Long after you’ve grown up and left mom and dad’s house, your parents mentally stay with you wherever you go. They take the form of the little voices we hear inside our heads, the running inner dialogue that helps determine how we think and feel about ourselves. If both of your parents were present in your life and knew how to love and nurture you properly as a child, you probably have a pretty good relationship today with your parents – and good romantic relationships, too. But for many men and women, they didn’t get what they needed from mom and dad when they were young. In the majority of cases where mom and dad didn’t give proper care and attention to the kids, the problem wasn’t extreme enough to scare the neighbors or elicit a call to Child Protective Services. In most cases of not-so-hot parenting, the parents were too critical, emotionally unavailable, or too self-absorbed to focus on the needs and feelings of the child.
What happens to any kid who needs a lot of attention from a parent – as every child does – but doesn’t get it? Don’t think for a minute that kids are resilient to the point that they can easily overcome this deficiency. No, these deficiencies cause emotional bruises and sadness that take many years to heal. Most children who received poor parenting have one of the following reactions: they get angry; they feel depressed; or they feel empty. As adults, these individuals navigate their daily life looking for something – or someone – to make them feel whole.
How a Lack of Attention from Mom and Dad Impacts Relationships: A (Painful) Example
A female client of mine in her 20s was abandoned as a child by her father, who moved out and had only sporadic contact with her. What’s more, my client had to stay behind and live with her alcoholic mother who was moody, unavailable, and angry. Adding more trauma to the mix, my client’s teenage sister reached a breaking point and moved out of the house – again, leaving my client behind – because she could no longer bear living with her always-half-drunk mother. There’s no doubt about how the abandonments and emotional upheaval negatively impacted my client. Today she still struggles with relationships with men, as I work to help her see how negative beliefs she has about herself are holding her back.
The bad news: Kids who didn’t get what they needed from parents when they were young can never completely make up for that loss later as adults. There is never any true compensation for the poor parenting they received. Sadly, that time and space has passed, and the only consolation for boys and girls who didn’t get what they needed from their parents as kids is that they can make damn sure that they choose the kind of people later in life who can give them the love and attention they need. The good news: As adults, we finally have control over the company we keep.
How Mom and Dad Can Haunt Your Relationships: 3 Core Beliefs
Men and women who receive problematic parenting as kids typically develop a pervasive and destructive core belief about themselves as a result. Remember, kids don’t always make objective sense of dysfunction; instead, they typically blame themselves and determine that they deserved poor parenting because there is something deeply deficient about them. It’s tragic – and desperately unfair to these individuals – that they go through much of life with these negative beliefs, beliefs which are very old and difficult to dislodge.
The main negative core beliefs include:
Remember my female client in her 20s? Underneath her stormy relationships with men lies her core belief that she is unlovable, a belief she developed over time, after being rejected by one too many people in her life. It makes perfect sense that my client put two and two together: ‘When I love people, they leave me.’ With each guy she has dated, she’s felt riddled with insecurities, merely waiting for the day the new guy will leave her. My client has carried this negative core belief with her since she was a girl, and she has only been able to start to change now that she’s begun to identify and label the core belief which has been holding her back in her romantic relationships.
If you’re single and struggling to meet a good partner who lasts, ask yourself which of three categories of core beliefs might be holding you back: helpless; unlovable; or worthless? For example, a successful attorney who has romantic dramas doesn’t have the core belief that she’s helpless; she wanted to go to law school, and she made it happen! She also knows that believing she’s worthless isn’t her problem, because she has always felt smart and competent. Instead, it’s in romantic relationships where her self-esteem spirals downward. Because she had a critical mother who was rarely around, she has carried the core belief “I’m unlovable” into each one of her romantic relationships as an automatic extension of her earlier experience as a girl: wondering why she wasn’t good enough for her mom to like her, and determining that something was wrong with her because she could never measure up to her mom’s expectations.
The takeaway: If you’re struggling to find someone with whom you can have a happy and workable relationship, odds are that one of these three core beliefs is holding you back. Figure out which core belief might underlie your own troubled romantic relationships, and that awareness will make you a thousand times more likely to say, “Enough is enough – I’m burying that belief from the past and rewriting my script for the future.”
About the Author:
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.