Illness as a Parental Legacy

A colleague and friend has written a deeply personal essay about his troubled relationship with his father. It led me to reflect on the 4000+ interviews I have done with people whose illnesses were linked to their childhood experience. Some learning from those patients:

1. Most parents do the best they can but, despite that, many fall far short of any reasonable standard.
2. Most parents who fall far short of ideal behavior had parents who also fell short.
3. Because of that ripple effect down through the generations, many of my patients are reassured by this Definition of a Good Parent: Anyone who can do a better job raising their children than their parents did for them.
4. Some of my patient’s best personal qualities developed as a result of their struggles in childhood. These include a drive to succeed, an ability to pay attention to detail, a capacity for hard work and compassion for people who are suffering.
5. When you recognize that these good qualities emerged from a bad place it magnifies the challenge of reconciling yourself to a parent.
6. It is not unusual to be much more angry at a parent than you realize, particularly when you simultaneously care about and respect the parent. A full accounting of all the reasons the anger is justified is an essential prerequisite for true forgiveness.
7. One of the best techniques for coming to terms with a challenging relationship is to write a letter (almost never mailed) to that individual expressing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings.
8. I will always remember one man (though far from typical) in his 40s who took that letter to his father’s grave and read it to him. The reading required 4-5 hours. By the end he was shouting. After this catharsis his physical illness, after years of suffering, was relieved.
9. Those of us who focus on detail in our working lives might assume this approach will also benefit our children. This can lead to far more attention paid to what can be improved than what our children do well. I will always be grateful to my patients for helping me learn that giving children a lot more praise that is earned than advice that is needed leads to more happiness and more success (however defined).

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