Lately I’ve been studying and researching on the nature/effect of shame in our lives. There are a number of fantastic resources that have provided a lot of help for me personally and professionally as I consider shame-based systems. One of the systems I’ve been considering lately is the family.
One clear sign of a shame-based family is the drive for perfection. Expecting family members to be or behave “perfect” is the penultimate form of performance. And while most, if not all, parents would admit to not expecting perfection from their children more often than not rules, demands, and expectations parents place on children are absorbed as the need to be perfect by the children. The pervasive underlying message is that in order to be accepted, one must perform above the fold of satisfactory behavior. Judgements are quick and plentiful that create lifestyles with hidden desires and actions.
Recently I had a conversation with a family to help with their oldest son and his use of drugs, alcohol, and sex while in college. During our conversation, I explored the rest of the family interactions and relationships. They explained to me that the two younger siblings were not a problem because their behavior was respectable and good, but the oldest was sinning and betraying the family.
The more the parents talked, the more clear it became that all of the children were responding to the expectation the parents had of their family being perfect. There was a sense that both mom and dad needed their kids to live a life that looked mature and respectable. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but left unchecked this “need” from your kids could leave some difficult issues to deal with. Living in the middle-Tennessee area, a very wealthy and affluent region, is difficult for a lot of families even if they do not realize it. There’s an expectation to have it together, be wealthy, and not have any personal cracks/issues in life (this reality is not just limited to this area of the country, but happens to be quite strong here).
The parents wanted only to focus on the oldest child’s behavior and how to curtail the rebellious spirit. I challenged the parents to first look at themselves and how they have perpetuated an environment where the son would “act-out” in this way. Their response, which is understandable and quite normal, was to focus on the actions of the son. While his actions certainly need focus and attention, the larger issue at hand was that of the family values, system, and roles.
Parenting is about guiding, engaging, and journeying alongside your child in order to help them become who they were created to be: Not who parents want them to be. The most difficult part of parenting is that children cannot be controlled. No matter how hard parents try, kids will ultimately do what they will do. And this reality is difficult and painful.
Kids break things, hurt others, express themselves in ways that do not conform to the cultural norm , and push the boundaries. The common thread in all of these seemingly “errant” behaviors is that they are exploring themselves and their world looking for way to to be connected to what and who is around them. There are obvious limits that parents need to set for children, but as they mature and get older they need to be allowed them to have more freedom and expression of their lives.
The most relationally adept parents that I see are those that come alongside their kids in walking with them in their journey through life. When parents and kids can meet together at the intersection in the disappointment of life, powerful relationships are built.