I don’t think anyone would argue that ‘growing up’ can be difficult. However, the enduring relationship between parent and child is fraught with so many complexities and challenges that when mismanaged, it can result in a lifetime of psychological road-blocks and mental challenges, not only for the child but the parent as well.
Most will acknowledge the harmful effects of an abusive or absent parent. But, what about the textbook parent? The loving nurturer, the wise and patient teacher? Can this seemingly idyllic child-parent relationship also contribute to challenges later in life? The answer is an emphatic yes. And there is a very common reason …
Although the reality of the child-parent relationship doesn’t change, the perception of its hierarchy and nature must.
This means that although the child and parent’s relationship to each other doesn’t change, the perception of the relationship hierarchy (which starts as dependent and caregiver) must shift as both parent and child move through life’s stages. And this doesn’t always happen.
While the abused or neglected child will often cling to the child-parent hierarchy to deflect responsibility for their negative habits and outcomes, the loved and nurtured child will often cling to the same relationship dynamic for its habitual comforts and rewards.
Adolescence and early adulthood involves curiosity, exploration and discovery. It’s adventurous and exciting, but there are risks to be taken and the fallback of a secure parent offers certainty and assurance during this stage. If not wilfully removed, this security offers an incentive to lock into the perceived child-parent relationship as the child proceeds into adult life. This is where the problem begins.
Motivational author and speaker Louise L. Hay, in her book The Power is Within You, suggests that when reaching adulthood, children should call their parents by their first name rather than mother, father or similar. Although I don’t personally subscribe to this theory, I do understand Louise’s reasoning. By calling a parent by their first name, you disrupt the perception of the child-parent hierarchy and therefore interrupt its associated patterns.
The Father’s Son
In the case of a father and son relationship, the son tends to model the father. He’ll see him as a teacher or guide to becoming a responsible man. He’ll seek his approval and eventually some kind of signal that he has ‘passed the test’ and earned the right to become ‘his own man’. Sometimes referred to as a ‘rite of passage’. But, what if he doesn’t become ‘his own man’? What if the son simply graduates from ‘his father’s boy’ to ‘his father’s man’? In other words, his identity is still that of the ‘father’s son’.
The son who doesn’t let go of the ‘image of his father’ will see his father as an authoritative figure. A superior. He will see himself as a branch to his father’s trunk. And as a result, he will always search for his father’s approval, constantly measuring himself against his father and other ‘branches’ in the process. He will question his own decisions and judgements. Await validation. Never sign-off to become ‘his own man’ and truly break free to embrace his own unique identity and experience independent self-worth and resourcefulness. The son’s filter is ‘Dad knows more, Dad knows better’, and all that he does is sifted through this mesh of validation and approval.
But, the problems aren’t isolated to the child …
A father who doesn’t let go of the ‘image of his son’ will see the son as an extension of himself. An inferior. A branch to his trunk. As a result, he’ll be blinded to the beautiful uniqueness of his son’s individuality. He won’t fully appreciate his son’s unique identity, his qualities and character. He can’t learn from his son’s unique knowledge, education and experiences. The father will ‘expect and judge’ rather than ‘appreciate and support’. And he’ll unfairly wear the failures and shortcomings of his son as if they were his own. Everything will be passed through an ‘I know more, I know better’ filter, irrespective of the father’s good or honourable intent.
It’s important to note that child and parent are co-dependent in this type of relationship. There is a pay-off that perpetuates the dynamic. The father is rewarded with significance and worth. He may even view the son as his legacy of which he is ultimately responsible. Alternatively, the son is offered love and praise when he succeeds, and although he feels the disappointment of failure, he’s also absolved of accountability. After all, he’s ‘his father’s son’, and what passes through the ‘Dad knows more, Dad knows better’ filter is ultimately his father’s responsibility.
Even without intervention, the perception eventually shifts. As the son reaches middle-age and the father reaches his elder years, the hierarchal dependence will inevitably flip as both can no longer deny their social, physical and mental disparities. The engrained child-parent image is destroyed, but what damage has been done?
Who could the son have become, or have achieved, without being limited by the beliefs and structures of his father? How much joy and appreciation has the father missed out on by limiting his son’s capacity to expand and grow? How many disappointments could have been avoided by replacing expectation with appreciation? Or conflicts as each pushed and stretched the wrappings of their child-parent relationship?
So, how do we avoid this crisis? Or at least stop the dysfunction from continuing?
By shifting the perception of the relationship hierarchy.
In other words, there must come a time when both son and father perceive each other as brothers. They must let go of their former relationship roles and see each other as independent individuals. As human beings. As equals. This isn’t to say that the same respect, guidance, love, support and other familial virtues aren’t afforded, but rather they must be mutually shared under the guise of a new relationship.
It’s where the father acknowledges and celebrates the strengths and uniqueness of his son, and where the son recognises and embraces the weaknesses and fallibilities of his father. The father accepts that he doesn’t always know more or know better, and the son acknowledges the same. They are now brothers and comrades contributing their individual strengths, wisdoms and qualities of character to a new bond, and supporting each others weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
When should the shift happen?
Steve Mueller founder of Planet of Success has written a wonderful article on ‘The Four Stages of Life’. He describes these important life stages as:-
Stage 1: Play Imitation & Education
Birth, Infancy, Childhood & Adolescence
Stage 2: Self-Discover, Enterprise & Adventurousness
Adolescence, Early Adulthood & Adulthood
Stage 3: Dedication, Contemplation & Benevolence
Adulthood, Midlife & Mature Adulthood
Stage 4: Retirement, Wisdom & Renunciation
Late Adulthood, Death
The transition of a son and father to brothers should happen as the adolescent firmly plants his feet into adulthood – the beginning of the third stage.
According to Steve Mueller, the third stage is when the bodily transformation has reached its completion and the young adult has reached a point of independence; when the young individual explores life and goes out to leave their mark on the world. When they might start a full-time job, start a business, or perhaps begin the search for a life-partner. This is when the son and father must, either consciously or unconsciously, let go of their traditional child-parent hierarchy and perceive each other as brothers.
This new relationship will continue until later stages of life, when the son will shift to the role of father (the caregiver), and the father to that of the son (the dependent). As mentioned previously, this stage is inevitable.
In this article, we’ve focussed on the son-father relationship. However, there will be dysfunction in any child-parent or child-guardian relationship where the dependent-caregiver perception has extended into adulthood. In any case, the conscious shifting of relationship roles is a helpful technique to push through the hierarchal ‘road-block’.
Even for grown children of abusive or absent parents, letting go of the perception of a ‘parent’ can help unshackle the self-limiting chains of blame and resentment. It’s only when we see our parents as human beings, as equals, as who they really are, doing the best they can despite their vulnerabilities and flaws, that we learn to appreciate their good intent and virtues, empathise and forgive their errors and shortcomings, and push through towards our own individual destinies as responsible and accountable individuals.