Q I hate it when I see a mum or dad shouting at their kids, or even worse grabbing or hitting them. I want to explode and I have to walk away because I’m afraid of what I’d so otherwise. Then I feel ashamed and guilty at having turned a blind eye and not helped that kid somehow. I don’t know what to do, or why I react as I do. I had parents like that myself, but that was a long time ago, so why does it seem to still upset me so much?
A Your reaction is a natural and healthy one – to empathise with the feelings of the child and want to protect the vulnerable and abused.
All the more so if your own history is being triggered and you become awash with feelings of fear, and being overwhelmed by the need to either escape or defend.
I also find it hard sometimes to empathise with those out-of-control parents. I have to remind myself that they probably still have unresolved childhood trauma of their own, and are re-enacting old scenarios out of awareness and without empathy for their child’s needs or feelings.
You’d think they’d be the last people to abuse a child in any way – having experienced that themselves – as many of us are. Sadly too many lack the self-awareness to realise their own patterns of automatic emotional reactions and outbursts, or how to control themselves.
Parenting is hard. It challenges us in ways nothing else can. It triggers and reactivates our past and our own emotional wounds. Unless we make the commitment to change that toxic pattern.
Some parents deal with their own feelings of anger, shame and guilt by blaming and punishing the child instead of taking responsibility for themselves.
The 3 big mistakes that parents make which damage their children are:-
They don’t heal their own emotional wounds from childhood
They don’t meet their own needs as an adult – and still expect someone else to do that for them (even their child)
They don’t control their language and behaviour – which stems from their thoughts and feelings.
Lack of awareness leads to bad parenting and the cycle gets passed on to the next generation – until proper awareness begins to emerge.
We need much more education and support for adults who have had a troubled childhood and toxic parents of their own.
We as a society need our ante-natal and post-natal services and health visitors to include parenting education. We do have charitable organisations which aim to raise awareness and make real changes in the way we parent our children – in the UK at least.
My understanding is that some other countries are way ahead of us when it comes to good parenting.
So, as for you and this problem. It’s one thing to understand the roots of it and how things are different elsewhere, but what can you do the next time you see this happening?
The best I can suggest is that you rehearse an assertive phrase about yourself, your feelings and preferences – which in no way attacks the parents (who are already too agitated).
Perhaps something which also says that you have to leave because you find it too painful to watch them being so insensitive to their child’s needs (best not to say ‘abusive’ even though it is – as this may trigger the parents’ own ‘stuff’ and they will probably come out fighting an old enemy that you might then represent to them in that moment).
As for me – I have to say that I do still struggle with this problem myself. Even disapproving looks can trigger a parent’s shame and they react with verbal abuse at my ‘judgement’ of them (which is understandable as no-one likes to be negatively judged).
I have tried to lighten the scene and empathise with the parent – but have found that this can backfire as they see you as on their side against the ‘bad’ child – totally the wrong outcome!
It is without doubt a very tricky matter that many of us would like to see remedied because those defenceless children need our help.
Let’s not forget that no matter how bad their parents are the children do still have a bond with them. They have to rely upon them, and will probably defend them if they see you criticising or arguing with them (depending upon the child’s age and personality).
There are no winners… the best we can hope for is to ignite a flicker of empathy in the abusive parent and switch their mindset from anger to self-awareness and self-regulation.
My sincere hope is that the cycle of parental abuse is taken much more seriously and we have a national campaign – with lots of media coverage – to highlight the problem for all concerned.
Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy)
www.maxineharley.com – where you’ll find a FREE e-booklet about OPTI-MUM PARENTING – which has a few helpful e-mails too if you sign up to get the free e-booklet. You may want to share the link with anyone else who you think would benefit from it too.