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.

Parental Mistakes: Trying too Hard to be Unlike Your Parents

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Many people come to therapy with grievances about their upbringing. Not surprisingly, they vow, “I won’t do that to my kids.” Therein lies a potential problem.

Let’s assume the parents in question deserve some blame. No mom or dad has ever done the job to perfection, but I’m talking about those actions generating lasting injury: neglect, a lack of affection, or abusive criticism. One might name other failures, but let’s limit ourselves to these.

I remember a female patient (I’ll call her Jean) whose mother made all three of those mistakes according to her adult daughter. Jean’s mom had little time for her pretty and bright child, rarely praised her, but disapproved and punished severely.

The vow not to repeat mother’s errors, however, produced its own set of difficulties. Jean’s headstrong child, Karen, almost always tested the limits mom tried to set up. Jean crumbled. Moreover, not only was she fearful of duplicating her own upbringing, but the mistreatment at her mom’s hands caused insecurity, stripping her of the confidence to stand up to her powerhouse 10-year-old.

Karen (not her real name) needed good limit-setting and reasonable discipline. Jean’s lack of self-assuredness made this impossible to provide. She also believed if she were “too hard” on her daughter, the little girl would lose affection for her. Jean feared, once again (as in her own childhood), losing the fondness of someone she loved. Karen had come to substitute for Jean’s mother in the role of the person whose affection was sought. Indeed, Karen was in charge of things, much as Jean’s mother had been.

My client required the self-confidence to draw and hold the line with her offspring despite the youngster’s relentless begging, pleading, and occasional tantrums. Therapy focused on building up Jean’s self-esteem in order to become the kind of mom her feisty child required. She learned that overindulgence is not the same as good parenting, and that discipline and appropriate criticism need to be a part of any upbringing. Indeed, if you don’t deliver the rigor your child needs, you fail to provide something essential to her psychological health. This is ironic.  Jean was neglectful of Karen in a different fashion than she experienced growing up, because she was trying to avoid the neglect she suffered herself.

This young mother came to realize no amount of affection is, by itself, sufficient to be a good parent. Rather, Karen wouldn’t prosper until she learned Jean would prevent her from doing whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it. Once Jean became aware that being a doormat helped neither herself nor her child, things began to get better for both of them.

Another example makes a similar point. This 15-year-old slender, physically unremarkable male (I’ll call him Joe, the minor league juvenile delinquent) possessed major league talents including shoplifting, breaking curfew, school failure (when he attended), and theft from his parents. His ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) didn’t help. Joe was a short-term thinker, rarely considering the more distant consequences of actions if they appeared momentarily attractive.

Joe — hardly a physical or intellectual giant — overpowered his guardians. Not due to cleverness, but because they too didn’t want to be as tough on him as their own parents had been on them. The teen was out of control, but his folks had no good models to rely upon in figuring out what to do. Mom and dad only understood they didn’t want to repeat their parents’ mistakes: punish and criticize too much.

During Joe’s psychiatric hospitalization I realized Joe was the strongest personality in the house. An interesting conversation with him ensued:

GS: What is it like having your parents in your hip pocket? How does it feel to be able to get away with anything you want?

Joe: Great!

He exclaimed this with much enthusiasm and no hesitation, after which time I remained silent for perhaps 30 seconds. Then Joe said something pretty amazing.

Joe: And scary.

Even Joe realized if he was the driver of the train of his life, a crash was inevitable. No genius, Joe nonetheless grasped this, at least when he reflected on it. Of course, he rarely did out in the world. Joe was a slave to his hair-trigger impulsivity. The insight didn’t change his behavior, but his comment demonstrates children expect someone bigger, stronger, and smarter to protect them. For a few seconds at least, Joe had his own epiphany.

Kids want and need things from their guardians: love, affection, consistency, discipline, good parental models, and so forth. Our guide to doing our job as parents can’t only be the opposite of what our own inadequate caretakers did.

If you had parents who didn’t get a passing grade at the job, I would urge neither to repeat their mistakes, nor to be so scared of doing so that you fail your young ones at the other extreme, which can be just as bad.

Parenting is never easy, for all its joys and rewards. Whether you become the thing you hated growing up or vow to be the polar opposite, parents fail their children whenever they fail to heal themselves. Your disadvantaged life now touches the lives of others. However much one has been injured, the domino game of inherited injury must stop.

The Street Scene at the top is the work of Georgio Conrad and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.