Parents with children who have some diagnosed emotional problem often wonder what caused it. Sometimes they blame life events. Sometimes genetics are at play. Often the cause is a combination of the two. The source of the problem is called the Etiology.
Many parents who bring their child in to see a mental health professional come with some reluctance and frequently only after feeling that they are in a crisis and have tried everything else they can think of first. I suppose the reason has to do, in part, with the historical notion of stigmata associated with being in the office of a therapist.
Another reason I hear about a lot is that the parents feel responsible for whatever seems to be the matter with the child and are not in a hurry to talk with anyone about that. They are not uncommonly concerned that they have caused the problem.
Emotional problems tend to arise from two fundamental sources which are never entirely mutually exclusive. The first involves the genetic makeup of the child – The hardwiring, if you will. This includes all the biogenetic propensities, vulnerabilities and actual DNA that the child came into the world with.
While it is relatively uncommon for a specific mental illness to be inherited per se, the inherited traits can and do render some people more vulnerable toward developing certain illnesses.
It is the second factor which often sets the first into an active state. That is the reality of the world the child is born into, how they experience it and what happens to them. Real life experiences can be the match that lights the fuse to genetically inherited predispositions and vulnerabilities.
For example, a child born to one or both parents who have histories of a specific mental disorder or addiction is quite likely born with a certain vulnerability to developing the same or similar problems. It is not a straight-line guarantee but the risk is there. Being in situations where the propensity is set off by the behavior of the person can activate that potential problem very quickly.
As a consequence, kids born to addicted parents must be much more cautious about giving in to the social pressure or temptation to experiment with alcohol and drugs than some of their peers who were not born with the same vulnerabilities. Likewise, children born to parents with serious mental disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, etc.) need by alert to the early onset signs that these conditions might be arising within themselves.
The etiology of many mental illnesses and emotional problems can be found in one or the other of those domains but is often a function of a combination of the two. Since re-engineering these details of a person’s DNA is still some years off in the world of biogenetics, therapists usually work through trying to understand the portion of the issue that are subject to conscious awareness and deliberate control.
Change is, ultimately, less about detecting etiology than it is about bringing about desired alterations in a person’s life in the here-and-now. Certainly, understanding the roots of a problem can be of help in guiding the treatment, but when and if the need to understand the ‘why’ takes more energy and time than the need to correct the ‘what,’ time is not being well spent.
Understanding where something comes from does not change it. Only change in the here and now equals change.