What is There to Disapprove of in the Parental Disapproval Syndrome?

Written by Gunnel Minett
In the early days of Rebirthing (1970-80’s) The Parental Disapproval Syndrome (PDS) was a major concept and one of Leonard Orr’s ‘biggies’, getting a lot of attention. It generally provoked strong reactions and was something everyone recognised as part of their childhood memories. In many Rebirthing schools PDS has lived on and is still a central (and popular) concept. So, is there a need to change such a useful concept? Looking at developments in psychotherapy since the 1970’s, the answer may be, a bit (un)surprisingly, yes there is.

The concept of Parental Disapproval
The way Orr describes Parental Disapproval in his more recent set of ‘biggies’ is unfortunately not very helpful. He simply states: “Parental Disapproval Syndrome – this is what most psychoanalysis is about.” Why he should be so vague these days is not clear, but one speculation is that even Orr has come to question his earlier views. But we can review his earlier writings where he is more detailed. In Rebirthing in the New Age he writes, together with Sondra Ray:
“The Parental Disapproval Syndrome is another major cause of fear and negative programming. The syndrome develops as a result of your parents’ experiencing disapproval from their parents and their resentment of that disapproval. But they were not able to get even, verbally or physically, so their true feelings were suppressed. They didn’t receive enough love and affection and found their parents difficult to please. So they spent the rest of their lives trying to get even with their parents or trying to please them to win their love. They constantly had to perform and conform according to their parents’ instructions in a futile attempt to win their love. This is later transferred to employers, authority figures, and “society”. They found little satisfaction until they had children (you). Then they had a captive child who was defenceless against parental hostilities and often coerced into giving them affection when the parents desire it. To sum it up, parents take out their hostility toward their parents on their children (you). The spirit of the child is broken. Then you, as a child, have to suppress your true feelings until you have children and you take out your anger on yours—it goes on from generation to generation.” (Rebirthing in the New Age p. 59)

A way of summarizing their view is that they are very negative and strangely revenge-focused and seem to assume that all parents are exactly the same. So, as with Orr’s other ‘Biggies’, they seem to reflect his own childhood rather than the general view of mainstream psychology (based on years of research). One obvious consequence of Orr/Ray’s views is that, since they are not based on facts, they leave lots of room for (mis)interpretation.

This vagueness may be one reason why the concept has lived on and been popular in many schools. Everyone has some bad memories from their childhood relationship with their parents. And those who don’t are often told that they are simply suppressing their past. It is a common conception that ‘growing up’ is achieving the ability to disagree with your parents at some phase in life. A view shared by general psychology, where it is seen as an important part in the transition from childhood dependence to adult independence. Still does it have to be such a negative concept and is it all about ‘disapproval’?

Why so negative?

It must be said that Orr and Ray were not alone in adopting a negative approach to parents. Along with the ‘emergence’ of teenage culture in the 1950’s, a growing gap started to appear between parents and children. From being a process controlled by church and society, the transition from childhood to adulthood was no longer straight forward. In earlier generations, becoming an adult was usually linked with some form of religious ceremony and/or starting to wear more adult clothes. But along came Elvis Presley, James Dean and other artists who turned everything upside down. Children wanted to decide their own future and started to rebel against their parents. One thing lead to another, among other things it lead to experimenting with drugs and alternative living.

At the tale end of this teenage rebellion process a new type of psychotherapy started to emerge. To some extend as an attempt to pick up the pieces of those who did not do too well during this process. Techniques such as EST, Primal Therapy and Sensitivity Trainings emerged. All were quite invasive, harsh and critical, when considered from our contemporary perspective. From this perspective, however, Rebirthing was the mild option, despite the fact that it too was fully focused on being one-sidedly negative towards parents, seeing the young people as ‘victims’ of poor parenting. Orr and Ray write:
“The fact is, you were a divine being when you came out of the womb. Your parents began to disapprove of you and you resented it. But you couldn’t resist them or get even because you didn’t have a big enough vocabulary or a big enough body. The only way you could get even was to do what they disapproved of, which caused more disapproval. So you kept the disapproval syndrome going until you decided you could not win. Eventually you gave up and surrendered your loyalty to your divine nature and decided to follow instructions. So you followed instructions for the rest of your life.” (Rebirthing in the New Age p. 59)

Although reading or discussing Orr/Ray’s theories in Rebirthing groups often caused powerful sessions, where clients felt liberated from their parents, their effects were not always benign. In particular not with clients who themselves had children and consequently, could be described as being on both sides of the arguments. For a long time Orr’s ‘solution’ to the parental disapproval dilemma was also to argue against having children at all and instead adopt the idea of physical immortality.

It is of course true that parents can be really bad for their children and often are a major reason for psychological problems in adults. But that is only half the truth and needs to be balanced by more fact-based arguments. Modern psychology, based on evolutionary theories and biological research, offers interesting and above all more positive explanations. Here you get both a psychological and a biological explanation of concepts such as ‘love’ and ‘parental disapproval’, which opens them up to understanding rather than to judgments and resentments.

Evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary Psychology is a growing set of theories based on research both in biology and psychology. It can be described as:
“Evolutionary psychology (EP) is an approach that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved as the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection.” (Wikipedia)

According to EP childrearing is such an important function for all mammals that all of them (including us) are born with many of the relevant skills hardwired in our genes. This means that ‘nature’ does the job of preparing and equipping parents for their task. Through hormonal processes, both mother and father go through emotional changes in preparation for their new roles. For obvious reasons the mother goes through a much greater change that the father, in particular when it comes to preparing for the birth of the child, which is completely ‘pre-programmed’ by nature. The changes are both physiological and psychological. For mothers, this means becoming more caring and attuned to others needs and for fathers, more protective and risk averse.

This is the ideal scenario of course and, as we all know, life is not always ideal. We learn how to be parents from our own experiences as children, often long before we really understand what is happening from an objective viewpoint. This means that our attitudes to parenting become part of our unconscious emotional setup rather than knowledge accessible through thinking. Parents-to-be who were not parented well will struggle to be good parents themselves.

Still this is not the same as Orr/Ray’s idea that: “our parents began to disapprove of you”. It is much more about a deeply felt need for emotional contact with other human beings, which is essential to us on both the physical and psychological levels. Even an approving parent can struggle to connect emotionally to their child, regardless of how much they try. Sadly this may often lead to an even deeper trauma for the child who is given double messages from the parent.

Dr Jaak Panksepp has identified what he calls the ‘Caring System’ as one of seven main ’instinctual systems’ that are rooted in older parts of the brain. These act more as an ‘emotional consciousness’ rather than being the result of conscious thought process. (See also the article: Affective Neuroscience of the Emotional Brain/Mind – What does this theory mean for Breathwork)

This means that the urge to ‘care’ for others is stronger than emotions such as Orr/Ray’s ‘disapproval’, which is the result of a thought process involving judgments based on cultural and social norms. And even a parent who displays disapproval towards the child has a deep and hard-wired urge to care for the child even though it may have been influenced by external factors causing it to be displayed as judgmental. This is an important fact that needs to be included in any Parental Disapproval process where the end goal should be understanding rather than judging.

Basic Needs

To focus on a judgment such as ‘disapproval’ reflects only one side at best. It does not take into consideration where the apparent ‘disapproval’ comes from and the problems the parent may have to struggle with in order to deal with their child’s needs. A much more balanced description (based on neuroscience) should focus on the basic needs which all human beings have and crave to have satisfied. These can be summarized as follows:
– Need for nourishment

– Need for a save environment

– Need for physical and emotional care (with a ‘hard-wired’ urge to love the person/s perceived as the main carer)

In short, we need to be seen, heard and accepted into our human group. These needs are so important to social mammals, such as us, that if they go unmet the result can be life-long emotional trauma, unless we are able to heal them through some form of therapy.

In her book Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, Sue Gerhardt writes: “…[B]abyhood is much more important to our lives than many people realise. A lot of the behaviour that worries us in later childhood, such as aggression, hyperactivity, obesity, depression and poor school performance, has already been shaped by children’s experiences in babyhood.”
(http://www.ecswe.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/QOC2-Chapter3-Why-Love-Matters-How-Affection- Shapes-a-Babys-Brain-by-Sue-Gerhardt.pdf)

She also argues: “Loving, sensitive parents who quickly calm their distressed baby, or stimulate a restless one, are helping to establish optimum levels of biochemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin in the baby’s body, which result in the baby feeling safe, contented, and relaxed. This lays the groundwork for an effective soothing system, and a balanced stress response—the foundations of good self-regulation and ultimately the source of genuine independence. Consistent, responsive parenting also supports the development of the prefrontal cortex, which further enhances the toddler’s growing capacity to control his impulses, to pay attention, and ultimately to be more empathetic to others—in other words, to develop emotional and social skills.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-author-speaks/201408/why-love-matters)

Doubtless Gerhardt shares the view that parental disapproval has a negative effect on children. But the difference with Gerhardt is that she has a detailed and fact-based explanation of what she refers to as ‘love’ linked to the understanding of our basic needs rather than the assumption of resentful parenting. Her explanation deals with chemical processes in the brain triggered by emotional processes that often go much deeper than ‘disapproval’ i.e. an explanation in line with modern scientific research. So, those in favour of the Orr/Ray Parental-Disapproval-Syndrome do not need to abandon it, just upgrade it to a less judgmental and more fact-based understanding.

Although getting our needs met becomes less threatening as we grow up, unmet needs will persist until dealt with. They may not be experienced or expressed in the same way throughout life. Part of our natural healing ability is to compensate for gaps in our inner setup by overcompensation and confabulation (‘creating our own reality’) to mention just two common ways of dealing with life. For someone who simply judges behaviour (as Orr/Ray seem to do), this may come across as ‘disapproval’ or worse. Of course it is absolutely true that even if we start out as innocent young creature, some of us will develop very dark sides to our personalities and become what we commonly describe as ‘evil’. But judging people as good or bad is more about displaying moral values than psychology.

Still no need for disapproval
Even if some parents certainly can be described as ‘disapproving’, this focusing on negative judgement is not helpful. Even if it can help temporarily to trigger all the suppressed frustration we may have, this is not the only way forward. All it really leads to is continued resentment and concerns about being judged by others. And, in the end, real healing is in understanding and acknowledging of the frailty in human nature which often causes us to act in less than ideal ways. Something that we all have in common. In Buddhism this concept is known as ‘duhkha’, or the unsatisfactoriness of our existence which we need to come to terms with in order to pursue a happier life.

Another consequence of focusing simply on the Parental-Disapproval-Syndrome can be compared with narrowing down a concept such as phobia to only one variety, such as a fear of being in confined spaces. Claustrophobia is, of course, a common phobia, but that does not mean that phobia can not be expressed in other ways. And obviously, for clients suffering from other forms of phobia, this narrow focus may cause confusion rather than helpful understanding. It is not unknown in Rebirthing circles that clients have desperately searched for memories of parental disapproval, true or false, in order to explain their childhood experiences. Widening the concept, to include explanations of our basic needs, may offer helpful insights for clients trying to connect with their childhoods. This can facilitate their healing process.

So, the advice to Breathworkers, who would like to bring their work in line with the advances in modern psychology, is; to broaden the Parental-Disapproval- Syndrome. To adopt the Evolutionary Psychology approach and to focus on understanding our basic needs and what the consequences of not getting them met mean to us. As so often with Breathwork, it is not so much about abandoning the old, but about being willing to move with the times and to keep up with, and learn from, knowledge from sources other than the founders.

Keywords; Parental disapproval, parenting, evolutionary psychology, Rebirthing, Gerhardt, Panksepp, Orr, Ray

© Gunnel Minett 2015