Last week, a young man came to seek therapy. His presenting issue was feeling unhappy, no motivation and just going through the motions of life without any interest whatsoever. He is a bright young man working for a good local company and an only son. When anyone walks into my office with anxiety or depression the first thought that comes to my mind is something needs to change within his or her life and which they are resisting. It’s the guilt and shame that the adult carries for the conflict within of, ‘should I’ or ‘should I not’?

In this case, this guy wants to go abroad for his masters and build his life there struggling with good opportunities in Pakistan. But then comes the mountain of guilt for even wanting a better life versus being a good son and staying back and taking care of his parents. As I sat across him listening to his dreams, his aspirations and also the deep love and loyalty to his parents I felt as conflicted as him. What is the right answer here?

Our culture and strong family system from a very young age explicitly and implicitly gives out the message to the male child that he has to support his parents.

I believe that the responsibility for taking care of parents should lie on both sons and daughters. I have seen around me how the sense of responsibility that sons feel converts into a sense of burden that affects their own lives. And if it’s an only son, the pressure is even more.

I would again reiterate here that we should be there for our parents but there is a fine line that parents need to draw between fairly expecting their children being there for them in their old age versus a constant reminder to them to make the parents a priority at the expense of their own dreams and ambitions especially when the parents are healthy and abled.

In the case of this client, the parents are in their late 50s; working and independent and yet the son is reminded again and again that he needs to be around.

They have no idea of the guilt that this young man feels day in and out, affecting his mental and physical health. People who feel shame and guilt readily are at a higher risk for anxiety and depression and parents are primarily responsible for it.

How? Well it starts as early as childhood where parents very casually and callously say things like ‘shame on you for doing this’ or making their children apologise again and again for every mistake they make. These parenting tactics in the name of good parenting start building layers and layers of guilt and shame in the child’s psyche and this shame and guilt are the building blocks to constructing anxiety and depression and other issues like addiction and neurosis.

When the male child is reminded again and again over the years, the risk is the resentment he might start feeling towards his own parents for holding him back. This is the beginning of the conflict he feels, divided between love and resentment for them. It becomes choosing me versus choosing them.

The reality is that Pakistan unfortunately does have its limitations when it comes to educational and professional opportunities. There is also a financial reality that these young men can support their families better with opportunities abroad. So now comes the question of the parents.

Here I would implore parents to see if they are carelessly and ritualistically repeating a message to their sons, and placing the conditions for what qualifies an obedient son. Or does their situation really require immediate support? For example, if parents are healthy and able with good support systems like siblings and friends, should they not let their sons study and gain experience aboard? Also yes, it’s unfair to uproot the parents to shift with them but many families transition and can between the two countries.

The important factor to consider is that just pressuring the son into what their responsibilities should incorporate the health of that son also. Is the conflict that he feels and the restriction to make his choice in the name of love worth his mental anguish?

There is always a way that can suit all. So let’s be kind to our sons and raise them without burden and guilt for being a male child. Be part of the solution and not part of the problem.