Depression and the Subtext of Family Life

In a previous essay (The Four Questions), I suggested that the four questions - "Who am I? Do I have any value? Why doesn't anybody see or hear me? Why should I live?"---were answered by young children on the basis of the subtext of the parent - child relationship. Children are adept at reading between the lines. Consider this situation: a mother comes home from work, says "I love you," to her young children, tells them to watch television, then goes into her bedroom for an hour and shuts her door. She then comes out makes dinner for the kids, doesn't sit with them, but asks how school was ("fine" they say) - and an hour later makes dinner for herself and her husband. After the couple's dinner, she helps the children into their pajamas, sits on each of their beds for thirty seconds, kisses them, says how much she loves them, and then closes the door. If you asked the mother, she might say she felt good about the interaction with her children - after all, she said she loved them twice, cooked dinner for them, and sat on each of their beds. This is what good parents do, she thinks.

And yet, the subtext is quite different. The message the children receive is: "You are not worth spending time with. There is nothing of value inside of you." Children want to share their experience of the world, and to know that this experience matters, but in this case they are stymied. They do not consciously think about or ask the four questions - but they secretly absorb the answers, and the answers shape their sense of who they are and deeply influences how they interact with others. Damage can be done no matter how many times they hear the words: "I love you," or see other token displays of affection. Of course this kind of parent-child interaction may be a one-time affair: perhaps the mother was sick, or had a terrible day at work - these things happen. But often, this level of interaction is habitual and consistent - and may start the day the child is born. The message: "You don't matter" is deeply embedded in the child's psyche, and may even predate the child's capacity for speech. For children, subtext, which they perceive as genuine, is always far more important than text. In fact, if the subtext is affirming, words hardly matter. (My 15 year old daughter Micaela and I have always shared a "I hate you" before going to bed because we know the words are the furthest thing from the truth--irony and word play is part of our very special relationship--see the essay "What is a Wookah?")


What do young children do with these hidden messages about their worthlessness? They have no way of expressing their feelings directly, and no one who can validate their existence. As a result, they have to defend themselves in any way possible: escape, act out, bully other children, or try to become the perfect child (the chosen method is probably a matter of temperament). Rather than feeling the freedom of being their own unique self, their life becomes a quest to become someone, and to find a place in the world. When they don't succeed, they experience shame, guilt, and worthlessness. Relationships serve the purpose of finding a place and validation rather than experiencing the pleasure of another person's company.

Inadequate answers to the four questions are not resolved when a child reaches adulthood. The goal remains the same: prove anyway possible that "I am someone of substance and value." If a person finds success in career and relationships, the questions can temporarily be put aside. But failures bring them out, once again, in full force. I have seen many deep, long-lasting depressions resulting from inadequate answers to the four questions, triggered by the loss of a relationship or a job. For many people there is no overt childhood abuse or neglect - instead, powerful hidden messages or subtext that placed the child-turned-adult in the position of having to defend their very existence. They were simply neither seen nor heard, but had to enter their parent's lives on terms other than their own. This is a condition, described elsewhere in these essays, called "voicelessness."

Therapy for the "voiceless" involves addressing the original wound. In the therapeutic relationship, the client learns they are indeed worth spending time with. The therapist facilitates this by encouraging the client to reveal as much as they can, by valuing the client's voice, and finding what is special and unique in them. However, the popular notion of therapy as an intellectual process is an oversimplification - over time a benevolent therapist must find his or her way into the client's emotional space. Often, after some months, the client is surprised to find the therapist with him or her during the day (when therapist and client are not literally together). Some clients will hold conversations in their head with their temporarily absent therapist and receive comfort in anticipation of being heard. Only then does the client realize how alone he or she has always been, and the missing parent (and the hole in the client's life) is fully revealed. Slowly and silently, the internal wound begins to heal, and the client finds, in relationship to the therapist, a secure place in the world and a new sense of value and meaning.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents: Is Love Enough?

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 29). Depression and the Subtext of Family Life, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 24 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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