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Barth, D.F. (1989). Blaming the Parent: Psychoanalytic Myth and Language. Ann. Psychoanal., 17:185-201.

(1989). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 17:185-201

III Psychoanalysis and Parenthood

Blaming the Parent: Psychoanalytic Myth and Language

Diane F. Barth, MSW, CSW

Some years ago, when I was working in a residential treatment center for severely disturbed children, I came to know a young girl who both infuriated and amused the staff with her standard response to criticism. Each time someone chastised her for behavior that was inappropriate but, they believed, within her control, she would whine, “I can't help it. It's the way my mother made me.” In her therapy sessions as well, this girl was unable to take responsibility for anything she did or even thought. If not her mother, then other people or her hallucinations were responsible for all her actions. While she used the phrase so often that it became a way of making the staff laugh just when they were most irritated with her, it also encapsulated one of her basic difficulties in life. She had no sense of personal agency, no sense of her own power to have an impact on her environment, so that her primary sense of self was, at best, one of helpless victim. Simultaneously, at the very same moment that she felt exploited by others, she was also exploiting them so that they responded with feelings of helplessness and hostility toward her, thereby perpetuating her experience of others as hostile and potentially dangerous.

Psychoanalysts have long regarded the sense of personal agency as an important component of mental health (see, for example, Schafer's [1983] discussion of the subject). Based on his study of infants, Stern (1985) concludes that a sense of self as agent is a vital component of the developing sense of self and a necessary aspect of healthy interaction with others.


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