Unhelpful Parents

Sometimes our parents or other close family are not the supportive people we deserve. It is hard for me to be able to say how common this truly is, after all, if you had them, the odds are lower that you would see me for therapy, and if you didn’t the odds are higher. Letting go of some of the negative or unhelpful people in our lives is a hard but frequently necessary step.

This isn’t to say that all mental health issues are caused by parents – Freud was wrong. Mental ill health can be caused by a number of factors – genetic, enviornmental, biochemical, drug induced, organic brain damage, poor parenting, situational stress, ongoing trauma and so on. Parenting is only one of these, and a person may experience several. Good parenting can help minimise the impact of several of these, while poor parenting can exacerbate them.

Parents are not the only people who can have a strong influence on how you think mental health and your own self esteem should work and be handled. Other blood relatives like grand parents, who came from a quite different era, can give awful advice, your current social group can be bad for you and sometimes work mates are just completely unuseful to you.

Certain people seem to be of the opinion that mental health, managing stress, choosing the right thing and being functional are all a matter of will power, morals and some knowledge that you are supposed to just have.

They are wrong.

Image of angelic moral weakness
Being “strong”. “moral” or “virtuous” isn’t enough. Sometimes we need help.

We don’t live in isolation. We live in complex systems that sometimes fail us. As listed above, that failure can be a situational distress, an ongoing trauma, biological in nature or some other thing that has nothing to do with will power or moral judgement. This doesn’t exclude the occaisional person who is suffering through bad choices – consequences can be hard – but is to highlight that most people who are struggling and need help are generally struggling through things they didn’t chose or control, and being patient and waiting for it to be over is not enough.

These unhelpful people tend to fail to pass on good self management skills, good skills for managing other people and healthy ways to see the world. In short, they make shit parents, friends and colleagues.

Fortunately, as we get older (around 15 or so), pathways open up that allow us to learn from people besides our immediate family. We get to chose our own family, our own community and our own friends. We can go and get some professional help for the tricky bits, be inspired by awesome people for the general model of how to be, and go on a self discovery journey.

By no means is this journey easy. It is really hard. It means going against all of those lessons you trusted as you grew up, recognising that not only were you led astray, but that those who raised you were also led astray and they just got lucky. After all, people who see the world this way weren’t just born that way. Recognise their limitations in being the parents you deserve, their limitations in being able to support you and move forwards with your own path. Sometimes that means leaving them behind. Sometimes that means visiting them. Rarely it means retraining them.

The world is big. It is complex. It is made of more than one kind of people. There generally isn’t a “better” or “worse” kind of people (except nazi’s – they are just worse), there is just different. Some are tall, some are short, some have blue eyes, some are left handed, some have different kinds of blood, and some are very typical of the local group and some are a bit atypical of that group. They are all valid. Don’t blame neurotypical people for being normal, it isn’t really their fault. Once you learn to recognise your “self” and how your differences make some things easier, and some things harder, it makes it much easier to start adjusting to how other people may be.

The long and the short of it is, you are a different kind of people to your parents, or family, or friends, or colleagues (basically anyone that is giving you the “just try being normal”, or “toughen up”, or “moral weakness” or “willpower” style of line). They are, in this case, wrong. Don’t feel that you have failed to be them, and don’t listen to their wrong advice. Learn who you are, and find people who are your kind of people. Be inspired by those who seem to have it together and learn how they do it. And don’t hesitate to get some professional advice to get over some of the erroneous messages, skills and ways of thinking that you were raised with.

Social contracts and sanity

Humans are social animals. To be social animals means being part of a cooperative crowd, relying on the group for safety, sustenance and providing back to the society in some meaningful way.


Our sense of identify is both tied up with defining ourselves comparatively with the crowd and individually as not the crowd. Adolescence sees this in it’s strongest form – the urge to not be defined as our parents, yet trying to find a group that we feel we belong to.


Part of this belonging to a group involves give and take. We give to the group and we take from the group. This is the reciprocation contract. If I give to you, then you will give back to me. There is the more altruistic contract which has become the pay it forward contract. When I give to you, you will give back to someone king of like me in a situation kind of like this one. The closeness of this “kind of” is quite variable and can more easily be seen as passing on good deeds. It is a rare individual who receives nothing but bad deeds and passes on nothing but good deeds.


We fall down miserably when we are removed from those who we feel we belong to. This can happen for a number of reasons: we realise we don’t belong to them, we move geographically or philosophically away from them, they don’t feel we belong to them and the group becomes dangerous, in someway, to our wellbeing.


Groups do more than hold us up when we fall down, they do more than provide the bits of sustenance that we  can not provide ourselves – they help us stay sane. Sanity, in this definition, is knowing how our own personal view of the world compares to the consensus of the group we most commonly interact with. A groups view of the world can significantly deviate from groups around them, and then the lack of “sanity” applies to the group, rather than the individual. 


Consider a member of some kind of subculture who believes any radical thought – lets say invisible fairies are running the world. Because the individual belongs to a group of people who believe the same thing, they are just all deluded. If an individual thinks this outside of a group, the person is called insane.


This suggests that a way of finding sanity is to find others who see the world you do.


Now the thought that invisible fairies are running the world seems pretty ridiculous to most people. Lets substitute the words “invisible fairies” to “supreme being” and it becomes less odd. Call that “supreme being” the devil and it goes to more odd. Call it “God” and it becomes less odd. The idea is the same, but the group you align to when you change the invisible something somehow changes the sanity level of the group. More insane if there are less numbers, more insane if there are more numbers.


Groups can be seen as islands in a sea of people. As you depart your views from the group you are most closely aligned with, you enter a “no mans land” between the groups, leaving islands and sailing on the sea. This is your most perilous time as you are quite lost without fixed points to steer yourself with. If you sail far enough away from the islands of groups such that you can no longer navigate by their beliefs, you can be lost in the sea of insanity, until you but up against a new island of people who see the world as you do.