power of toxic shame.”
Bradshaw – who was abandoned by an alcoholic father who’d been abandoned by his own father – continues to say that the pain and suffering of shame generates automatic and unconscious defenses. “Freud called these defenses by various names: denial, idealization of parents, repression of emotions and dissociation from emotions.
“What is important to note is that we can’t know what we don’t know. Denial, idealization, repression and dissociation are unconscious survival mechanisms.
“Because they are unconscious, we lose touch with the shame, hurt and pain they cover up. We cannot heal what we cannot feel. So without recovery, our toxic shame gets carried for generations.”
Bradshaw goes on to say how the job of parents is to model. But that shame-based parents don’t know how to do this.
Successful parental modeling includes:
- How to deal with life’s continual problems.
- How to be self-disciplined.
- How to love oneself and others.
- How to be a grown-up with mature emotions.
- How to relate intimately to others.
- How to communicate and the importance of listening.
- How to acknowledge, feel and express emotions.
- How to have physical, emotional and intellectual boundaries.
What’s the best way to deal with a needy parent?
One aspect of parenting connected with a mental health illness that’s been extensively studied is the impact of an alcoholic parent on a child. It includes how it affects the child into their adulthood.
Many of these aspects are also true of growing up with a parent addicted to something else. Or who was or still is suffering from any of the main types of mental health illnesses, including anxiety, mood disorders and personality disorders.
Common characteristics of adult children of alcoholics include:
- Low self-esteem.
- Not able to cope with criticism.
- Frightened by anger.
- Difficulty trusting people.
- Abandonment fears.
- Finding it difficult to express feelings.
- Focusing on being a victim.
- Continually seeking approval from others.
- Feeling it’s wrong or being scared to stand up for themselves.
- Looking for relationships where they can be a carer, and then neglecting their own needs.
- More likely to become an alcoholic or have an alcoholic partner. (Or if the parent suffered from, for instance, an anxiety disorder then the adult child of this parent is more likely to also suffer from an anxiety disorder.)
Considering all these negative impacts the first thing in dealing with a needy parent is for someone to fix themselves. If they want the parent to be able to look after themselves better – hence be less needy – then it’s worth remembering that nobody can give away what they do not already have.
So the first thing to do is to get treatment for any issues from which the grown-up child of the needy parent is suffering. As many of these are learned during childhood they might not be obvious – which is why seeking the help of a professional therapist is so essential.
In recovery we learn not only why we think, feel and behave in certain ways but also how to deal with life on life’s terms. In time, these recovery tools can be passed on to the needy parent.
Learn first how to survive and thrive
This is not in any way giving up on them. But it is acknowledging that we have to first learn ourselves how to survive and thrive.
It is similar to being on a plane when in the case of an emergency they instruct parents with children to put on their own oxygen mask first. It seems to go against every loving instinct – but when we think about it, it makes sense: we always need to make sure we are able to look after those who need us.
“We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it,” wrote Alice Miller in The Drama Of The Gifted Child.
In fact John Bradshaw thought: “Hell, in my opinion, is never finding your true self and never living your own life or knowing who you are.”
So an adult child of a needy parent is always likely to be held back from recovering themselves if they are continually tending to the parent. But once they have recovered, then they will be able to help their needy parent (and others in need of help) to also move forward.
It may even be the case that the parent wants what they see their grown-up child has now. But this is important to remember: we are powerless over other people.
If the adult child of a needy or emotionally unwell parent deals with any issues they have, they will learn how to help. They will also be aware that they must have certain boundaries in order to continue looking after themselves.
Contact us today to discover how we can help you or someone you care about.