Varieties of Parental Inadequacy: Injury Without Abuse

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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.

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  • 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.