Oliver Dierssen: Unconditional love? Psychiatrist explains what really makes a healthy parent-child relationship

The parent-child relationship is probably the most intense that we experience in our lives.

Oliver Dierssen: Unconditional love? Psychiatrist explains what really makes a healthy parent-child relationship

The parent-child relationship is probably the most intense that we experience in our lives. Mr. Dierssen, you wrote a book about a missing connection between mother and child. Why?

dr Oliver Dierssen: I had the feeling that a topic that is so big and that was taken up in so many discussions in our clinic was not sufficiently discussed in public.

Her book is called "When your own child is strange to you and your child feels the same about you". What is it about specifically?

My impression from many consultations was that it is very scary for many parents to realize that you are fundamentally different from your own child. This is also frightening and unsettling for many parents. A lot of frustration and disappointment can arise from the realization of being different. Because as a parent, you often wish for something different.

For example?

The longing for unconditional love is inherent in most people. Nevertheless, most people experience that there is no such thing as unlimited love, but that there is always someone else with a different approach to the world. You just have to accept that. But there are people who find that very difficult. They then experience it as rejection. They then often hope for the love from their child that they have not been able to get to know in this way before. But children are their own people too. This in turn leads to feelings of rejection and disappointment.

And what does a healthy way of dealing with these feelings look like?

In many parent-child relationships, accepting being different plays a huge role. And real empathy. That doesn't just mean knowing what the other person needs, but really accepting that there is another person with their own needs and feelings that are worth exactly as much as my own. That doesn't mean that my child can do everything. Rather, it is about recognizing that my child can and is allowed to experience the situation very differently than I do.

As a caring parent, how can I learn to give my child more emotional freedom?

It is important to be able to separate my feelings from those of my child. If my child is sad and I notice that this in turn makes me sad, then those are my feelings and not those of my child. So I should also start with myself to deal with the feelings.

So shouldn't we comfort our children when they cry?

The pain of our children is sometimes difficult to bear. When our child cries, we sometimes tend to want to comfort them - to comfort ourselves. The trick is not to eliminate the child's negative feelings as quickly as possible, but to accompany the child through the feelings. So endure the sadness instead of turning it off.

But that's a lot easier said than done...

That's correct. There are parents who always cry when their child cries. Then they say it tears them up inside and they can't help it. They often experience themselves as very compassionate. However, I would advise that if I find I can't handle my child's sadness, I need to work on myself.

And how do I work on it?

There is nothing wrong with speaking openly with the child about one's own feelings and, for example, seeking consolation from a friend. What often happens instead is that the parents then comfort the children. As a result, children learn that they are partly responsible for their parents' emotions.

It sounds like this could have a negative impact on the children.

Exactly. In adolescence it is almost normal in our practice that the patients do not tell their parents how they are doing out of guilt for making the adults sad. We then always convey to the young people that their parents are usually storm-proof. Even if they can't sleep or cry, they've had a long life and been through a lot, so they can share the troubles.

Do young people ever manage to break away from the influences of their parents?

It has long been thought that the attachment experiences we had as children continue throughout our lives. We now know that relationship patterns change over the course of our lives. So we can collect bonding experiences that overwrite our parent-child relationship. But you also have to do them. It is therefore important to let new people in on you.

What can parents do to avoid such distance in the first place?

An important step is to take responsibility for your own life and feelings. My child does not have to make me happy or love me unconditionally, I alone am responsible for my emotions. If things don't go well with my life, I change something myself.

You experience many cases of complicated parent-child relationships in your practice. How should this bond ideally look like?

A healthy parent-child relationship consists of closeness and distance. That is, attachment security is demonstrated in a situation where the other is unavailable. The parent must therefore allow closeness and distance at the same time, even if it is difficult and frightening.

What does that mean specifically?

The child must also be allowed to discover other sides of itself - and not just the sides that I already know. Because no matter how well I know my child, I only ever know a part of it. A human is more complex. If I realize that there are many hidden sides in my child, then I may suspect that my child needs more than just time with me as a parent.