This article is co-written by the prominent Marriage and Family Therapist, Maryam Suheyl and the Psychotherapist, Omar Tauseef.
In 2019, Maryam and I conducted a series of experiential workshops in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad on the challenges and impact of parent-child relationships. These workshops were designed and implemented with the benefit of 10,000 hours of clinical work spent drawing from the wisdom of hundreds of real stories. Many commonplace, yet important questions came to the forefront, such as:
Understand the other’s perspective
We started by exploring how father-child or mother-child pairs could have such opposing realities while looking at the same situation. To understand this better, we did mock runs of conversations we would typically have in our therapy room. Below are two scenarios where a daughter and father are working with a therapist about something that is deeply distressing them.
Daughter, Amna*, 16 years
Amna: I feel watched. I feel like my every move means something to my father. What have I done to deserve that?
Therapist: Can you give me an example of this?
Amna: I like wearing dresses and jeans, not the curtain-like three-piece lawn-suits my mother buys me. She says that my dad doesn’t approve of any other clothing. Sometimes, I wonder if my mother even has a choice of her own or she just complies with daddy’s likes and dislikes.
Therapist: It seems like you’re looking towards your mother for something?
Amna: I want her to speak up for me. I want her to speak up for herself. I want her to protect me.
Therapist: While your mother fails to do that, how do you deal with this?
Amna: I want to hide a pair of jeans in my bag and go try them on at my friend’s place. And maybe shove the scarf back in my bag after my parents drop me off at school. That thing makes me feel so weird. It puts me in a box. As if I am a thing. I can’t even explain this weird feeling. It’s just not me. It takes away my freedom.
The dialogue shows how Amna views the situation as threatening her identity and freedom, a major factor in the life of any adolescent. Her father’s controlling behaviour affects her ability to feel protection from the mother, whose life stands as a cautionary tale for Amna. And while her mother fails to provide her protection, Amna looks towards her own resources. She doesn’t want to grow up to be in the same situation as her mother; and she’s outgrown the child’s role she’s being asked to stay in. In situations like this, where Amna needs to satisfy her need to feel free and be seen, the option to defy her parents becomes a solution to the problem.
Father, Bilal*, 52 years
Bilal: I am so exhausted of talking to this girl. She is always in her room and barely comes out. She is 16, and old enough to take responsibility for her siblings and other things at home.
Therapist: Where do you get the sense of what a child should do at 16?
Bilal: She is also old enough to carry herself properly, like a grown up woman, as did my mother when she was 16.
Therapist: Where do you get the idea that she should carry herself as a grown up?
Bilal: My mother was doing all of that at 16. She had me when she was 18.
Therapist: Bilal, it seems like you carry that sense of values from your mother to your own daughter
Bilal: No, but she is so carefree with her body, doesn’t even care to wear a duppatta. The other day, she sat so close to her cousins. It freaks me out. They are young teenage boys. So much can go wrong at that age, you see.
Therapist: Like what?
Bilal: When I told her that she needs to wear a scarf and stay away from male cousins she, just locked herself up in her room.
Therapist: What is your fear for your daughter?
Bilal: She really likes to display her femininity, I think. My sister was like that as a girl. That’s why she got divorced three times.
The complexities of opinion
As the therapist fleshes out Bilal’s fear, we see that the conversation is a lot more layered than the superficial topic of clothing. The fear stems from Bilal’s idealisation of his own mother, and the demonisation of his sister. He may even be carrying his mother’s contempt (or even fear, dread, envy, helplessness) for women like his sister, who broke free of the family’s conservative values. There may be shame around his sister’s relationships not working out, which Bilal projects onto his own 16-year-old daughter.
Differences in perception
Below are dialogues between a parent and a child that clearly show a fundamental difference in how the reality looks through their respective experiences:
Ahmed (Age, 7 years): Baba tells me his business partner cancelled the deal. I don’t know what a deal is. But he seemed sad. I told him it’s going to be okay. Then he held me really close, and I could feel something was wrong. I think it means we won’t have any money, Baba says that all the time to mom. I think I should stop buying lunch, and whenever he asks me which toy I want, I will tell him I don’t like toys. When we pass by the toy shops, I’ll look away. I’ll tell him how much I like my studies.
Ahmed’s Father: it just soothes me to hold my children and tell them how much they mean to me in this difficult time. Times are difficult. We might lose everything we’ve worked for.
Asad (Age, 8 years): I miss my mother all the time, even when I am at school. I want my teacher to explain everything like Ami does at home. Lunch break is also hard. I don’t want to eat by myself. I don’t know why everyone here is so happy. I just want to go back home and be with my mom. I hate school.
Asad’s mother: I want to be there all the time for him. He needs my help. I get anxious if he tries to get his own food from the fridge. I have to serve him. He can’t really take care of himself. I conceived him after 8 years of trying.
Contention of different viewpoints
These dialogues make it clearer how one common situation (e.g. the issue of clothing, money or attention) might carry such different meanings for the two individuals, who are each carrying their own fears and hopes. There are three clear pathways that situations like these can take:
- The unresolved trauma and baggage of the previous generation is passed on to the present generation causing disharmony in the parent-child, parent-parent relationships and thus the overall family system. This continues inter-generationally, being passed on trans-generationally.
- The family, the parent(s) or the child seek support which rocks the boat, and the system reconfigures itself, sometimes breaking free from the trans-generational trauma.
- An outsider steers the system in a different trajectory.
Inter-generational and trans-generational trauma
The first pathway is the powerful mechanism of the trans-generational transmission of abuse, neglect and trauma. Maryam routinely works with family systems and sees how the roots of trauma sometimes trace back 3-4 generations. Violent fathers have violent parents, who had violent parents themselves. We’ve had cases where the effects of trauma can be traced back to the generation that saw the horrors of the India-Pakistan partition, unconsciously passing this on to a third generation today. The trans-generational transmission of trauma is well-documented in holocaust survivors and how that may have physically transformed the neurobiology of even their great grand-children. In this type of work, we help our clients heal from this painful family legacy. We support them to act as a barrier that protects the next generation from this harm. We witness the heroism of people containing their own trauma so that the pain ends there, and the family’s legacy can take a new path.
Seeking therapy and a support system
The second pathway is what we notice in our therapy room. For us, one of the core tasks in therapy is to bring the two narratives closer. This is done by helping clients like Amna and Bilal see the other person’s experience as equally real. We help them acknowledge the other person’s narrative, even if they can’t immediately accept it. One way this space of understanding is created is by helping these individuals see each other outside of their traditional roles and responsibilities of a ‘father’ and ‘daughter’. We would help Bilal to see his daughter as a normal 16-year-old ─ entitled to make mistakes and deserving autonomy and protection. Once he recognises and deals with the fears that originated from the early relationships in his life, he will see his daughter as a human being and not a threat waiting to materialise.
If Amna goes alone for help from a therapist, we would try to include the parents, siblings, school, grandparents etc. to explore opportunities for growth in her surrounding social system. Once the child feels heard and seen in therapy, some of her ‘problematic behaviour’ is soothed. Family therapy (where all members attend a single session) often helps bring these narratives closer, and to re-negotiate boundaries in the family.
Meaning and purpose
The third pathway is when a family like Bilal and Amna’s isn’t lucky enough to have a timely intervention from a professional. Maryam and I put together some 80 sub-categories covering adverse family and personal circumstances and asked ourselves the profound question, “how did these courageous human beings recover from this?” We continued to review the rich narratives of the hundreds of men and women we’ve worked with over the years. We found that people often reconnected with themselves and life to find meaning and purpose. Some found it in the serving of another person, a cause important to them, in loving, or creating work; others found it in raising a good family and ending the cycle of violence; yet others found it in seeing the world, and beginning to see its expanse and the possibilities within. These meaningful things help people move past the most dehumanising effects of abuse, death, neglect and adversity.
A kind word can make a big difference
We also noticed how the lives of such individuals could be steered by the kind presence of someone outside the system. One kind word from a stranger, a gentle look, a compliment, human touch, asking another “how’re you doing?”, “I’m interested”, “tell me about yourself” and empathising with another’s pain, transforms and changes it. Despite the conventional wisdom being that only parents can steer the course of a child’s life, we saw how it only takes that one parent (not always two), or that teacher, counsellor, uncle, or grandparent’s kindness or attention to save a child.
“To build children you must first be built yourself. Otherwise, you’ll seek children out of animal needs, or loneliness, or to patch the holes in yourself. Your task as a parent is to produce not another self, another Josef, but something higher. It’s to produce a creator.”
– Irvin Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept
*fictitious names and ages