There is an old saying that “the sins of the father are visited upon the child.” In my work as a substance abuse counselor I witness many negative behaviors and poor coping strategies stemming from unresolved psychological issues such as mood disorders, personality disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) During family sessions I often see the effects of those negative behaviors and attitudes on children. No matter how well meaning and loving the parent may be, there is no way they can completely compartmentalize their own emotional responses. When a parent does not resolve their own emotional or psychological issues, they will ultimately effect the child.
A case in point was a client who was generally a thoughtful, loving parent and husband, but because he suffered from untreated PTSD stemming from his participation in a recent military conflict, he periodically erupted into rages, violent, and self-destructive behavior. His self- medicating with alcohol and opiates only exacerbated the problem. The result was that his son began abusing the same drugs when he reached his teens and was himself diagnosed with PTSD from growing up in a threatening and chaotic environment in which he was the beloved child in a loving family one day and witness to, and often the focus of, the father's violent outbursts on the next. The self-perpetuating nature of this dysfunction is chilling to contemplate!
Parents who suffer from untreated mood or anxiety disorders can be fearful and easily frustrated by the challenges of child rearing. Persons suffering from personality disorders may lack empathy for the child. Both will often expect their children to function as little adults. I often see parents treat their young children as if they are able to grasp the complexities of adult life. The fact is that, while children may be able to imitate some adult behaviors, they cannot fully grasp the meaning of those behaviors. Parents often seem to confuse a child's command of speech with the ability to understand everything that is said, and think the child to be disobedient or belligerent when this turns out to be untrue. Their responses are usually less than productive.
I also witness many dysfunctional and traumatized persons having children to provide themselves with things like the unconditional love they never experienced, the companionship they cannot obtain, or the personal power they never found. The results are usually pretty disastrous resulting in parents seeking things from the child that the child can never really deliver, and taking their disappointment out on the child.
Another disturbing dynamic is when all the parent’s emotional satisfaction comes from their relationship with the child. I have seen this result in the parents competing for affection and validation from the child and being inordinately considerate of the child's needs while treating each other very poorly. The result tends to be a child who grows up with a sense of entitlement, highly narcissistic, with all the attendant poor relationship skills and a tendency towards manipulating others.
One of the best things we can do for our children is to resolve our own dysfunctional issues by seeking appropriate treatment and developing better coping strategies. Besides making us more deliberate and skillful parents, we will be modeling self-improvement behaviors for our children. It is important to remember that, for good or ill, the parental figure is the preeminent role model for the child and the behaviors we display are the ones our children will most likely emulate regardless of later input from teachers, counselors or spiritual leaders.
Your local department of social services can usually assist you with free parenting classes as well as referrals to resources for mental health treatment.