We’ve all done it. Blamed our parents for why we behaved the way we did.
“It is in my genes”, we say. “It is because of the way I was brought up”. A scapegoat answer that somehow justifies a poor decision we made, an emotional insecurity, a social outburst.
But is this actually true? Do we have the right to blame our parents? Or should we be pointing the finger at ourselves?
Neuroscience has the answer.
It tells us that the age old debate of nature vs nurture is now dead. Gone. It just isn’t that simple.
In fact it is amazingly complex. And there is a beautiful bi-directional synchrony between our biology and our environment which governs who we are.
And how we parent.
Although we would all like to say that our parenting choices are based on our personal beliefs, attitudes and motivations, in reality our parental brain has already been pre-programmed from a very young age. A time when we can’t really remember what life was like, let alone be in control of our own destiny.
And even if we can’t remember those early life experiences, our brain can.
It remembers whether our parents were caring or aggressive, supportive or critical. Whether they played with us or ignored us. Whether they cuddled us or hit us.
And these experiences become hardwired into our neural circuitry, influencing the way we subsequently respond to our own children when we reach parenthood.
Passing it down the generations.
But it’s not just our brain which remembers these early life experiences. Our genes remember them too.
You might have thought that your genes were set in stone at the moment of conception. A perfect blend of genetic material from your mother and father.
But that isn’t the case. We need to be able to adapt, stay flexible. Evolve. How else could we keep up with our forever-changing world?
So our body has developed a mechanism by which our genes can be tweaked by our environment. Fine-tuned. Something that scientists call epigenetic.
This means that our early life experiences with our own parents actually get coded into the genetic material held within our cells.
Not only influencing our behavior.
But also being genetically imprinted into our children.
So yes, technically speaking we can blame our parents for our bad (and good) parenting decisions.
In fact scientists believe that one of the most powerful predictors of parenting behavior is how parents were parented themselves – an inter-generational transmission of parenting do’s and don’t.
But should we really be blaming them?
There isn’t an exact formula for how early life experiences impact us as a parent.
It’s true that most of the research you read paints a picture of how poor parenting detrimentally affects the emotional health of the child, meaning that they aren’t as emotionally equipped as parents themselves later in life.
But in reality, you can’t just say that an unhappy childhood leads to bad parenting. In some instances it does. But not always. It isn’t that straightforward.
Because every one of us is unique.
We each have a slightly different mix of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in our brain: the neurochemical soup involved in parental care which determines the way we all think, feel and act.
And we also differ in terms of the specific biological machinery which responds to these chemicals. Biological variations (or in science speak – genetic polymorphisms) which makes me, me and you, you.
They explains why I might behave one way in a given situation, while you may behave differently. And they underpin why there is no predictable formula for how our childhood experience is going to impact us as parents.
And there is also another piece to this puzzle. Which is that our brain continues to show an amazing level of plasticity and flexibility throughout our lifetime. Changing the way it is wired in response to the good, the bad and the ugly that life offers us.
This means we can override this parental pre-programming. We can learn to write our own rule book by making the right choices. Surrounding ourselves with friends who support our emotional needs, wants and desires. Searching out a partner who is our perfect jigsaw piece.
And by choosing to live amidst the good, rather than the ugly, we can overcome even the most emotionally damaging childhood.
And – possibly even more important – by changing our own behavior, our genes and the genes of our future generations will change to make us all better parents. We will create an infinite change to make the world a better place.
So in answer to the question, can we blame our parents?
Yes we can.
But no we shouldn’t.
Rachel Fink is a writer and mom of 7 kids. She keeps her sanity by keeping a stash of chocolate and coffee nearby.