“I don’t know why I cry... I cry because for the first time since I hated you, I remember that I loved you…” (Lyrics by Gwen Stefani).
Adolescents and adult children often openly defy their parents’ wishes. Be it religious differences, career issues, or lifestyle matters, adult children make different choices than their parents, hoping that their parents will someday agree with the decisions they’ve made. When adult children feel that their parents do not support them, the pain is evident. And so we have what seems like an enigma: Why seek out connection with parents they’ve specifically defied? Why do these adult children need the approval of their parents even when they don’t agree with them?
The first thing that newborn babies learn is that they need to rely on others to provide for their basic needs. They learn that crying can help get them fed or their diaper changed. As children grow older, they become more sophisticated and they fine-tune their skill of getting their needs met through trial-and-error and behavioral reinforcement. A child tries a behavior, sees if it achieves her goal, and if it doesn’t, she tries something else. If the behavior achieves the goal, she learns that in order to get her food/toy/attention/other need, she must do this specific behavior.
Learning skills of getting needs met is the core of human survival. The brainstem and limbic system, referred to as the primal brain, is responsible for our survival by ensuring that basic needs are received. The primal brain is subconscious, instinctual, irrational, has no sense of time and can’t make distinctions. It operates on broad themes such as safe/unsafe, nurturing/not nurturing, or attack/escape. Our higher functioning brain makes distinctions of what is truly happening. Our conscious brain knows that even if our parents seem upset, for example, they won’t stop providing our needs.
Approval = Survival
In the beginning stages of life, the primal brain helps us develop skills to request our needs. As we develop, it makes a non-discriminatory connection: if we want our needs met, we must ensure that our caregivers approve of us and never reject us. If our caregivers reject us, they will not provide the needs for survival, thereby resulting in death. Since the primal brain is unable to make distinctions and operates on broad themes, anytime it senses rejection, it panics, concluding that survival is being threatened. Therefore, we begin developing excellent radar that recognizes how we can gain approval.
As children grow, they gather information about what their parent approves of and what they don’t. When a parent disapproves of a particular behavior, the child suppresses the behavior. He fears that this negative behavior will deter parental love and approval, which is a threat to survival. If a parent overtly says, “You are laughing too much” or covertly disapproves of humor, the child suppresses that trait, leaving seriousness in its place. If a parent seems uncomfortable by the child’s adventurous nature, the child quickly learns that being stable will achieve the goal of acceptance. The child chisels and shapes his/her personality and choices according to what s/he believes will impress his/her parents, encouraging them to continue providing survival necessities.
As parents, we know that a child doesn’t need to earn our approval in order to be provided for. If your daughter approached you and asked, “Mom, what should I do to earn your love?” you would be baffled, and you would hug her and say, “Nothing at all, I love you because you are my daughter.” Yet even if you expressed to your child that she doesn’t need to earn your love, her primal brain wouldn’t believe you. Our subconscious primal instinct is to gain favor in our caregiver’s eyes so they will willingly tend to our needs.
This system works through childhood. The child believes he has mastered the art, when suddenly, around puberty, there is a shift. During adolescent years, we desire a self-identity and yearn for self-individualization (Erikson, 1950). Who am I apart from my parents? The adolescent begins to experiment with this new quest of self-identity, only to learn that Mom and Dad are not always okay with their new look, new behaviors, and new choices. And so the psychic conflict begins: survive and forsake your desired identity, or pursue your identity at risk of survival.
Adolescents navigate this psychic war differently. Many easily find ways to develop their identity without fear of risking parental approval. While they carry this conflict with them into their adult years, it isn’t noticeable. Some adolescents can’t reconcile their self-identity and need for survival. They can’t find a way to achieve self-individualization without constant fear that their survival is at stake. They begin to toe the line, experimenting with their limits: How far can I go without completely risking my survival? Their need for self-individualization wins, and they fiercely defend their identity even at perceived risk of survival.
The battle continues once the young adult gains independence and no longer needs parental permission. He makes his own decisions and waits with bated breath for his parent’s approval. Why? Because approval means having our needs met, and having our needs met means survival. Though he is an adult and is able to get what he desires on his own, our primal brain never grows up. As we know, it has no sense of time and is irrational. Forever, the adult child keeps waiting, his primal brain convinced that survival is dependent on parental love and approval. If his parents don’t meet him with approval, he continues to live with fear of death in his shadows.
The problem that parents encounter is trying to combat this tug-of-war with logic. As parents, we expect to see a conscious effort to warrant our approval. We wonder why our child doesn’t make a behavioral change in order to impress us. We are confused as to why he cares so deeply about how we perceive him. Just as parents are confused, so are their children. The primal brain’s messages are instinctual and subconscious. Now, we have brought the subconsciousness into consciousness.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychology theory about having our basic needs (food, shelter, safety) met before we are able to continue up the pyramid to love, esteem, and then self-actualization (Maslow, 1943). When core needs are unmet, a person can’t reach his potential. The primal brain’s fearful messages hinder the ability to reach true potential and self-actualization. Therefore, the adult child continues to seek parental approval. If his parents give him the approval he seeks, threats to his safety will cease, and he will develop a self-identity. When parents give their children approval, they are giving their adult child the gift of life.
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, MHC-LP, CASAC is a psychotherapist at Midtown Wellness & Resilience, where she provides individual therapy, couple’s counseling, and intimacy counseling. To contact Sara, you can reach her at email@example.com.