About Parent-Child Relationships

All parents want the best for their children and are concerned with their offspring’s well-being and happiness. At the same time, many parents find themselves limited to varying degrees in their ability to provide the love, warmth, direction and control necessary for their child’s optimal emotional development. One of these limitations stems from the mixed feelings that parents have toward themselves.
How do the ambivalent feelings that parents have toward themselves affect their children?

Parents, like all people, are divided within themselves in the sense that they have feelings of warm self-regard as well as self-critical feelings and attitudes. Children are incredibly sensitive to how their parents feel toward themselves. They feel comfortable in an atmosphere in which parents have positive self-regard, and they can relax and find security. However, if parents are mostly self-critical, children tend to feel less secure and more fearful.

In addition, parents extend both sets of feelings — the positive and the negative — that they have toward themselves, to their children. The fact that parents sometimes feel angry or resentful toward their children does not negate their love or concern for them. As parents develop compassion toward themselves and insight into the sources of their conflicting feelings, they are better able to provide the security, love and direction necessary for their children’s development.

How can parents distinguish between emotional hunger and genuine love for their child?

It is often difficult to distinguish between emotional hunger — a strong need created from deprivation in the parent’s own childhood — and feelings of genuine love, tenderness, and concern for a child.  Feelings of emotional hunger may be experienced as deep internal sensations, ranging in intensity from a dull ache, to a sharp pain, a general distress, or desperate longing. Often a parent will seek physical contact with a child in an attempt to relieve this ache or longing.  However, this type of physical affection drains rather than nourishes the child. It is a form of taking from rather than giving to a child.

A parent’s love can be observed in behaviors that enhance the well-being of children, and that are nurturing and supportive of the unique personality of each child. Loving parents establish real emotional contact with their children, display spontaneous, non-clinging physical affection and take pleasure in their child’s company.  In contrast, emotional hunger may be expressed in a number of behaviors: including living vicariously through a child, being overly protective, excluding the other parent, exploiting the child as a confidant, or expecting to be taken care of by the child – a form of role reversal.

What factors contribute to parents’ limitations in relation to their ability to provide their children with the love and direction they need?

The major source of the limitations that parents face in raising children can be found in their families of origin and in the defenses they formed in relation to interpersonal pain brought about by their own childhood experiences of rejection, hostility, separation trauma and loss.
How do parents’ defenses affect the way their raise their children?

The defenses that parents developed in their own childhoods limit their ability to consistently offer their children the love, affection and concern they naturally feel toward them. If parents grew up in a hurtful home situation, they defended themselves by attempting to cut off their feelings of pain, however, in doing so, they necessarily had to cut off feelings of compassion for themselves and others.

Positive interactions and tender, sensitive moments with their child often arouse deep, painful emotions from parents’ own childhoods – feelings that they have been cut off from or avoiding for years. When these feelings resurface, parents may unintentionally retreat to a more detached state and may be unable to respond with sensitivity.

In addition, parents teach their children their own defenses and ways of coping with life. These defenses, which may have served as survival techniques for parents during their childhoods, are passed on to their children directly through instruction, reward, and punishment, and indirectly through the process of imitation. Imitation is by far the more powerful way that parents’ defenses are transmitted to their children because children have a strong need to model themselves after their parents.

Parental Projections

In defending themselves against feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, some parents disown negative traits they dislike in themselves, project them onto a particular child, and punish the child for having these objectionable traits.  The child, in turn, comes to accept these traits as belonging to him or her, and they become a part of his or her self-image or identity.

What happens when a parent “loses it” with a child?

At one time or another, every parent has lost control of his or her emotions and has behaved in ways that seem out of character. What happens at these times is that something in the interaction with the child triggers unresolved issues from the parent’s past. This disruption impairs parents’ ability to think clearly and to maintain an emotional connection to their child. In this “low road” state of mind, parents may become flooded by intense feelings from the past and have “knee-jerk reactions instead of thoughtful responses.”

What is the most important thing a person can do in order to be the best possible parent?

When parents are able to make sense of what happened to them in their own childhood and develop a coherent narrative of the relationship they had with their own parents, they are better able to provide their children with the experiences necessary for their growth, development, and sense of well-being.  

In addition, parents can best help their children by trying to fulfill their own lives. When they are involved in pursuing their own development and in sustaining a loving, gratifying relationship with their mate, they serve as positive role models for their children. In maintaining an emotionally balanced life, parents will be less likely to direct emotional hunger toward their children. To the extent that parents have developed integrity in the way they live their own lives, they are providing their children with models that they can identify with and imitate as they continue to evolve their own unique personalities.


Parent-Child Relationships Resources






*Transcripts available in Spanish*