A 40-year-old man goes home to visit his parents for Thanksgiving. As he enters the front door, he is transformed into a powerless 5-year-old; his family reenacts familiar scenarios, and he falls into old patterns of reactivity. How do layers of maturity melt away when we enter our parents’ orbit, leaving us exposed to old vulnerabilities and wounds?
Neuroscience offers some perspective. The amygdala, deep in the brain, is constantly scanning for danger; when sensing a threat, the fight-or-flight response is set off. The amygdala encodes emotional memories; a parents’ raised eyebrow now may activate old memories of disapproval and agitate us without our knowing why.
Many individuals harbor complaints about their childhood; some become chronically stuck in resentful, blaming positions with parents. Intergenerational family theorist Ivan Boszmormenyi-Nagy notes that we may try to “collect damages” for old wounds, but “at the wrong address” — for example, from a spouse or child. We then perpetuate intergenerational cycles of hurt and disappointment. But rather than being victims of our past, we can “grow up” our relationships with parents and siblings and become authors of our responses. How we deal with past hurts and legacies will shape how we deal with our children, and what legacies we pass on to them.
To counter the victim/blame position cycle, we need to develop more adult, differentiated relationships with parents and siblings, bring thoughtfulness to emotional reactivity, and establish healthy boundaries. In cases of extreme abuse or current dangerous behavior, our engagement may be limited, based on safety. Understanding or contextualizing egregious parental behavior is not the same as condoning it. Abuse is never acceptable, but we can choose how to position ourselves vis-à-vis our past and current relationships.
Shifting perspective to see parents as real people, not through the lens of the needy child, can be transformative. Rather than seeing parents with a hierarchical view (they have the power, we are powerless), see them with a generational view: Our parents were once young and are managing the best they can, given their upbringing; we may be raising our own children and making our own mistakes, hoping someday they’ll forgive us.
The fifth commandment, “honor your father and mother,” comes with rewards for the child who honors — “that you may live long upon the earth” and “that it may go well for you.” The Talmud offers compelling anecdotes of the difficulties involved in fulfilling this commandment, and the merits of doing so.
Boszmormenyi-Nagy claims that we owe our aging parents a debt of “filial loyalty,” ensuring they are cared for. (Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, notes that, if caring directly for parents causes the adult child anguish, others can be enlisted to provide the care.) Boszmormenyi-Nagy suggests that if we are trapped in anger and don’t find a constructive way to repay the debt, we may become mired in “invisible loyalties” — negative, self-defeating replays of our stuckness with our parents in our other relationships. In order to parent well, we need to be unburdened by invisible loyalties and old resentments. Like the rabbis, he points to the connection between honoring parents and living a generative life.
The old nature vs. nurture debate has been resolved: It is both/and. We’re born with genetic tendencies; how we are raised shapes those tendencies. Parent-child interactions create neuronal circuits in the young child’s brain and affect the expression of genes, turning them on or off — epigenetic changes that can be transmitted intergenerationally. Abuse, neglect, and trauma negatively affect the child’s growing brain. Nurture matters.
Although we are molded by genetics and early family experience, we are capable of growing beyond old constraints — thanks to neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change), which extends throughout life. We can make conscious choices to break the chain of hurt and trauma. By repositioning ourselves vis-à-vis our past, we can author our present and shape the future. We stand between the generation before us and the generation that follows; how we stand determines what we will transmit to our children.
Dr. Mona DeKoven Fishbane , a clinical psychologist, is the author of Loving with the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology and Couple Therapy. She received the 2017 Family Psychologist of the Year Award from the American Psychological Association (Society for Couple & Family Psychology), and can be found at monafishbane.com.