In my work as a psychologist most people come to me wanting to make some kind of change in their life. Psychologists have many different ways of understanding thinking and behavior, and many different methods aimed at trying to help people change. Most of the different ways that psychologists attempt to understand a person’s thinking and behavior relate the present to the past in some way. The issue of responsibility often comes to mind when considering how our experiences as children impact adult behavior, particularly when it comes to how our parents treated us.
When parenting is tied to responsibility, judgments often fall into extremes. I frequently hear things like “Stop blaming your parents and take responsibility” or “It’s my parents fault. I was abused.” Variations of these two extremes are very common. Blaming the parents or blaming the self or the “victim” can be very appealing. Each of these beliefs provides the same payoff: a neat and easy sense of understanding and clarity.
The reality, however, in most cases is not so black-and-white. Abuse and neglect in all its forms can have very real and far-reaching effects. These effects are rarely simple. On the other hand, we are all ultimately responsible for our decisions and behaviors and the resulting consequences of both. How then do we navigate taking responsibility for our lives while reconciling and making connections with our past and how it impacts who we are today?
One thing I often encourage people to do is make a distinction between excuses and explanations. For example, it can be argued that all parents have the responsibility to meet the needs of their children and not to abuse them in any way. When parents fail at this, they have not lived up to their responsibility. There is absolutely no excuse for abusing a child and failing to meet their needs. All children have the right to have their human needs met and to be protected from abuse and neglect.
There are, however, explanations as to why parents fail to meet their children’s needs and why parents abuse their children. Even in extreme examples of abuse and neglect, there are many variables that influence why parents behave the way they do. Developing an adult and sophisticated understanding of what these variables are can be a very important tool in coping with the negative effects of poor or abusive parenting and overcoming the challenges these things often present in adulthood.
Seeking a deep level of understanding as to the explanations of why our parents did what they did does not excuse them, and in a very real sense can be a way to take responsibility for our lives as adults while honoring how our past has impacted us. When responsibility is used as a weapon to generalize, oversimplify, and blame it becomes insidious and destructive. When responsibility is shared and acknowledged in the context of complex human lives it can become healing, empowering, and help build a foundation for real and lasting change.