One of the most important things a family can do for its children is teach them to function on their own as adults, find a vocation allowing them to work and experience meaning and purpose in life, as well as form an identity of their own outside the family unit. In psychology this is called differentiation. Healthy families do this well. Yet, while it’s important for that young person growing up in the family to make an independent transition it’s just as important for them to have a grounded identity and heritage to call their own. They need to see themselves as part of an ongoing story of people living life as best as possible in a difficult and sometimes unpredictable world. Families need to share a family narrative with their children concerning the strengths, weaknesses, struggles, and victories their ancestors experienced as a way of handing on the wisdom gained in one generation to the next. Even if family dysfunction kept you from experiencing this family narrative, you can start that narrative with your experience of family life. This gives children the opportunity to continue the narrative and take the hurt and pain from your past and shape it into a story about how mom or dad overcame their difficult past handing on to them the strength to flourish and be succesful.
Sharing the family narrative provides the support and grounding your children need to know they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Additionally, it assures them they aren’t trapped and consumed by this family identity but rather a contributor to it through their own unique qualities and personalities. Young adults must be permitted to weave their story into the the story of the family but to do so they need to know it. Basically, they need to become their own person while recognizing what they become emerges from a supportive group of people connecting them to an important past.
I’ve been a therapist for a long time. Often, the young people walking into my office are struggling with becoming their own person while maintaining a connection to their family of origin. Sometimes families consume a young person and use them as instruments to maintain family peace, care for sick family members, or provide financial support for other family members. While helping family is healthy, enabling families to be dysfunctional is not. Young people need to be young people, not parentified individuals taking on the roles of mothers, fathers, and other adults refusing to fulfill their family role.
If there is any advice I can give to people considering starting a family it’s to reflect on your family narrative, understand how it helps you be the person you are, how it needs changed, what it emphasizes, and what it filters out so you’re comfortable with your role in this developing story. Then, make sure you know your insecurities, struggles, and difficulties so these don’t become an excuse for drawing the young people you will be raising into the drama of your unresolved issues.
Being a parent is a “Sacred Trust.” You’re participating in the development of the next generation of people who will significantly impact the world. You can either help shape men and women of character with strong identities and an understanding of their purpose in life or you can psychologically deform your child to be a creature meant merely to serve your immediate needs and soothe your anxious fears.