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The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971

How could you do this to me?

David Howard LLB (Hons) Dip. Couns MNCP MNCH (acc)

020 8200 7725

Have you ever heard parents come out with this announcement when, for example, at the age of 25 their child said they wanted to marry someone of the wrong age or racial/social background, or when you were younger said you didn’t want to study the subject they’d expected you to do for much of your life, or worse still not go to university at all?

Whatever it was you did, the point was it was to yourself and not to anyone else. Though they may be worried about the possible comebacks if you end up with a divorce/no money or whatever, and then come to them for help, the real concern is the fact you broke their rules. In fact, if you made a mistake, it was your own choice and your own mistake, and if it was the wrong choice you would be the one who lived with the consequences, not anyone else.

It’s long been known that, in families, logic tends to break down in relation to what others do because of the emotions involved. But knowing this doesn’t simply accept ‘this is how it has to be’, but gives a reason for where to start trying to deal with it.

What interests me as well is the effect the negative reactions have. At best, they can put a downer on an otherwise happy situation by spoiling your decision with the fact you know the family isn’t happy with it. At worst it puts people off altogether and they give in, and then they resent the family and years later still wonder what would have happened had they followed their heart and not sacrificed their own ambitions for respect of the family, or just for a quiet life. Is there really anyone reading this that hasn’t been faced with negative reactions, not while they were asking for help and advice making a decision, but after they’d made it and announced it to the family, either knowing the probable reaction, or worse, being happy and then having cold water poured on your enthusiasm?

The title shows the actual view many parents have when their children’s’ lives appear to them to take a wrong turning. A classical example is divorce. It’s bad enough to have to suffer one, however amicable, and then to hear your parents’ comments, instead of feeling sorry for you and supporting you, saying ‘How could you do this to me?’

As I said, this is the logic being overshadowed both by emotion, tradition, and sometimes the ‘what will other people think’ phenomena, believing it will actually spoil the standing of the whole family.

Through any possible form of social education, preferably in advance, parents and would-be parents can look at all these possible and highly likely scenarios and realise we all do our best, can’t see the future, can’t see every aspect of most current situations, and therefore can’t avoid both major mistakes. Secondly they can learn to allow children to find and follow their hearts in both areas of business and pleasure, and hopefully release gradually the social, cultural and religious bonds that are fine if you choose to follow them yourself, but unfair to impose on others (in my view, at least).

I’ve seen enough of the consequences, in my own case, from the Jewish perspective, and the number of Jewish men in dreadful marriages I know because they couldn’t marry the non-Jewish woman they loved and had to take someone ‘suitable’ (for who…?), to the man who waited till his mother died before marrying his girlfriend, and was well into his sixties at the time. No doubt, had any of these men married out, the strictly religious would have actually disowned them and said a prayer for the dead (this still happens), but the others would have seen it as a direct assault on them, and treated the whole thing as a major disaster. Can anyone really say it’s worth missing out on the possible love of your life for religious or cultural reasons?

And as I said, for everyone, the number of parents who take their adult children’s failures personally in business or marriage are simply removing the one foundation the children could hope to still rely on when things do go wrong. Did they think they could avoid it if they really tried, or did it on purpose? Come on! No one messes up their life lightly, and they are the ones who are suffering.

In my own case, both my parents are lawyers. I did a law degree with great difficulty, and realised becoming a lawyer would mean pushing myself to pass, and then not feeling comfortable in practice. So instead, I used my degree to teach others (which was impossible to do without it) but (in my case, my grandparents, but all family elders and siblings at least can do this) was told I’d wasted my degree. If it was impossible to use a law degree for anything else and I’d had to take an unqualified job, they’d have been right. But any graduate job would have been open as well, and regardless of the subject, could not therefore be a ‘waste’ had I gone into one. OK, there’s an obvious hierarchy of uses for a law degree, with lawyer being at the top, but not using the top level opportunity is not the same as wasting it.

And whenever I did anything at school that got me into trouble the old phrase came out again ‘How could you do this to me’? The worst my parents had to do was see the head or write a letter back to a teacher; most of the time it was just me that got into trouble. So how did I do it to them? I didn’t, I was miles away from them at the time, in school. I may have been rude to a teacher or whatever, so they should have said ‘How could you do that to Miss Smith (and I’m sure Miss Smith or another of my early victims could have quite easily stood up for themselves and said it). But not my parents. Children screw up, it’s almost an inevitability. They learn a lot by trial and error and their values aren’t the same as adults’.

So whatever their parents train them to do or not to do, they’ll forget or ignore them sooner or later, get caught, and have to face the consequences. It’s part of life and growing up. Few families can or will be judged because their children got into minor trouble, chose a job that didn’t reflect the parents’ expectations, or married the wrong person according to the parents. And if any are judged, then we need to educate the judges, not to use it as an excuse to carry on the ‘old ways’.

Parents may also have a view of what a good parent should do, and then when the child doesn’t conform to the direction they were aimed in (sounds like a missile, not a person!) the parents feel let down, both with the child and their own apparent failure to bring out the best in them. But there are basically only two situations where this happens. The child is either happy with a situation through choice and wants your support, or has messed up and needs your support. So both times, they require the family’s support.

Isn’t that so much better  - knowing that if your child feels good you make them feel even better, and if they feel bad you’ve done what you can to help them? Even if you actually do help them, if it’s conditional on giving a pile of criticism first, with the attitude ‘You let me down!’ then it will be done in a bad spirit, and the actual attitude is often more valuable to the child than the physical support.

Few mistakes are fatal, and if not, we get unlimited chances through life to do things again, and most people rarely make the same mistake twice if what’s disapproved of turns out to be one, and it seems to be human nature to prefer testing a new situation than believing one who’s been there already, and may still not be right if they have.

By applying a few basic counselling principles, families can see how non-judgement works in counselling, and really can apply anywhere. To try and explain why someone’s got it wrong will fix a lot more than hostility or punishment alone. Look at why someone’s done something. The reasons will tell you a lot more about why they took that route, and should be respected as personal choice whatever you would have done yourself. We all have different tastes, abilities, and when anyone knows their path so well they can follow their hearts, be pleased for them. And if it gets them into trouble, apply a non-judgemental attitude. In the long run, family arguments and splits will reduce drastically, and counsellors would start to have far fewer clients!

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