Re-Writing Our Muslim Family Scripts
“Do not raise your children the way your parents raised you; they were born for a different time.
Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib (as)
A Resilient Family
Becoming a parent is a life changing experience and nothing can ever prepare you for the immense responsibility and infinite new experiences and challenges it will entail. As families and as parents, we need to develop resilience in order to meet and adapt to these challenges, so that our children are given the best environment in which to grow InShaAllah.
A resilient family, in the psychological meaning of the word, is a family that is open and able to adapt with flexibility in new and creative ways to the challenges it encounters – rather than relying on inherited, fixed and rigid patterns of coping that may or may not work. As Muslim families our resilience embodies a further spiritual dimension and is ultimately rooted in our connection to
Allah (swt) and in knowing that everything we do must be orientated towards Him. It is He Who provides the strength and insight needed to adapt to the trials of life, and it is His Mercy and Blessings upon us, that enables us all to carry on.
However whilst we endeavour to maintain and develop this spiritual resilience within ourselves and our families – learning about, and becoming more self-aware of the psychological influences that keep us stuck in dysfunctional ways of relating and parenting can help in getting ourselves back on the right path as parents.
Our parents are our first teachers and despite all the parenting courses and books we may have consumed, it is predictable that when we ourselves become parents for the first time we invariably default, at least in some ways, to parenting as we ourselves were parented.
Some of our inherited parenting habits are conscious – e.g. my mother always read me a story at bedtime so I will do the same with my child; or, we always eat our mealtimes together as a family. However, many of our parenting habits, beliefs and approaches are unconscious and we lack awareness into what we are doing and/or why we are doing it.
Even if we have awareness about ourselves, have been in therapy or engaged in personal development, it is often only when we become parents ourselves, that certain internalised aspects of ourselves, become re-activated and manifest in our own approach towards parenting.
Ghosts in the Nursery
These deeply buried memories from our own childhood that re-emerge in parenthood have been referred to as ‘Ghosts in the Nursery’ by psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg.
‘In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening. Even among families where the love bonds are stable and strong the intruders from the parental past may break through the magic circle in an unguarded moment and a parent and his child may find themselves re-enacting a moment or a scene from another time with another set of characters.’ (P387)
A template about whatever kind of family or care environment we grew up in, becomes embedded within our own psyches – ideas about what family means, how we experience and share intimacy and care, our responses or reactions to loss and separation, our relationship to others and what it means to be a boy or a girl, a sister, brother, son or daughter. Ideas about emotions and how we express and manage them are also learnt and become lodged within the deep recesses of our minds.
All these ‘ghosts’ can suddenly and unexpectedly reappear in our lives when we become parents. Childhood milestones or experiences at specific ages often serve as a powerful trigger for awakening our own past experiences. For example, feelings and beliefs about how we were helped to transition from childhood into adolescence (or not) by our parents, will often resurface when our own children reach that transitional age; your child’s first day at school may reactivate memories, feelings, beliefs about your experience at that age.
These ways of parenting that resurface when we parent our own children have been referred to as ‘Family Scripts’. Family therapist John Byng Hall (1985) had identified three kinds of parenting or family scripts. These can help us begin to reflect on our own experiences of being parented and parenting so that we can move towards more healthier ways of raising our children and develop a more resilient family within which our children can flourish InShaAllah.
The Replicative Script
A replicative script is when we as parents inherit and repeat patterns of behaviour related to parenting, that we ourselves learnt in our own childhoods, from our parents/carers. In essence we replicate or repeat with our own children what was done to us as a child. Examples may include family traditions, such as eating a meal together, reading stories at bedtime, how we show affection, how we discipline, and how we speak to each other. Replicative scripts can be positive and negative and may include attitudes such as how we expect children should behave, and what is expected from a boy and what is expected from a girl.
Replicative scripts also include religious and cultural practices that are passed down and repeated from one generation to the next. Over time these cultural practices may become intertwined and understood to be indistinguishable from religious teachings.
As Muslims it is thus essential that we take time to reflect and re-evaluate the purpose and benefit of such practices. We should question whether they have a basis in, or are congruent with, Islamic teachings, whether they encourage the healthy development of the child, or actually cause harm and fuel unhelpful stereotypes and attitudes.
Within our Muslim communities we can observe many cultural beliefs and practices, particularly regarding women, that are damaging and have no basis within Islam. Rather they have become rigid and static expectations or patterns of behaviour that go largely unquestioned and serve only to perpetuate dysfunction and lead us further away from Islam.
Some replicative scripts are conscious, and we engage in them with full awareness …my mother did this so I will too …. Other replicative scripts may be more unconscious such as the messages we absorbed about emotions about which we are largely unaware. For example, if we learnt as a child that we were not allowed to express emotions such as anger or sadness – we may become triggered and feel uncomfortable when our own children display these emotions. To manage our own discomfort in such triggered situations, we many deny or minimise these feelings in our own children in the same way as was done to us.
In more serious cases, abuse can also be transmitted and replicated between generations – “I was beaten as a child so I will beat my child”, or, “I was beaten as a child so I will allow my child to be beaten by the other parent”. Whilst it is no justification, in many cases this cycle of abuse is meted out largely without awareness of where it originated from…. an unconscious repeated pattern of behaviour. Abuse in its various forms – is one of the most toxic of replicative scripts that is often maintained and perpetuated as a dark family secret between generations, until someone find the awareness, means and courage to break the cycle.*
Often as parents, rather than repeating dysfunctional parenting patterns, we will endeavour to change and correct aspects of our own experience of being parented that had a negative or damaging effect on us when we were young. For example, if we were treated harshly as a child, criticised and grew up in an environment that lacked emotional warmth, we may endeavour to create the opposite experience for our child. We may swamp them in love, compassion and praise. We will want to protect our child from the harmful experiences that we experienced ourselves as a child.
However, in many cases in attempts to be nothing like our parents, we swing to the opposite extreme. With the above example, a parent who is all about love and compassion as a reaction to their own strict upbringing, may struggle with implementing firm boundaries with their own child. This can lead to further issues as the child would not know where the boundaries lie and could develop behavioural problems and anxiety as a result.
A person who was parented with an overly interfering and controlling parent may subsequently want to give their child a much freer upbringing. However, if carried to the extreme in reality, the child make experience and interpret this as the parent not caring or meeting their needs; they may feel rejected and unwanted. Thus, whilst corrective scripts serve to protect our children from the harm we experienced as children, we have to be careful that in doing so we don’t create another form of dysfunction that can be equally damaging.
Both replicative scripts and corrective scripts can be both positive or negative, however in all cases they are driven by our past experiences, and are a continuation of, or reaction to, them. They therefore are often rooted in dysfunctional patterns and are thus limited and can stifle the healthy development of the child and family as a whole.
Improvised scripts involve a more creative and flexible approach to parenting and are influenced by our ability to reflect upon and learn from our own experiences of being parented. They are based on our own values and can integrate insights we gain from our current relationships and what we can learn about healthy family and child development. Children are not all the same and improvised scripts recognise that each child is unique and will require a flexible and adaptive approach to allow them to thrive.
Improvised scripts embody a sense of safety but also adventure in which families feel confident to explore and try new things. If a parent feels they will be criticised for trying something new, they will most likely remain stuck in the rigid, old patterns of behaviour.
However, where there is a sense of trust, warmth and acceptance between family members, then families will be able to become more creative, open to new experiences and free themselves from the unhelpful parenting styles that they have unwittingly inherited.
In reality most families and parenting approaches contain elements from all three of the above scripts. However, it can be helpful to reflect upon and identify where we use replicative and corrective scripts and to then make room for trying new ways of relating and parenting. This will help develop resiliency within ourselves, our families and our children InShaAllah.
Honouring Parents in Islam
In Islam immense importance is given to treating our parents with kindness and respect. It is important to mention that in most cases, parents do the best they can given their own experiences and situations…. they too are products of their pasts. However, this does not negate the need to examine our own experiences and attitudes in order to better ourselves for our own children. Therefore, reflecting on our childhoods and the way we were parented, and wanting to change or improve ourselves, does not mean that we are ungrateful to our parents for raising us. It is about becoming better parents for our children so that they can receive the best family environment in which to develop, grow and flourish InShaAllah.
A Muslim Family Script
As Muslims we are provided with all the guidance necessary to develop our families and raise our children within the best of environments. We have the best of families to learn from as exemplified in that of the Holy Prophet (saws) and his Alhlulbayt (as). They provide the best of role models from which to learn how to be a parent and how to have a successful family.
Out replicative scripts need to embody the prophetic way of parenting alongside our Islamic heritage and traditions. Our cultural practices, when healthy and congruent with Islam, are also replicative scripts that importantly give us a sense of connection to our lineage and past.
At the same time we need to reflect on ourselves, our triggers and why we do what we do, and have honesty regarding whether we need to correct certain patterns of behaviours, attitudes and beliefs.
We are also living within a specific socio-historical and political context that will necessitate that we adapt and develop our parenting approaches to meet the challenges we will inevitably face. As the saying by Imam Ali ibn Abus Talib (as) clearly states, “Do not raise your children the way your parents raised you; they were born for a different time”.
As Muslims our Islamic teachings and exemplary role models are there to guide us. However when combined with psychological insights that can help us to become more aware of how and where we may have gone astray (and how to fix it), it will help us more successfully meet the never-ending challenges we face, so that we can get back on track towards the Islamic ideal, InShaAllah.
*A Note: If you suffered from a traumatic or abusive upbringing, or you are currently struggling with the effects from your own childhood then please seek out the help of a trained mental health professional, who will be able to help you process the trauma in a safe and effective manner.