As much as we might fight it, our own experiences of being parented, create within us blueprints or ‘internal working models’ of what it is to be a parent. These models only become fully activated when we become parents ourselves, and often take us by surprise. For instance, we may find ourselves ‘turning into’ our parents in ways we hadn’t intended. Similarly, memories from our past can be unexpectedly invoked in us when our own children reach the same age.
Selma Fraiberg (1987) emotively referred to this phenomenon as “ghosts in the nursery”. Her hypothesis is that without conscious effort to alter entrenched family patterns, family life can essentially become a ‘rehearsal’ for the next generation, which then can repeat technically in perpetuity. More commonly, we refer to this phenomenon as the enactment of ‘family scripts’. John Byng-Hall (1985) proposed three ways in which these family scripts may manifest –
- REPLICATIVE SCRIPTS:
These scripts are a direct replication, or repeat, of the parenting that we received ourselves. They can include replication of positive scripts (e.g. family rituals, ways of nurturing children, ways of enforcing boundaries, certain sayings, etc.). They can also include replicating negative (unresolved) scripts, which may be consciously replicated (e.g. “smacking never did me any harm”) or unconsciously replicated (e.g. needing to hide one’s sad or angry feelings from a parent can make it harder for these children to later recognise or respond to these feelings in their own children).
- CORRECTIVE SCRIPTS:
These family scripts are a conscious decision to offer our children a different experience of being parented to what we received ourselves. The danger for this type of script, however, is that because they are driven from an emotional response to our past, there is a risk that we will go too far the other way (e.g. feeling hard done by as an older child, so favouring our own eldest child). It’s not uncommon to encounter a parent who states ‘I want my child to feel loved because I wasn’t’, but because they have not worked through their trauma, they nonetheless end up repeating the script by, for example, smothering their child emotionally.
- IMPROVISED SCRIPTS:
These family scripts relate to the ability to flexibly and creatively amalgamate what we most value from our own experiences of being parented, with what we now value and learn from new relationships, education, culture, etc. We generally consider that the most resilient and healthy families adopt this form of script and they are generally composed as a result of significant psychological work in cases where the parent experienced neglect or abuse as a child.
Difficulties can arise when damaging or unhealthy replicative family scripts cannot be consciously thought about by parents – which is another definition for trauma. In extreme cases, these can negatively impact upon a parent’s relationship with their child and therefore, their child’s subsequent emotional well-being. For the most part in ordinary parenting, however, activation of family scripts is normal, inevitable, and actually helps children to become embedded within the familial and social context to which they belong. Indeed, almost all the parents that I meet in my work (myself included), offer a fascinating mix of all three of the above scripts to their children.
Byng-Hall, J. (1985). The family script: A useful bridge between theory and practice. Journal of Family Therapy, 7, 301-305
Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E. & Shapiro, V. (1980). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problem of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 14, 3.