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The unlived life of the parent and its impact on the child.

How do we affect our children as parents?


It’s a question that has puzzled psychologists for decades, but one idea that is often referred to is this quote by Carl Jung:


"The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents."

When I first read this, it stopped me in my tracks.


It certainly got me thinking of my parents, me as an individual but as a parent too.


Perhaps you’ve never considered this before, or maybe it’s something that’s always sat at the back of your mind. Either way, I think it deserves exploring.



A man and a woman hold hands with a child at the seaside, looking out to sea. How does the unlived life of a parent affect the child?
Photo by Natalya Zaritskaya on Unsplash

What do I mean by unlived life?



We are not talking about regrets but the unlived life that is stored in the unconscious.


Have your parents always wanted to do something that you find yourself having been told to do? Perhaps you enjoyed doing it, even though it was clearly encouraged by your parents.


Have you found yourself compelled to do things that you don’t enjoy because you felt you didn’t have the option of saying no?


An easy example to think about for this is sports – a parent who did not make it into football might decide that their toddler has to always attend football lessons.


Another example might be a parent who always wanted to play the piano and therefore insists that their child has to achieve Grade 2 by age 6.


It’s about a parent living vicariously through their child, because they feel they missed out on something while they were growing up. This is what I mean by the unlived life stored in the unconscious.



How can I avoid this when raising my own children?



First of all, I want to remind you that the unlived life is not always an unmitigated disaster! It can, in fact, be a really positive thing, allowing individuals to take a path they love that also fulfills a generational potential.


But even if the influence of the unlived life is positive, some people feel that their motivation has been ‘contaminated’ by their parents’ unconscious wishes. They wonder, am I fulfilling my potential or theirs?



A young boy leaps to save a goal. He is wearing football gloves. A parent who did not make it into football might decide that their toddler has to always attend football lessons.
Photo by Baylee Gramling on Unsplash

You should not be afraid to encourage your child to try out new things; it is not possible to not influence our children at all. In fact, it can be a good thing to influence your child, but the important thing is to be conscious of how you do it.


This is because, if our influence happens unconsciously, it expands powerfully via the child.

So, I guess the answer is you can’t fully avoid it. But you can become more aware and feel that you have more choice.



Why is it important to be more aware?


The child who feels they have to learn the piano but cannot say no, suppresses their feelings. Their need to attach to the parent, to please them and make them happy, is THE most important thing in their life. And this means they struggle to know how they should feel about the activity.


But if the parent is unaware that this is happening, they cannot offer the child an open conversation about how they feel about learning the piano without taking it as a personal insult if the child doesn’t enjoy it.


The need of the child to attach to the parent has great power to influence the child unconsciously. As parents, if we can learn to be more conscious of our internal mind, we can be more aware of how powerfully we can influence our children.


So, there is a difference between unconscious projection of the unlived life versus the parents making things available to the child and the child being able to have their own thoughts about it.



A father holds his baby daughter on his lap with one arm, and uses the other hand to colour in drawings of flowers. The daughter watches and puts her hand on the drawing. There is a difference between unconscious projection of the unlived life versus the parents making things available to the child and the child being able to have their own thoughts about it.
Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

The unlived life in an adult child


As the child matures into an adult, the burden of the unlived life of the parent can manifest itself as ambivalence. You can’t tell whether your thoughts are truly your own and your decisions never feel like they’re yours.


🦋Does it feel like you can’t fulfill your potential because your mother sacrificed hers in order to raise you?


🦋 Do you feel that you need to make the same sacrifices your parents made?


🦋 Do you have to carry the same ambivalence, or can you embrace your ambitions?


These feelings make it difficult to move forward and you can be dragged down by an ambivalence that is not yours. There is a feeling of stuckness.




How can I embrace the influence of my parents’ unlived life?



Whatever is in our psyche, it is ours regardless of how it got in there. I know this can be hard to accept. Because it’s painful to have things that you never wished for.


It can be very difficult to accept and take responsibility for the way we react, to accept our parents’ influence and mistakes whether they made them consciously or unconsciously.


One of the ways you could embrace this is by locating the grief and the sadness that you feel because this happened to you. Find the tears, cry, and let yourself grieve.


When we grieve the loss of something, we don’t undo the event. In this case, the loss of a freer childhood, or the loss of exploring your true self. When we grieve, we grow around the loss, we allow our lives to embrace the loss and we grow bigger around it.


This can help us take the power out of the parents’ unlived life. By naming it and articulating it, we make it conscious thought, and this can take the sting off it.


Feelings that are hidden away continue to live inside us, exerting their influence. Bringing them up to the surface and talking about them, airs them and helps us separate from them. This allows us to not be defined by them and grow around them.


Unearthing these feelings and processing them can also connect us to our parents and our histories in a more authentic way. We can reclaim our connection to the past in order to ground us and be able to fulfil our potential now by consciously exercising our choices.



A woman wears a white jumper, black leggings, and boots, and stands on the stump of a tree, looking up to the sky surrounded by a forest of tall trees. Unearthing these feelings and processing them can also connect us to our parents and our histories in a more authentic way.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Has this resonated with you? Do you sometimes feel the weight of your childhood?


The truth is, everyone has issues from their childhood. Confronting our relationships with mothers and fathers is an incredibly important part of making sense of our childhood and the way that early experiences have shaped our current lives.


If you’d like to read more on this, have a look at my blog What is psychodynamic therapy - it’s one approach that is extremely helpful in this field.


And if you’re thinking of reaching out for help but aren’t sure where to start, my blog about How to choose a therapist could help too.


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