Varieties of Parental Inadequacy: Injury Without Abuse


As the photo suggests, we are vulnerable when little. While we tend to think of physical mistreatment in this connection, damage can be caused without corporal or sexual violence. Injury is also possible in the absence of withering and repetitive verbal attacks. Moreover, an absence of love isn’t always the cause.

What else might constitute inadequate parenting? Here are five categories:

  • A parent’s use of his or her child as a validating object. An insecure parent can look to the tot for affirmation. In effect, the little girl or boy is transformed into a scorekeeper on the adult’s worth. If the kiddy is well-behaved, the caretaker feels better about himself. When the tiny one is distressed, however, the mom or dad becomes rattled. A parent who does not know how to manage his own emotions will attempt to shut down the child’s feelings to reassure himself. A sensitive child — one who is attuned to the parent’s distress — might then develop the habit of scanning the adult for signs of upset. At an unconscious level, he does not wish the emotional collapse of a person essential to his fragile life. Rather than blame the parent and deal with the scary recognition of his shakiness, he is inclined to blame himself. This is often reinforced when admonished that he is doing wrong or “should be a big boy.”

Because of the offspring’s need for the parent’s approval and stability, such a young one tends to sit on his emotions, deadening them. He defines them as inappropriate or bad and perceives himself as a problem. Carried forward into adulthood, people with this upbringing might “fake” their way through life; meanwhile (internally) believing their human desire for comfort is unacceptable. They further assume any affective upset (such as we all suffer) must be kept invisible within the showcase of personal relationships. Fear of doing some undefinable disqualifying thing becomes a pervasive worry. The individual is shadowed by the sense of being “too much” for everyone.

  • Emotional sterility, neglect, and favoritism. I’ve treated the children of parents who did not adequately supervise them, were more emotionally involved with work or community activities than their young one, who were absent on trips of business or pleasure for long and frequent periods, and those who communicated a preference for a sibling or even someone else’s child. All the while there was food and shelter. None of this attends to the kid’s emotional needs, communicates his value, or produces a strong sense of self. It is important to note, however, that in a world of demanding jobs and stagnant wages, the parent may have no choice in the matter of “being there.”
  • Needing the child’s approval. Children need parents with the will power, strength, and motivation to be consistent — hold to limits. A parent lacking resilience or self-confidence is unlikely to take charge when necessary. An elder who is desperate for the offspring’s affection and approval risks allowing his girl or boy to determine the rules, what she is permitted to do, what he is allowed to “have.” Kids are sometimes called “spoiled,” not because the caretaker wishes to instill that quality, but because he is afraid to say “no.” He fears the faucet of the child’s love will be shut. Authority collapses.


  • Parent/child role reversal. A needy parent can use the youngster as a kind of friend or therapist, confiding depression and loneliness, criticizing the spouse, and offering details of a sex life no offspring wants to hear ever. Such kids sometimes become parental surrogates to their elders, taking on the world to protect the mom or dad from emotional disintegration. I have known children who were required by one parent to retrieve the other from a neighborhood saloon. I have heard tales of youngsters expected to accompany mom on her detective work to discover a cheating spouse. Some youth are assigned the job of asking for the child support, encouraged to mix the parent’s favorite alcoholic beverage, smoke pot with a sire, lie to the other parent, or cover money mismanagement by one of the household heads. The pattern does not necessarily end in childhood. Grown-ups are requested to double-date with a divorced mom or dad with the implied plea to compensate for his woeful social life.
  • Parental illness or loss: Parents running on empty. Child neglect is not always intended. The household head who is ill or out-of-commission cannot give attention to the job of parenting. No emotional reserves exist. The common adaptation of kids in this situation is to become a pseudo-adult. When a parent is laid-low by the loss of a spouse, due either to divorce or death, he or she becomes inadequate to the task of managing the home. Now the child must deal with the loss of two: one literally absent, the other a vaporous shadow of his previous self. Any attempt to grab hold of the apparent parent fails. If this youngster is older than his sibs, ministering to the others becomes his role. A lifetime as an emotional caretaker can follow from the assignment of the job at an early age.

The damage inflicted on children in the cases described is considerable. Yet if the standard of adequate parenting is material well-being or the lack of frank abuse, those young ones might be considered “cared for.” When they enter therapy they are often looking for a way to be healed without indicting their folks. In the absence of attention to the full range of parental behavior, treatment misses the point. Grief cannot be expressed except by identifying the wound. The elders are done no harm in the confines of a therapist’s office no matter what the client says, unless they are physically present.

Some injuries leave no visible marks, but must be healed all the same. Think PTSD. The patient’s hurt is patient, waiting, waiting, waiting. The spirit drains away and needless suffering persists.

The highway of life is long, but not infinite. Midnight does come. Don’t postpone confronting your pain until the carriage turns into a pumpkin.

The top image is called Baby Toss, as captured by Mike. The second image is a 1950 poster for the Austrian Socialist Party. The text reads “Happy Family, happy Vienna — Vote SPOE.” It is the work of Matthaeuswien. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

21 thoughts on “Varieties of Parental Inadequacy: Injury Without Abuse

  1. riserenewrebuild

    Wow. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow indeed…..Thank you, for a post that provides validation of anyone who falls into any of these categories. You know which one(s) I fall into – literally. The first is the chief culprit but the last also was a factor – though it was the loss of close relatives rather than the other parent, that was the issue. Knowing that you are writing from your wide experience, but also seeing myself in what you have written, is powerfully validating and counters that side of me that says I had a good childhood and nothing to complain about – though even as I say it I know it’s my mother’s voice speaking…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for that informative article, Dr. Stein. I read it both as a child and parent. We are flawed individuals. As parents, we do the best we can with what we have received as children.


  4. Indeed, Rosaliene. Sometimes a parent matches well with one child and not another. That makes the job harder, but not less necessary. In any case, as you say, nobody gets it just right.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So true Gerald, I’ve only recently in thelast year realised how much damage I recieved from my mother. For such a long time the damage from my fathers violence has been the focus and it was hard to grasp the full extent of my mothers neglect. What has made it especially hard is because my mother has always been a loving person, I really couldn’t ask my mum to love me anymore than what she has done. She just failed to protect me and stand up for me in the face of others abusing and neglecting me. Neither did she teach me essential life skills so that between both my parents I was completely unprepared for adult life and responsibility. Its so hard looking at what my mother contributed to my downfall. How can somebody who loves you so much let you down so badly? The damage of my mum being a silent bystander is comparable to the damage of my fathers violence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry you had to suffer this, Claire. There are no licenses for parents — no test that evaluates their capacity to take on the job. Some women make the mistake of marrying a man for his apparent strength and implied offer of security, only to find abuse stands behind that strength and turns against them. If they are looking for a man to protect them because they feel weak, the children may not find a defender, however much the mom wishes it were otherwise.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve waded my way through a few behaviors on this list (in addition to a period of physical abuse) and, like you say of patients, never saw the value in confronting my mother. There is also much to say to a father who ODs and dies on you at 9, but I’m not sure the seance would bring much closure. Yet I can say honestly I’m not hanging on to bitterness. Most of the “work” (done largely in the arena of life and not on the therapist’s couch) came from understanding the roots (my grandmother is fucking twisted and selfish, and my mom’s exp with physical abuse makes mine look like a Leave It to Beaver episode) and readjusting expectations – that I would never have a real mom-support in my life, would probably always need to play the parent role, so that little glimmers of mothering from her garnered a lot of gratitude from me, like when she took a public bus and hobbled down the street on bad knees to hug me and hold my hand in the wake of the death of my baby. We find ways to forgive and rebuild because the other option is to let it keep hurting you, indefinitely, and that’s no way to live. But I don’t think you really come out unscathed: as functional and resolved and happily married as I am, here I am utterly paralyzed by infertility. Someone raised in the context of secure attachment probably would’ve chosen some alternate path years ago, but (try as I might) the fear and grief of that is so blindingly painful it’s incapacitating, which, as I look around me at other people facing the same thing, I know is not normal and must be rooted in something, so the capacity to really heal your whole warped template is sort of limited, unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Indeed, if one can grieve to the point of forgiveness and even gratitude, that is the best possible solution, assuming the infliction of big injuries is at an end. As you suggest, no one gets out of life unscathed. We are always adjusting, healing, and trying to forge ahead. I’ve seen enough “permanently damaged” people lead fruitful and joyous lives. The future can surprise us. Having been in long lines of cars waiting for the possibility of filling up my gas tank during the Arab oil embargo of the early 70s, I am astonished that the world economy is reeling (in part) due to an oil glut! You never know what’s going to happen. I have faith in your tenacity. I think you’ll find your way.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. The first of these rang a lot of bells for me. Just this morning I found myself pretending I’m fine when I’m not to someone who I could have confided in if I wasn’t scared of being too much of a problem and a burden.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. When my wife left me, I was incapacitated for several days and slowly regained my abilities (to function both as a human and a father) as time progressed. I don’t confide my personal feelings with my children. I try to be their father and be there for THEM to share their own fears and concerns with me. I am a subscriber in the idea that complaints go up and shit rolls down.

    I didn’t server in the military, but this just makes sense to me even within the realm of family.


    • Thanks for the link: a great film and good advice. That you were only incapacitated for a few days is remarkable. The kinds of problems to which I referred — when parents are laid low for long periods — are something different. Months and sometimes years go by. You sound like a very responsible and thoughtful dad. More power to you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I try as hard as I can and still am battling with a great many things as a single father. I have my girls for all but one weekend each month and some holidays. They are not fools. They know what is happening and have on several occasions been comforting to me all on their own. When they do that, I feel as though I should reject that attention rather than let them feel that they need to take care of their emotionally ailing father. Sometimes it is best that the just not see me curled up in the corner.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As you know, sometimes kids are pretty perceptive and see what we wish they wouldn’t. My dad had a heart attack when I was almost 12. When he returned home (they kept you in the hospital quite a while 50 years ago) I could tell he was not the same guy emotionally. He told me he was scared. Eventually, he bounced back. But, for what it is worth, I can still see where he was standing and where I was standing in the moment he admitted that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am conflicted in that I want my kids to be aware and wise about people they love and care about. At the same time, I want to protect them from the harsh realities of their father’s brokenness and heartbreak. There is no going back from what they have seen. They were there when I broke down. They saw me destroyed and tried to comfort me. I wish that they didn’t. My younger daughter (who exhibits a very nurturing side) has asked me about me. When I am withdrawn, she is the first one to my side, attached to me and holding me. I wonder if it is for her own comfort more that it is for me.

        I am glad to hear that your father bounced back from that.


  10. Thank you. Equally important, so did I “bounce back” from seeing my father vulnerable. Indeed, if we live long enough and our parents live long enough, we have many experiences of seeing their vulnerability. I continued to respect and love him, and hold him in admiration today, 15 years since his death. We don’t need perfect parents. You’ll get through this and so will your kids, even with the imperfections we all have.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This post hit me hard. Waves of overwhelming emotions and memories crashing over me, resulting in a confusing mess. I definitely have a ways to go in dealing with things from the past. It seems the wounds have not actually been healed. Just buried. I can identify strongly with all but “Needing the child’s approval”. It feels like this post was written especially with me in mind. It’s that powerful for me. Thank you for sharing your experiences, thoughts, and words with the world.


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