Wounds to the Self
Most people these days recognize blatant forms of child abuse and neglect. Beating children, denying them their basic needs of food, shelter, and medical care, or engaging in any kind of sexual relationship with them is widely accepted as wrong and destructive. But there are many other ways that parents can harm their children, intentionally or not, which remain less recognized. Children’s development is more than just physical, it is relational and psychological as well. It takes more than food, shelter, freedom from physical threat, and even the coolest toys that money can buy, for a child to develop into a healthy, happy adult self.
No parent is perfect, and no parent has to be perfect. There is a relatively consistent, and yet imperfect, level of meeting your child’s needs that is good enough. Not all parents parent at that good enough level. Some recognize there’s a problem and seek help. Others are unable, or unwilling, to face themselves, and thus do real harm to their children. Usually, such parents are just unconsciously passing on similar hurts that have been passed on for multiple generations within a family. The pattern remains unbroken, until it is faced, and the pain not passed on to the next generation.
Children need to know that they are wanted. They can get the message that they are unwanted explicitly through statements that they aren’t wanted, that they were a mistake, that their being born ruined things, that they’ll be sent away because they’re too much, etc.. This message can come implicitly through parents who are cold, uninterested, inattentive, and not engaged. A child that feels that they are not wanted cannot feel safe and secure.
Children are born with needs that they have little to no ability to fulfill themselves, at least at first. Parents whose needs went unmet in some significant way may have trouble consistently meeting their child’s needs, as their child’s needs remind them of their own pain at having been left wanting. Children may learn to disown their needs, leading to problems in taking care of themselves and/or depending on others in the future. Some parents may attempt to use their children to fulfill their unmet needs and the child, being dependent upon the parent, is forced to attempt to try. This is an inappropriate reversal of roles and completely unfair to the child.
Children are individuals, separate and distinct from their parents. Independent exploration, self-control, and self-expression are ways that children figure out who they are as individuals. Of course, parents need to set limits on their child’s behavior, when it becomes unsafe or socially unacceptable. However, when parents are overly anxious, controlling, punitive, or they withdraw affection in response to reasonable moves by their children to explore the world, control their own body, differentiate and express themselves, the child is forced to deny their own natural impulses, conform, and/or cling in various ways.
Children have some amazing qualities, and in other ways they are quite vulnerable and unskilled. Some parents use their children’s admirable qualities and achievements to prop up their own fragile self-esteem. Such parents may view their child’s vulnerabilities as unacceptable. Still other parents may see their child’s special qualities as a threat to their own superiority, and put their children down. In either case, the parents cannot accept the child as having strengths and weaknesses and the child internalizes this view that they must be exceptional, or they are not loved.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does contain some common ways that many parents do harm to their children. When such interactions between parents and children are chronic, and go unaddressed, they lead to largely unconscious and difficult to change patterns in the ways that individuals relate to themselves, others, and the world. These patterns do not have to remain fixed, however. For someone with such a history, a skilled psychotherapist is an excellent ally who can help a person to illuminate these difficulties, work through the painful emotions associated with them, and develop a more authentic and satisfying way of relating to one’s self, others, and the world.