Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Voicelessness and Emotional Survival

When lay people and professionals alike talk about dysfunctional families, often the question arises: Did the mother love the children? Or, did the father love the children?

Parental love is a very complicated emotion. If a parent compulsively looks after their children's health, insisting they eat only organic food, and natural vitamins, is this a form of love? How about if a parent makes a child come home after school and forbids any socializing until the studies are completed to her satisfaction--because this way the child will get into Harvard. Is this love? If the parent is looking after the child's best interests, then arguably their actions reflect love. But where is the line drawn? Some parents say to their children: "Everything I did, I did for you--fed you, clothed you, put a roof over your head--all of it for you." While probably an exaggeration, there is still a bit of truth here. Was there love? Probably. One can usually find a kernel of love towards their children in even the most narcissistic of parents. "I love you because you reflect well on me" is still love, however sullied. (One might argue that love in the service of selfish needs is not really love--but the line between selfish and unselfish love is a fuzzy one indeed.) Furthermore, the tears a narcissistic parent sheds when their child dies are absolutely real.

Simply put, love is too complicated an emotion to be of much use in distinguishing narcissistic and healthy parents. In my experience, if you ask adult children of narcissistic parents whether they were loved, many if not most will say "yes, in a controlling, self-centered way" even after they've completed therapy. Another variable, however, is far more telling. The critical questions are: "Did my parent respect and value what I said, see myself as independent from them in a positive way, and feel that my thoughts and feelings were as important as theirs." In other words, did my parent allow me "voice?" No adult child of a narcissistic parent can answer these questions in the affirmative.

These questions define the critical injury to adult children with narcissistic parents. Interestingly, many such people have no problem finding "love." But deep affection does not satisfy them unless accompanied by the granting of "voice" by a powerful person. As a result, adult children of narcissistic parents often go from bad relationship to bad relationship in search of "voice."

For parents, the implications are clear. Love is not enough. Client after client has taught me this unequivocal lesson:

If you want to raise emotionally healthy children, you must give them the gift of "voice."

Richard Grossman, Ph.D .