When we are children we are taught that family is everything. Blood is very important. Honour your parents. Respect your adult relatives. Make all of them proud. Follow their advice. They want the best for you. Now, all this can be true most times. But in others, it isn’t. The concept of family as a loving institution is one I struggle with a lot because my family is deeply dysfunctional. I grew up thinking I was part of a small minority of children in the world who didn’t have normal Christmas celebrations, who didn’t experience happy family holidays, who disliked Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, who preferred going out with friends than staying at home with family, who barely depended on relatives for anything…
However, as I time went by, I realised people like me aren’t part of a minority. We are part of an invisible large group in society, a group that hides their stories and issues, while pretending everything is fine to keep going and to fit in. As members of the group, we know that if we voice our experiences and thoughts, we will be most likely misunderstood and thought of as “whiny, spoiled and uneducated kids that hate their relatives without a reason”.
Family isn’t everything for me. And I personally know other young people, with different backgrounds, yet in the same situation: no relatives to trust or cherish completely. I have read so many stories of LGBT+ teens that were kicked out of their homes for being who they are. I have read so many stories of teens with verbally and physically abusive parents, who can’t get help due to lack of social protection and/or access to welfare services. I have read so many stories of girls without freedom of choice and forced into marriage by their own mothers. I have read so many stories of boys whose depression is unseen and ignored due their fathers’ pressure on their masculinity. I have just read too many stories. And none of them were fiction.
Telling children that parents always want the best for them is dangerous. Telling children that family will always be there for them is dangerous. Telling children that love from relatives is unconditional is dangerous. All this isn’t true for many and it leads to delusions and false hopes while children try to please others at the expense of losing their identity and developing mental health issues. Psychological abuse is real and not only adults experience it. Many children and teenagers are trapped in abusive relationships, but their feelings and behaviour are ignored or misinterpreted till it is too late. The main problem with psychological abuse, mental health problems, and emotional issue is that they can’t be seen, so for many, they don’t exist.
Constantly insulting someone to the point in which they have no self-esteem and self-confidence isn’t discipline: it is verbal abuse. Constantly punishing someone physically because you are angry and think you have power isn’t discipline: it is physical abuse. I have experienced both things and at least 75% of the times, I did nothing wrong other than being near a really moody relative. Sometimes, the people who hurt me ended up realising they were wrong, yet they rarely said sorry. They normally ignored it and acted sweet minutes after, or they tried to put the blame on me with irrelevant accusations and mind games. You may think this isn’t a big deal, that complaining about it is being weak, and that it is something easy to accept and live with. However, it isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe adults should be respected, not because they are adults, but because they are humans and humans should be respected. Then again, there is a difference between respect and abuse of power. A difference that some don’t understand. Just because your son or daughter doesn’t agree with you, it doesn’t mean they are disrespecting you. Plus, respect should be mutual. Children should respect their parents and parents should respect their children. I’m not saying children should run their houses: I’m saying that children ought not to be insulted, maltreated and under-appreciated. And less without a reason other than their age or/and gender. The consequences of this can be negative and the impact it can have on a child’s future can be harmful.
Nurture (the environment and upbringing of someone) plays a key role in the development of a child’s personality and identity. It is said to affect incredibly a person’s social, emotional and intellectual skills, and I believe this. I know that my behaviour and attitude are extremely influenced by my childhood experiences. To explain how is this possible, I will use a psychological theory: the psychodynamic approach. The psychodynamic approach is based on the belief that human behaviour is caused and can be explained by the different conflicts in mind caused by consciousness and unconsciousness. One of the main psychologists who supported this perspective was Erik Erikson, who identified 5 stages of development:
- Trust vs Mistrust (0-1 years): Babies need adults to satisfy their emotional and physical needs. If these needs are satisfied, they will develop trust in their surroundings. If these needs aren’t satisfied, they will develop mistrust of their surroundings. For example, if babies are neglected in their house during their first year of life (e.g. they aren’t fed; their nappy isn’t changed), they will mistrust their carers, as they will realise they can’t rely on them to satisfy their needs.
- Autonomy vs Shame (1-3 years): Toddlers try to do things by themselves, without relying on their carers; they will try to be independent. If their carers shout at them every time they make mistakes, they will develop a feeling of shame, fear and self-doubt. In contrast, if their carers encourage their independence, they will develop a sense of autonomy. For example, when a toddler tries to eat on his own and gets messy, if the parents shout at him, he will stop trying, in order to not be shouted at and to not feel embarrassed. If the parents praise his attempt and help him the next time, he will feel more self-assured and will keep trying.
- Initiative vs Guilt (3-6 years): Children develop curiosity and try to learn through questions to adults in their environment. If their curiosity is satisfied (adults answer their questions), they will continue asking and grow up to be more ingenious. If their curiosity is not satisfied, or they are called silly, they will stop asking and grow up to be more fearful. For example, when a child asks his father if the sun is hot, if the father says “yes” and explains briefly why, the child’s knowledge will grow and he will develop a sense of initiative. If the father doesn’t answer the question or calls him silly for asking it, the child will feel ashamed and will end up thinking he is silly.
- Industry vs Inferiority (6-12 years): Children ask themselves how their environment is made and how it works. Industry will develop if children are encouraged to carry out projects and/or if they are helped with those projects. In contrary, inferiority will develop if children are not encouraged nor helped with their projects, hence they will fail and they will feel inferior to others who are successful. A good way of illustrating this is using school homework as an example. If parents motivate their children to do their work for school and help them when they need it, the kids will be more likely to be responsible about their studies. Conversely, if parents pay little attention to their children’s homework and don’t help or encourage them, their kids will be more likely to fail and care less about their studies.
- Identity vs Role confusion (12-18 year): During this period, distress is common amongst teenagers, since they are trying to find out who they are. In most cases, identity is developed from friendships. If a person doesn’t have a strong network of friendships, they will have trouble to understand the values and morals of a relationship. An individual develops an identity when they have a clear and consistent view of who they are, and when they find a point of understanding between their opinion and the opinion of others. If someone doesn’t form their identity, they will have difficulties to determine who they are and which their place within society is: this is known as role confusion. For example, children and teens who are bullied and don’t have friends will struggle to develop trust in future relationships, and will have difficulties to find who they are and where they belong to within society.
While all this is just a theory that doesn’t take into account genetic / biological factors and it may not apply to everyone, I can see how it translates to my life. I was in care (living in a children’s home, under local authorities protection) since I was 7 years old till I was 15 years old. Without doubt, my rough childhood and my confusing pre-teen years affected negatively my personal development, mainly the emotional and social aspects of it. I’m an extremely independent and autonomous person, my self-esteem is irregular, I have no self-confidence, I’m horrible socialising, I constantly fear being humiliated, I regularly get paranoid about my few friends hating me and I have trouble maintaining significant relationships. On top of all, lack of interest, frustration, flashbacks of traumatic events, sadness and feelings of hopelessness are things I have to deal with every day. And I know that great part of this is due to my upbringing.
Recently, I have been reflecting about my experiences and about who I am quite a lot. If my childhood had been different, would I be a different person? Would I be more confident? Would I have self-esteem? Would I be able to socialise better? Would I still have mental health problems? I’m aware that great part of my personality is determined by genetics and that people react different to different events. At the same time, I know that I can’t change certain aspects of who I am, even if I try every day. Consequently, I can’t blame others 100% for who I am and for how I respond to events in my life. I assume my responsibility to cope with my problems, to not be arrogant and stubborn to avoid confrontations, and to understand and/or forgive people who may have hurt me, as well as say sorry to the people I have hurt.
On conclusion: the relationship between family, nurture and personality is complex. Biological factors determine various aspects about ourselves while social and environmental factors also shape who we are. To be honest, I’m not completely sure about what I expect people to take away from this blog post. I have struggled to categorise it as a personal one, a thoughtful one, or an inspirational one (I ended up choosing the three categories!). All I know is that I don’t want sympathy or pity. My problems are my problems. I used my life to illustrate certain points I was trying to make, as I always do. I like sharing my personal stories with others because I hope people can get something out from them. I have learnt so much about how to improve my life and behaviour by reflecting on the experiences of others, it would be great if my readers did the same.
I merely wish people (parents in particular) were more aware of how their actions and attitudes towards others (children specifically) can affect and impact them. And more if these are repeated and regular. I also wish people would realise that everyone is dissimilar and we all react differently to events. There is a limit to what a person can change about themselves: making people feel “weak” for being sensible and for not coping with problems as you wish is not good, it is actually selfish and patronising.
Furthermore, I wish people would use love and motivation, rather than hatred and shame, to correct children’s mistakes. This doesn’t mean you can’t punish kids or you can’t tell them off: it means you need to balance the negativity with positivity. And lastly, I wish people understood that not everyone has loving families and those who don’t shouldn’t to be forced to feel grateful for things they shouldn’t. The abusive or/and neglectful behaviour of parents can be analysed, but it should not be excused. Never. Because if it is, children will find others to blame for the detrimental events they experience. And most times, those others are just themselves.