“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung
Whereas a child’s physical birth is often measured in hours and minutes, its psychological birth is measured in years. Though the seed of individuality is present in infancy, the newborn’s ego is undeveloped and undifferentiated from the vast background of the unconscious. The infant’s ego is like a tree trunk carried by the waves and currents of the ocean, it moves where it is moved. However, if you imagine fashioning from that tree trunk a canoe with oars, then you envision a vehicle which offers a modicum of autonomy and self-determination to its rider. This is analogous to the process of personality development. As the ego differentiates (separates) itself from unconscious, a fledgling sense of identity, or “I-ness,” is born. This is the dawn of consciousness and is associated with the growing ability to discern and choose between options.
Because the child’s ego is relatively undeveloped, its conscious awareness and stability are proportionately decreased. As a result, it tends to be more sensitive and reactive to the psychological undercurrents of its environment, especially the psychic/emotional atmosphere within the home. For example in his book, The Dreambody in Relationships, psychologist Arnold Mindell tells the story of a young boy suffering from severe and potentially lethal asthma. In describing the boy’s parents he notes that they were, “too decent to each other and had an edge against being direct and aggressive.” During a group therapy session in which Dr. Mindell was role playing with another person, the young boy jumped into the middle and attempted to “protect” the other client by putting his hands over Dr. Mindell’s nose and mouth in an effort to cut off his wind. Dr. Mindell sensed the significance of this behavior and relates, “[the] Asthma sufferers I have worked with all experience their symptoms as if something or someone was choking them. With the boy, I reversed the roles and acted like the asthma-maker, cutting off his air. At first he was stunned, but then, slowly but surely, he raised his little arms into the air, resisted me, and yelled, ‘Superman!!’” Dr. Mindell reflects, “His asthma behaved like a challenger, trying to provoke his masculine spirit, his inner ‘Superman power.’ The child needed the asthma to stimulate his masculine energy because the family system he lived in tended to repress dramatic challenges and heroic feats.”
In this example, the parents’ unlived life was their assertiveness and capacity for strong, decisive action. They were, frankly, too nice, passive, and agreeable. This environment was suffocating to their son (as it surely must have been to their own spirits, although they did not consciously recognize this). The boy’s asthmatic symptoms most likely had a psychosomatic component and, in this case, symbolized the stifling psychological atmosphere of his home. Paradoxically, his asthma was also the psyche’s attempt to help him live more fully. “Learn to fight, or die,” seems to have been its message to both him and, through him, to his parents. Recognizing that the unlived life of a parent(s) can affect the rest of the family helps to place a child’s symptoms and behaviors within the larger context that may be required for their improvement.
In her book, The Inner World of Childhood, Jungian psychologist Frances Wickes presents the case of a boy with antisocial tendencies. Specifically, exhibited deceit, willfulness, poor grades, and cruelty to other children. Although his mental abilities were deemed adequate to his grade level, he was described as having “little moral sense.” He had a strong emotional nature but no stable relationships and very little conscious affection.
The boy’s parents were unhappily married. His mother suffered from disabling depression and anxiety which she wielded with guilt-inducing drama. She also confessed that from his early infancy she had felt an instinctive repulsion towards her son. However, she was scrupulous in hiding her attitude from him and in performing all of her “motherly duties.” His father was a successful businessman who immersed himself in his work. He lavishly provided for all of his family’s needs, except that of genuine emotional intimacy. In his infrequent talks with his son he would speak of right and high ideals. However, the conversations never seemed to make much impression on the boy.
To understand how the parents’ unlived life may have contributed to their son’s behavior and attitudes, some history regarding their relationship is required. They were engaged at a young age. During the engagement the man found that his love really belonged to another woman. His wife-to-be, however, refused to give him up. She told him that “she loved him so much that she was willing to forgive him for being unfaithful and to trust him just the same.” Somehow she was able to convince herself that she really believed this and that her motives were worthy. In his own confusion, and with a desire to do what was right, the man consulted with an old clergyman who told him that he ought to keep his word, that true happiness was found only by sacrificing desire for honor. Dutifully, he ended his relationship with the woman he loved in order to keep his promise to the woman he didn’t.
In reality both parents were lying to themselves and to each other. The father immersed himself in his work and became a model husband and provider. He gave to his wife and son all the things society says are important, as if this might somehow compensate for the fact that he sold his soul–and sold out on the woman he truly loved–years earlier. He followed the “laws” of society and the path of least resistance rather than the laws and path of his own heart. He lectured his son about life’s higher values–honesty, integrity, etc.–but it was his lack of integrity, his dishonesty, and his focus upon material wealth that his son learned and lived. As Dr. Wickes points out, “children pay little attention to what we say, they intuit what we are.”
In the mother’s case, her unlived life was her anger and resentment towards her husband who had shattered her dreams and self-esteem by loving another woman more than herself. She stole her position as his wife and maintained it over the years through manipulations anchored in her invalidism. She could never really trust her husband because deep down she knew that his devotion was not based upon love but upon her coercion. But, wanting to imagine and portray the marriage as healthy, she denied her animosity and distrust. Unfortunately, these feelings were then projected upon her son who, by the way, looked very much like his father. This is why she experienced an instinctive repulsion and dislike of him even as an infant. The son, in turn, lived out the unhealthy undercurrents of his mother’s unconscious. Her unexpressed hostility towards him was lived out in his cruelty towards other children. The projection of her distrust likely contributed to the development of his own deceitfulness; he became the person she (unconsciously) treated him as.
Following these examples, some parents might infer that if they were just more “together,” mature, or whole, then their children would not develop the problems they do. In this regard it is important to remember that our children enter life with their own psychological and physical dispositions and temperaments. The symptoms and behaviors that they express may coincide with or mirror unconscious processes within the family without necessarily being caused by them. In other words, the boy in the first example may have suffered from asthma long after his parents dealt with their assertiveness issues, and the boy in the second example may have had antisocial tendencies which merely dovetailed with the sad undercurrents of his parents’ relationship. In helping our children through their struggles and problems, the focus should not be in placing blame, but in seeking out the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our unlived life.
None of us lives the whole of our potential. What is more important is our willingness to wrestle with our own issues and to live life with integrity. What children need most is not perfect parents, but psychologically honest ones.
1. Mindell, Arnold. The Dreambody in Relationships. Rouledge & Kegan Paul, London and NY 1987.
2. Wickes, Frances G. The Inner World of Childhood., (2nd ed.). Sigo Press, Boston 1978.