Recently, I met a very senior psychiatrist with more than three decades of experience. Having been practicing for a few years only, I asked him what in his experience was the reason for the rise in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, addiction and relational difficulties etc.

In his opinion it was the way family systems have changed in our culture over the decades. The shift from the joint family to the single-family unit—he believed—played a significant role in increasing mental health issues.

This statement made me wonder how entirely true this hypothesis was, but single or joint, in my own experience as a therapist, the family played a huge role in shaping the personality of an individual.

Freud, referred to as the father of psychology, emphasised the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping our personality and behaviour. He believed the type of parenting the child receives has a very powerful effect on the child’s personality development.

He believed that if we lack proper nurturing and parenting during early years it has a huge bearing on what kind of adults we are, our outlook of life, our choices etc. A simple example can be if parents are too strict or begin toilet training early, it can possibly lead to an anal-retentive personality developing, in which the individual is stern, orderly, rigid, and obsessive. On the other hand, too much leniency in toilet training can also lead to an anal expulsive personality, in which the individuals are messy, wasteful, or have a destructive personality.

A child is dependent on its mother even before it comes into the world, depending on primarily the mother but both the parents and family to protect it and provide for its needs. A child’s first relationships are with its parents and forms the blueprint for future relationships. The family has a very significant impact on the developing child, impacting attitudes, beliefs, opportunities, habits, and personality traits.

When one thinks of all this, being a parent is a very scary thought and sometimes even a father and mother aren’t enough to shoulder such a colossal responsibility. As a parent myself, I still wonder how I do it and I am sure I make mistakes on a daily basis.

Coming back to the argument about the single-family versus a joint family system; there are no doubt many advantages to a joint system but disadvantages too. No doubt a nurturing grandmother can compensate and add value to personality development as well as a mother. Or cousins can be siblings for an only child.

If I look at my own life experience, I had a complicated relationship with my mother. But I was very close to my maternal grandmother and the 3 months I spent with her every year made up for many toxic interactions with my own mom. In earlier times, many relatives like grandmothers and aunts or uncles played parental figures.

In my experience, whatever mental health issues that my client faces or even my own process and journey is rooted in the early years.

The absence of a working father, an overworked overwhelmed mother, the sibling comparison or lack of a go-to person are all building blocks that contribute to a dysfunctional adult state. In some of my friends’ households, a few of them would have a grandmother they would share the room with, someone who was a stable unconditional sounding board for their stories, a warm hug, a trusting figure.

Now, modern families have parents who are busy, wrapped up in their own lives and in the name of giving space to their children, are less attentive and absent. Although whether our previous generations want to admit it or not, today’s generations have a tougher time. The issues are the same but there is more external un-safety and that contributes to more internal un-safety.

A child who suffers from sexual abuse from the hands of a servant but has only two working parents in the home has no one to tell as compared to maybe in the 80s and 90s where he might have an aunt or grandmother who could provide safety.

Plus, a large family gives the opportunity for more growth, as the conflict is greater. There are arguments between family members too but it gives the opportunity to a child to learn how to relate to so many different people. It’s like group therapy starting at a very early age.

Something to reflect on is that the modern family system we have now and our aversion to the joint family system might need some rethinking because the family system is the backbone of shaping personality, and having more nurturing figures for a child, would do a world of good.