As a child, did you frequently feel behind the curve—or the eight-ball? If so, what was that like for you? And why do you think you may have struggled to fit in with others, so fundamental to a child’s sense of personal adequacy?
Any number of reasons could account for such a nagging sense of disconnection. But perhaps the most common one relates to parenting. That is, in your caretakers’ relationship with you, did they show the ability to properly prepare you for life, both with themselves and outside the family? Were they possibly deficient in imparting to you a clear and confident understanding of what, interpersonally, was appropriate behavior, as well as help you to foresee which words or actions (however innocent) might raise other people's eyebrows?
Typically, you learn what’s socially fitting more from your family than anyone else. After all, they’re the first “society” you’re exposed to. So your sense of belonging in the world starts with the messages you get from them. If your parents enable you to comfortably confide in them, which is to say, help you to feel it’s safe to do so by not responding critically when you ask for advice or share a deeply personal problem—you’ll generally learn what’s acceptable social conduct.
Nonetheless, the caveat must be added here that if your parents are naive or deviate from community norms, such circumstances would amply explain why you shouldn’t take them into your confidence.
There’s also the problem of growing up with parents who subjected you to benign (or maybe, not so benign) neglect. In consequence, you’d have received very little, if any, guidance from them. And if that were the case, it’s likely that in interacting with others you would have betrayed a certain guilelessness and committed a variety of communicative blunders. Insufficiently informed of social conventions, customs, or graces, you may have acted in ways that made others frown on you. You may even have ended up being ostracized if, however inadvertently, you violated some critical social norm or standard.
For instance, I once worked with a client whose parents could hardly be seen as abusive but yet paid scant attention to adequately socializing him—teaching him (by word and deed) the norms, values, and social skills he'd need to relate harmoniously to others—without standing out from them in ways detrimental to his relational welfare.
His father, whose marked ethnic and racial biases weren’t at all recognized by him, once used the phrase “Jewish Banker,” from which he got the idea to call a popular Jewish child in a group he’d joined “Jew boy.” And this transgression led all the kids in earshot to glare at and distance themselves from him. Understandably, such a “communal” reaction left him feeling terribly hurt and humiliated, yet without really understanding what he’d said that was so reprehensible.
Self-contained by nature and never feeling comfortable confiding in his eternally busy and too-often dismissive parents, he kept the incident to himself. But occurrences like this led to his being plagued with a distortedly negative self-image, viewing himself as somehow offensive and basically unacceptable: As in, sadly, “I can’t figure out why, but I know there must be something really wrong with me.”
In another instance, in talking to an African-American girl he was friendly with, he thought he was being “cool” when he employed the nickname “spade,” which somehow had worked its way into his lexicon. And the instant this girl, taken aback, heard that word, which she rightfully identified as a racial slur, she looked at him hurt, confused, and angry, and never said another word to him. Once again, he was left feeling bewildered, and probably even more hurt than the girl he’d accidentally insulted.
I could provide additional examples of such off-putting indiscretions from many other clients I’ve worked with. But I’m sure by now you get the idea of the kinds of improprieties a child is vulnerable to committing when they’re not getting the kind of parental guidance they need. And even beyond this, it should be apprehended that the “shoulds” derived from your parents, the unfortunate biases you unconsciously “imbibe” from them, put you at risk for violating the norms of social conduct that exist independent of your particular household.
Additionally, there’s also the possibility that your family was dysfunctional in ways that literally taught you to be interpersonally inappropriate. And their poor modeling may have related to how, prejudicially, they perceived the world or the aberrant ways they acted toward each other. If, for instance, your household harbored an almost paranoid distrust of anyone outside the family, they may well have taught you (whether covertly or explicitly) not to trust anyone who wasn’t part of your “clan”—that if you let them, these “outsiders” would doubtless take advantage of you.
In other instances, your family may have modeled behavior sharply at odds with community rules and regulations. But, as already suggested, when you’re young and impressionable, your family is pretty much your whole world. So their norms are simply what you assume to be normal. If for example, they assiduously avoid all displays of physical affection, you might well end up with major internal prohibitions against exhibiting such warmth, or with physical intimacy in general. For, through "family conditioning” alone, such behavior might exist considerably outside your comfort zone: It just feels too unfamiliar (cf. “un-family-ar”) to you.
Or, say, one of your parents was seriously addicted. Perhaps your father was powerfully “attached” to the defensive emotion of anger and was a rageaholic. Everyone in your family would then have to carefully monitor their expression. For getting such an explosive parent upset could trigger in him a terrifying, out-of-control temper tantrum. As a result, you might have cultivated a habit of refraining from any spontaneous expression of thought or feeling. Freely discussing what was going on with you could feel tantamount to putting yourself in emotional (or even physical) peril. Needless to say, having developed such a once-adaptive but now self-sabotaging inhibition is likely to make it impossible to comfortably speak your mind when an occasion might demand that you do so.
Here’s one final example (and I’m actually being extremely selective here) of how parents, though hardly meaning to, can fail to provide their child the mentoring they require.
Almost all adolescents have a keen interest in sex. Yet they can be quite naive about many of its baffling complexities. It’s generally agreed that getting information and advice from peers about this most intriguing (but often misunderstood) subject isn’t very prudent. For in this age group, myths and misconceptions abound. Still, many parents are uncomfortable talking to their children about sex because it just feels too “intimate” (or embarrassing) to them.
Or, if they do approach their son or daughter to discuss the subject, they do so only to moralistically lecture them rather than listen non-judgmentally to their questions and concerns. And so, many teens realize that their parents can’t be a “resource” for them here and feel forced to turn to their fellow teens, whose knowledge about sexuality and sexual relations may not be much more sophisticated than their own.
The conclusion to all of this? Simply that parents need to create an atmosphere that’s emotionally safe enough for kids to turn to them when they’re at a loss to recognize or resolve personal issues on their own. Children can benefit immensely if they have caretakers who unconditionally accept them and can respond non-critically, and non-dogmatically, to anything their child might want to ask them about.
And it should be added, sometimes what the child needs most isn’t advice at all, but just to be listened to, taken seriously, and understood. That’s actually a dominant part of their caretakers’ being there for them. After all, the world can be an enormously confusing place for a child. So anything a parent can do to make it more manageable, more “decipherable,” can be invaluable to a child’s healthy development.
Moreover, if parents can appreciate how to " be there" for their child, they’ll be in the best position to help them, going forward, make the most "informed" (i.e., sensible and circumspect) decisions. But if, regrettably, they have too many unrectified issues themselves to perform this essential parental task, then it can only be hoped that the child will find some adult (whether a teacher, coach, neighbor, or other relative) to consult when they’re struggling with dilemmas they can’t possibly be expected to solve alone.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.