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Nature vs. Nurture

Most parents would be delighted with a scenario where our adult children are happy, healthy and successful in their endeavors, and maybe even phone (or text) a few times a week. Reality is usually some variation of that vision.

 But what happens when one of our adult children truly disappoints, and becomes a  “black sheep,” maybe even  blaming us for real or perceived shortcomings.  Did we fail as parents?  Is it a given that “bad” children are the result of “bad” parenting?

Not so, say some experts.  In “Accepting that Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds” Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote,  

Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.

The nature vs. nurture debate has filled volumes of books and research. To give some context—at least as much as we can in a blog–mothering21 interviewed New York  therapist Mark Sichel, author of “Healing from Family Rifts” and of a Psychology Today blog, “The Therapist is In.”  Mr. Sichel treats both adult children and their parents in his practice, and he and his wife have four children aged 22 to 32.

In a recent blog posting “When Good Parents Have Difficult Children: It’s Not Your Fault,” he wrote,

I went though 6 years of psychoanalytical training and was taught that everything  wrong with the kid  was a result of a family problem  and often the  mother’s  deficit in nurturing However, I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes neither parent or adult child demonstrates psychopathology, that some people are not sick, but simply unpleasant or evil in nature.

Q. What lead you to the conclusion that sometimes its nature rather than nurture?

A. Over the years I have treated many patients with several adult children who had the same upbringing but parents are close to one  child and the other child is estranged.  That causes heartbreak for the parents but often it’s not due to a lack of nurturing in the family.  I know, from my own work, that there are children who are born with less empathy and understanding of people and who care much less about the consequences of their actions and the effects on other people.

Q. How common is it that parents feel responsible for the shortcomings of adult children?

A. It’s one of the major reasons that people come to see me.  Most parents have struggled with this depressing thought that they are at fault for their children’s behavior. However the notion is just as fallacious as parents taking credit for their children’s achievements.  One client has an adult son who is flunking out of graduate school and the mother feels responsible.  She’s not a bad mother; she  has a great kid who just made bad decision.

Q. Suppose the troubled adult child blames the parents for his issues?

A. We and our children have all had upbringings that were to one degree or another less than ideal.  Adult children need to come to terms with what parents did and didn’t do and then build a life of their own.

Q. And the flip side of that is parents need to realize that an adult child is not always in their image and likeness? 

A. Parents need to accept that different does not mean bad.  We need to be more tolerant of children’s choices and their course in life and where it takes them.

Q. With the new generation of “emerging adults” do you see more problems?

A. In my practice there has been a tremendous upsurge of parents with unmanageable adult children.  Children of this generation were treated very different by parents than people of our generation.  I think this generation sometimes has a limited understanding of the reality of life. They grew up in boom time and now we’re in a recession but still have a feeling of over-entitlement.  They believe that they should be happy in their occupation, which is not always the case.

Q. Too many helicopter and indulgent parents? 

A. Yes, a lot of parents become too understanding and too reluctant to take a stand.  I’ve seen a kid party his way through college in freshmen year and parents end up paying $40,000 for three credits.  Parents are sometimes reluctant to take a strong stand that certain behavior in unacceptable.

Q. And too many “intrusive” parents?

A. Some parents don’t have boundaries with adult children and adult children don’t have good boundaries with parents.  Parents make judgments on children’s lifestyle and life choices, and the adult children do the same with their parents too.

Q. But, as you noted earlier, different does not necessarily mean bad. 

A. Yes, we need to be tolerant of our adult children who have different values and made different choices than we might.  It doesn’t ultimately matter if adult children are very different from us. We do want them to be loving and loyal, and even if they don’t always appear to that way,  they may surprise you. Sometime it takes a crisis and sometimes a happy event for them to come through for you but they do!

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