October 25, 2007

Family Secrets and Identity

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Who are you? 

What makes you you? 

Have you ever asked yourself these questions? Sociologists and psychologists have a different answers to these questions. Sociologists stress socialization clip_image003[1]processes and psychologists focus on innate factors and the individual’s response to their environment. Social psychology melds the two perspectives; it teaches us that we may not start as totally blank slates, and who we are is also shaped by our social experiences. 

The social constructionist perspective holds that we human beings make our social world (and our society) clip_image006and then forget that we do so—and then act as if it’s a given that it is the way it is. Particularly in childhood, but also in adulthood, we see the world through our own blinders. Children and adolescents interpret the events around them in relation to their own importance as the center of their own world. As we grow into adulthood, we assume that we are better able to consider the points of view of others. 

Sigmund Freud and George Herbert Mead's concepts of the superego and the generalized other refer to the social conscience, the component that reminds us of the rules of the society in which we live. Mead pointed out that we develop this through learning to take on the roles of others. However, neither concept allows us to be able to accurately realize what others think or feel about us. This is the role of interpersonal communication. 

clip_image009Families, and the events that occur within them, are rife with complexity. Parental relationships are usually not perceived accurately by their children, for example. Usually, their maturity level is at a different point of development than that of the parents throughout their lives. 

Likewise, parents do not always know what is going on with their children since children (and parents) are not always skilled communicators; nor are they always willing to fully disclose their thoughts or share the details of their lives.

When a parent is missing from a child’s life, everyone in that family is affected-- albeit in different ways and for different reasons. If that parent reappears or if there are past histories that are not disclosed—including that of earlier children and spouses, it can be an earth-shattering experience to suddenly learn about. It shakes one’s own sense of self no matter how “solid” that sense of self might have been beforehand. 

clip_image012People who are on either side of an adoption and those whose have “absent” parents are likely to question their identity when those other people are absent or unknown-- but also when (and if) they show up. Most people question their identity in adolescence as they struggle to become an adult and deal with who they are and where they come from. This quest for identity is how many life cycle theories define adolescence. However, if for whatever reason there is a missing parent, that struggle is full of unknowns. If contact is established at some point, the identity questioning process re-emerges and is usually quite intense. 

Absent parents and unknown siblings aren’t new phenomena although with the attention to “high” divorce rates and “blended” families, we sometimes get the impression that prior generations didn’t experience these things. If one is fortunate to accurately trace one’s genealogy, it is quickly apparent that multiple spouses are not a new phenomenon, although generations ago the cause was more likely to be death than divorce. 

clip_image015When new or missing people show up, our sense of self is shaken because we may notice certain physical or behavioral similarities with that person. Thus, things that we thought made us unique may actually be connected to this missing person, and clip_image018we may think that those similarities make us less unique. On the other hand, we may also be roiled because of the strong emotions that such events create: anger, relief, fear, love, suspicion. These are strong emotions that we may question and not fully understand. 

In this situation, having well-developed interpersonal communication skills can be crucial for working through and resolving those unknowns. Being able to clearly communicate both feelings and information can facilitate the process of resolving longstanding wounds and can also build a possible bridge for understanding. 

In my social group, two individuals have experienced a reconnection with a missing parent. I noticed that during the delicate dance of asking and answering questions and testing the foundation for a possible future relationship, both of these individuals changed before our eyes. It was as if missing puzzle pieces were fit into place and their identities became more consistent, and whole.

Of course, there are others who never do reconnect with missing relatives. Many people never get the chance to unravel family secrets, and their identities may be forever shaped by these losses.

clip_image021It’s important to keep in mind that our identities are the result of a number of factors, including everything we experience, and how we act and react to those experiences. Forging a more concrete and stable identity by getting answers to longstanding questions is not always possible. Yet we always have a part in the process of constructing our identity. Knowing we have that ability empowers us. It also reinforces the importance of building positive communication skills so that we may communicate as effectively as possible about such mysteries.

While some events are more radical change agents with respect to our identities, we are always changing, and those changes are based on what we experience, how we perceive those experiences, and what we do in response to them.


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Blended families or situations in which family members become disconnected can become very complicated. There can be problems with stepchild antagonism and money, but especially with unclear roles. In blended families, there are often questions about "real" mothers and fathers and power struggles. Like you mentioned, I agree that it is very important that families members have well-developed interpersonal-relationship skills to avoid confusion and create smooth transitions.

More and more these days people are getting divorced. They don't seem to understand how hard it can be for their children. The children loose a sense of identity and might have problems in their future. My opinion is that people need to really sit down and think about who they are marrying, if they really want to have kids with them, and do they see themselves with them for the rest of their lives. If any question is no than don't go through with the marriage, and save the identity of the children.

Some people may think that a child raised without one parent is more affected than a child in a blended family. This may not be true. A lot goes on in a child's head when one sibling is being paid more attention, this may create hard feeling's towards one member of the family. For example, a step sister being paid more attention by the step parent, this would be a bad situation for a blended family. I believe that a child would be more happy with their parents being apart then together and fighting. Sometimes people from the outside of relationships do not understand how complex a family can be. That is how I feel about diverse and blended family's.

I agree with everything in this article. I lost my mother at the age of 9. Ever since i have been unsure of exactly who i am because she created me and I am half her. so without really knowing or remembering much about what she was like.I fear I don't know some things about myself as well.My father hasn't been around in years and I feel the same exact way about that situation except I'm not sure how much better off my life would be with him around.At the end of the day in a way i feel more original than other people because i sort of have to create my identity in stead of having parents to show me a little something about myself.I also feel slightly confused some days and I do wonder how my life might be different if things and situations were.

I'm a high school senior and I agree and disagree with this article. I see how you say that not having a present parent can affect everyone in that family in numerous ways. But from personal experience I can say that I've almost benefited from not having my dad around much for my life. I feel like it has made me a stronger person. I know who I am and What makes me me. But I can also see the other side of this topic also.

While the article raises many good points, I disagree that for many people meeting a parent for the first time in their adult life can actually reshape them as a person. By adulthood, most people's identities have already been established in a permanent way. So when a adult finally meets their missing parent, it seems unlikely that their identities would be radically changed.

I liked how you talked about the melding of both psychology and sociology and forming them into both perspectives. It shows that family and social events can help shape who you are.

The kid that has a good upbringing does have that little voice always in the back of their mind, social experiences correlate to youthful years of Odipus complexes and want and needing acceptance and love to shelter our sense of being.

Blended families shape personalities in potentially drastically different ways than traditional families might. For example, a stepchild may exhibit a rebellious stage in response to a new stepparent, whereas with a biological parent such rebellion would be thought unnecessary. In my own family, there is a slight divide in the children of one parent versus the children of the other. There is no general animosity, but tensions arise more frequently across that barrier.

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