What do children need in order to grow into happy adults? There are lots of theories about this, and recent research supports some of these theories. We often learn lessons more easily from extreme examples. We know, for example, that child abuse can cause many different problems later in life. Work with adult children of alcoholics has also demonstrated that growing up in an alcoholic family can often cause problems later in life. Many mental health problems, of course, have very little to do with the environment that a person grew up in. Genetic factors and other biochemical problems are sometimes the primary culprit. Other problems appear to involve a combination of genetics and environment.
What factors are associated with good mental health? If all other factors are equal, the following ingredients in the early family environment appear to influence positive mental health:
- A sense that we are all in this together.
Children seem to naturally feel this way unless taught otherwise. Some parents teach their children that they are better than other children. Other parents berate their children as being inferior to others. Racism, for example, is a learned behavior. It is probably just as destructive to teach a child that they are 'special' - meaning better than other people - as to teach a child that they are lacking in some way. Help your children cultivate their innate sense of belonging to the human family and you will be contributing to their mental health.
- A belief that the world is a safe place (or at least that home is a safe place). To feel secure inside children need to first feel secure in their world. If the family feels safe, then the child feels secure. As they grow up this sense of security is then internalized.
- The knowledge that our parent(s) love us unconditionally. This is closely related to the sense of security described above. We first develop the knowledge that our parents love us no matter what. Over time this matures into a knowledge that we are basically 'okay.' We internalize out parents' love and learn to love ourselves in a healthy way.
What happens when these factors are not present? Children who internalize a self-image of being 'different from other people' often carry that image into adulthood. Life is a roller coaster. When they feel good about themselves they easily feel superior to others, but they also often feel inferior to others. These two states share the common assumption of being basically different from other people in some way.
If the child grows up without feeling loved unconditionally by parents, he or she may seek out such love from others. This is a natural consequence of their childhood, and it sometimes works. Other times this need for unconditional love may lead people into unhealthy relationships as they seek to fill this need that was unmet in childhood.
Children who grow up in a family that does not feel safe also have difficulty feeling secure inside. They often develop defenses that work very well within their dysfunctional family, but do not work as well in the real world. If life gets too dull and predictable they may create some turmoil in order to use these defenses that they are comfortable with.
We can't choose our families. What can we do as adults do to develop a healthier sense of security? Often this occurs naturally as we interact with others in healthy relationships. These relationships can become "corrective emotional experiences" if we take the sense of security that develops and internalize it. Long term psychotherapy works in a similar way. A person often tells a therapist things about themselves that they are very uncomfortable with. If the therapeutic relationship has developed well, then the client begins to internalize a sense of security based at least partly the fact that their therapist still has respect for them and cares for them as a person. It is possible to build a future that is better than the past.
Last updated 11/5/05