While I was training to become a teacher I was struck by a lecturer’s remark that no matter what we learned about teaching practice, how we ourselves were taught would be our most powerful model in the classroom. This also applies to parenting.
No matter how caring we are with our own children, during unguarded moments of stress we can unwittingly re-enact the way we were punished or abused as children, terrifying and confusing not only our children, but also ourselves. Yet, who do we blame? Do we blame parents who were probably victims of abuse themselves? Their parents? Or the parents before them? I believe that no effective change can be made in the presence of blame. Not only does it prevent us from looking at the contributing factors that underlie the causes of abuse, it also stops us from saying, “The buck of abuse stops with me.”
And while we may feel outrage at the perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse and seek to bring them to justice, we ignore other forms of abuse that may be less obvious, but nevertheless leave long-lasting wounds that may never heal. For instance:
- Verbally abusing a child can strip away their self-esteem and confidence, and erode their sense of self-worth. When a child sees themselves as having no value, they may never discover their own uniqueness and the talents they can share with others.
- Withdrawing love as a way of getting a child to do what adults want him or her to do can develop into a fear of being rejected and abandoned, and turn a child into a ‘people pleaser’ in order to gain love and acceptance. It may also create an overly reactive and angry child, frustrated because their need for love, respect and caring are not met.
- Not allowing children to express their anger when they are treated unfairly or abused can cause ongoing problems in adult relationships. When memories of early abuse get triggered we can lash out uncharacteristically with repressed anger, further compounding the triggering incident.
- Treating a child as a surrogate ’spouse’ where a parent burdens them with their problems and seeks their emotional support can create ‘special’ and overly responsible and serious children who later develop anxiety and personality disorders. Effectively this says to a child, “You cannot have any needs because filling my emotional needs is more important.” Contrary to what many people believe, a child is not a miniature adult and does not have the emotional and intellectual maturity to be a ‘parent’ to an emotionally needy parent. This forces them to prematurely ‘grow up’ and take on responsibilities for which they are developmentally unprepared, denying them their childhood.
- Fighting over children in a court of law after a marriage breakdown robs children of their humanity when they are treated as possessions with no respect for their feelings. This very often traumatises children who then often have to deal with the fallout of parental bitterness for years. This can negatively impact children’s ability to thrive and succeed at school.
- Pushing children to achieve can turn them into underachievers who lose their love of learning.
- Parents wanting their children to live out their own unfulfilled dreams deny them the opportunity to live life for themselves and discover their own purpose in life.
- Wanting your child to be ‘your friend’ blurs the boundaries between parent and child, often preventing children from gaining the discipline and guidance they need.
One of our common misconceptions is that children are resilient. However, because they don’t have the emotional tools to integrate the hurt caused by abusive adults, they often repress their feelings as their first line of defence. But repressed feelings get carried around with them as unwanted baggage, preventing them from achieving their full potential and robbing them of happiness, peace, and joy. Worse, it sets patterns in place that will recreate their childhood conditions and dysfunctional relationship with their parents over and over again in many different guises, right throughout adulthood—unless they become consciously aware of them, grieve the pain and loss they caused, and work to change them.
From my experiences as a counsellor, I discovered that a wounded child exists within most parents—often unacknowledged or beyond their awareness. When parents do not heal this wounded inner child they can often abuse their own children in the same way they themselves were abused. This is one of the reasons our present child abuse problems escalate into increased violence within our society on all socio-economic levels, taking us further away from the ability to experience peace within ourselves and our society.
Too often a ‘poverty’ of experience during childhood—where needs for love and feeling valued remain unmet—translates into poverty within adult relationships, finances, and finding work that is soulfully satisfying.
By healing the pain that is buried within childhood, we learn to empathise with the pain our children suffer. As we learn to love and care for the child within ourselves, we are better able to love and care for our children and treat them with the respect they deserve as fellow human beings. With such an investment, we send them into the world with enough ‘capital’ to enable them to seek their highest potential.
First published in the Ballarat News July 13, 1994 and revised and updated February 11, 2011
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