Ever wonder if what your NParent(s) did to you was really abusive? That wonderful paper entitled Emotional Abuse, Practice Guidance for Children’s Services1, referenced in my last blog entry had another very interesting section about identifying emotionally abusive parental behaviour. I am certain you will find familiar parallels between the examples contained in the paper (below) and your own experiences with narcissistic parents and authority figures. My comments appear in violet.
3.1 It is possible to identify examples of emotionally abusive parental behaviour.
Rejecting the child.
This may be active rejection, telling children they are unloved, and unwanted, or passive rejection, which is ignoring or failing to communicate with the child in any way and the absence of any demonstration of affection. Example from CP Listing of passive rejection: ‘the children, aged six months and two years, have to sit in darkness and when anyone visits they are always ‘asleep’. The mother ignores them until it is time for her to feed or dress them as if she were taking them out of a box.’
Active rejection—telling you that you are unloved or unwanted (or a mistake or an accident or a burden)—is hard to take but easy to grasp. Passive rejection, however, can be a little more difficult to recognize and easier to wish away with denial. People who habitually ignore you, walk away when you are talking to them, who turn away from affectionate gestures (like refusing an embrace or kiss), are rejecting you no less than those who tell you bluntly that you are not welcome in their lives.
With children the forms of passive rejection can be legion: discarding a child’s artwork (especially if another child’s is displayed), forgetting important things with respect to the child like dental or medical appointments, birthdays and other special events. A rejection can be as simple as repeatedly not attending events that are important to the child like sporting events or awards ceremonies or performances like school plays, choir or band concerts, awards ceremonies. Passive rejection is manifested more through failure to act than overt behaviours that clearly hurt. The parent who cannot be bothered to pick a child up from the bus stop, provide adequate supervision or bestir himself to do something supportive of the child is, by definition, passively showing disinterest in the child: rejection.
Denigrating the child.
The child is repeatedly told they are bad, worthless and is blamed for the problems in the family. The child may be humiliated and ridiculed both in isolation and in front of others, in particular, peer groups. Survivor statement: ‘I was well-built as a child and my father would say “you’ve a backside like a cow”. Once he took me to a potato weighing machine for a public weighing and subjected me to ridicule.’
The denigration does not have to be directly spoken. In fact, narcissists love “plausible deniability,” so it is not uncommon for the child of a narcissist to learn about how her parent is denigrating her through third parties. It is not uncommon for a parent to mount a smear campaign against the child, even a young child. Ascribing negative motives to a child’s age-appropriate behaviour and continuing this behaviour over the years creates an image in the minds of others of a child who is a sore trial to parent and elicits sympathy and admiration for the long-suffering parent.
There are, of course, children who are more challenging than others to raise. A compassionate, loving parent, however, will not denigrate the child to others. Except in appropriate circumstances (parent-teacher meeting, psychological assessment, etc.) such a parent will focus on the child’s strong points and positive aspects. He is artistic or likes to read or knows everything about dinosaurs, for example. A child need not be present to be affected by parental denigration because the parent’s negativity about his child creates an expectation in the minds of others, an expectation that will be transmitted to the child through the way he is treated.
Denigration of a child to his face, however, is devastating. My late husband, Charlie, grew up believing he was stupid because his mother told him he was. Charlie was, in fact, dyslexic and his dyslexia had never been appropriately addressed. Because he believed he was stupid, he made little effort in his life. I noticed that anything he heard—like on the news—he was capable of having an intelligent discussion about but he didn’t seem to like to read. It didn’t take long to discover the source of the problem and before long Charlie was understanding that he was not stupid, he simply had a treatable condition. I bought him books written at his reading level to get him reading, and began to teach him things like critical thinking and deductive logic—he grasped them quickly and became an erudite critic of political gamesmanship.
And then one Christmas Day we were at his brother’s house for dinner and his mother waved a bunch of legal papers he needed to sign with respect to an inheritance. He declined, saying he would take it to a lawyer for review. She went ballistic (he was no longer blindly compliant with her wishes and she didn’t like that at all) and told him “You are stupid! If you don’t sign these papers right now, you are stupid! Stupid!”
He went white. The shock on his face was obvious—he was stricken. He was 44 years old and his mother was calling him stupid in front of the assembled family and his fiancée (me). He just sat there, mouth agape, saying nothing. So I said “He’s not stupid and don’t call him that!”
And she replied “I am his mother, I will call him anything I want!”
Parental denigration of a child hurts, whether the child is still small or an adult, whether the child actually hears it or picks up on it from the way others treat him, whether it is true or not. It harms a child’s sense of self, it makes him feel incompetent as a human being, a feeling that hampers a child’s ability to succeed in life.
And parents who do this do it for their own gain, whether it is to excuse suspicions against them (are the child’s grades poor because he is stupid or because the parent gives no academic support or interest? If the child is stupid, the parent is off the hook) or to garner sympathy from those who feel badly for the parent of such a difficult child. But in no case does denigration of a child benefit that child.
Inducing fear/promoting insecurities.
The child is exposed to activities engineered for adults or adolescents of an older age, e.g. frightening funfair rides, horror films, fearsome adult computer games. Terrorising the child by holding them hostage, killing or injuring a loved relative or pet in front of the child and making severe threats. Creating insecurities by, for example, frequently leaving young children with different, strange carers. Encouraging children to believe that ghosts and monsters exist and then putting them to bed with the light off with comments that the ghosts/monsters will get them. Locking children in cupboards/dark places. Threatening to abandon the child. Survivor statement: ‘My father would make stabbing movements towards our eyes saying “I could kill you”. He stuck cigarettes into himself and cut himself in front of us saying he was indestructible.... He would sit there with a knife waiting for one of us to move.’
Parents induce fear and insecurity in children two ways: overtly and covertly. Some parents do it consciously and with full awareness, others do it without consciously realizing that their actions can emotionally cripple the child. When faced with the result of their actions, many of these parents will shield themselves with denial and blame the child. A few will acknowledge the harm of their actions and actually change.
The examples above show overt and conscious behaviours that can induce fear and insecurity in a child but the covert ways are no less damaging. Moving frequently so a child cannot put down roots, develop friendships, and become a part of a community of peers can create insecurity. Forcing a child to dress differently, to look different from his peers—keeping a teen girl in childish dresses or not allowing a teen boy to wear his hair in the latest teen fashion—alienates the child from his peers and creates social insecurity. Threats need not be overt to create fear—a chaotic home environment can spark both insecurity and fear. A substance-abusing parent or other household member can invoke fear and insecurity, as does a member whose lifestyle leaves him prone to visits from the authorities.
Even homes that look perfect from the outside can foster fear and insecurity in children. Some parents ascribe to rigid and punitive disciplinary beliefs while others are so laissez faire that the children are not secure in the knowledge that their parents will protect them. All of these situations are abusive because they create fear and insecurity in the child, and insecurity inculcated in the child early in life stays with the child.
Deliberately creating mental anguish, especially by maliciously denying the child something others in the family have, or vicious teasing/bullying. Survivor statement: ‘when it came to birthdays and Christmas, the other two (his brothers) had presents and parties. I was lucky if I got a card.’
I remember, one Christmas, finding a sealed white envelope among my Christmas gifts. My brother was excited about his fishing gear and gasoline-powered model airplane while I sat morosely with plastic bags of cheap cotton socks and tacky, ugly underpants. I opened the envelope and found an odd bit of money, like $1.42. This, my mother explained, was the difference between what she spent on him and what she spent on me—she was giving me the difference in cash to be “fair.” I sat there looking at my pile of cheap and sleazy Kmart undies and a few other equally disappointing gifts, then at my brother joyfully playing with exactly what he had requested for Christmas, and it didn’t feel fair to me at all.
Then my mother put her hand out for the money, saying she would keep it for me until I needed it, and I knew I would ever see it again. Did she do this deliberately to torment me? I will never know. Did it have that effect? Yes. I felt picked on, singled out, and unloved.
Some parents torment a child deliberately because it amuses them or because they think they are teaching the child some kind of lesson. Withholding dessert from an overweight child while giving it to her sisters is a form of torment in which the parents think they are doing the right thing: withholding calories from an overweight child and demonstrating to her that if she loses weight, she can then have dessert like her slimmer sisters.
Tormenting a child is abusive, whether it is deliberate or not. My mother used to stick her foot out when I walked by her chair and when I tripped over it, give me a dirty look accompanied with “Way to go, Miss Graceful,” as if I had tripped over my own feet (something she accused me of regularly). We were not allowed afternoon snacks and my mother was notoriously stingy at the dinner table (plus she was an awful cook), so I spent a good part of my childhood hungry. One afternoon she took out a tin that said “Peanuts” on the side and handed it to me to open. When my brother moved in to take it from me, my mother waved him off—a surprise to me that should have been a warning. When I finally wrested the cap free a coiled spring, covered in a reptile-print fabric, leapt out of the can making me shriek and then cry. Both my mother and my brother got a good laugh about this, and they both tormented me for my tears, my brother calling me a “big baby,” my mother saying I had no sense of humour and couldn’t “take a joke.” Nothing was safe in my mother’s house, not even the cans of food, and I was the family joke.
The child may be expected to support the parent, care for siblings or themselves (when they are too developmentally immature to do so), or perform tasks beyond their developmental ability. E.g. having to stay off school to look after an ill or disabled parent, change nappies, feed and supervise younger siblings and take them to school, make hot drinks for parents unsupervised, clean up after siblings/parents. The child may be given confusing messages, which they cannot understand because parents have inconsistent expectations or respond unpredictably. Example from CP Listing: ‘A girl aged six years has to clean herself up if she is sick or wets herself. She has to look after her parents and is the household drudge.’
Children often lack perspective and they are, by nature, narcissistic. As such, a child’s view of her position in the household is necessarily biased: what an adult would see as a child’s chores that are an acceptable contribution of labour to the household the child may see as being made the household servant. Revisiting the situation in later years, when the child has grown, will more than likely provide the necessary perspective.
That said, there are households in which the children are taxed with jobs and roles that are inconsistent with their age and physical development. Expecting a teen-aged child to mind his smaller siblings after school is an age-appropriate task; expecting an 8 year old to mind her 6 year old brother is not. Expecting a teen-aged child to do some meal prep tasks, including baking cookies or cupcakes is an age-appropriate task; expecting it of an 8 year old is not. Expecting a teen-aged boy to mow the lawn on a Saturday morning is both age and physically appropriate; expecting it of a 10 year old is not. And yet there are households in your town and mine that place the burdens of maintaining a household on the shoulders of young children. Certainly when both parents are working children may need to take a larger role in housekeeping but that does not excuse assigning work the child is too young or physically immature to do.
Worst, however, are the parents who parentify. They thrust onto young children burdens the parents are unwilling to take on themselves. In some cases the parents may be stupefied by drugs or alcohol but in others it is simply entitlement or opportunity: they have a kid to do it so they don’t have to. This is inherently wrong: children deserve to have a childhood free of the burdens and anxieties of adulthood and it is the parent’s job to provide that.
Parentifying can be taken to a dangerous extreme. When the mother has an abusive ex, for example, and she sends the children to answer the door when he shows up. Instructing the children to send him away, to lie and say she isn’t home, to put themselves in the middle between her and the threat, using them as a shield to protect herself. This is wrong, it is potentially dangerous for the children in the moment, and dangerous to the children’s developing minds, causing them to grow up thinking they are responsible for others even when those others are capable of being responsible for themselves.
This is the opposite of the above and taken to extremes, deprives the child of opportunities to develop friendships, activities and access experiences that would promote their development. The child is ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ and is not allowed to engage in messy play or get dirty in case they catch germs. Case example: A boy aged eight soils and wets himself in school because he does not know how to go to the toilet on his own. He is always dressed in very warm clothes, which he cannot take off even for P.E. He is not allowed to go swimming with the school in case he catches cold. He cannot stay for school dinners or eat while in school in case he chokes.
The children of narcissists seldom deal with over-protection, in its purest form, but many of us deal with enmeshment, which is its kissing cousin. In both cases the child can grow up feeling incompetent to care for himself in even small ways because the N parent is refusing to relinquish sufficient control to allow the child to learn age-appropriate self-care.
Also peculiar to the narcissistic parent is a kind of selective “over protection,” in which the child is prevented from age-appropriate learning opportunities and even denied age-appropriate social development while, at the same time, the parent overburdens the child with responsibilities that are beyond the child’s abilities. For example, I was minding my younger brother when I was only eight, expected to bake a cake twice weekly and clean the house including mopping and vacuuming. None of these tasks were appropriate to my age, size, and/or development: my brother was bigger than me, the cake required the use of a gas oven that had to be lit with a match (and I singed off my eyebrows more than once in that task), the mop and bucket were literally too big for me to manage and so was the clumsy old vacuum. That same parent, however, kept me without a bra until I wore a B-cup, dressed me in little girl dresses, wouldn’t let me shave my legs or underarms, or wear make up or high heeled shoes. A year with my father and step mother took care of the grooming issues but back in my mother’s house at age 16 she refused to let me learn to drive—and at no time was I allowed to have money or a bank account. So, basically, she was exploitive where it suited her and “overprotective” such that I could not successfully become independent. Because it impeded my age-appropriate development and it was an on-going issue, it was abusive.
Isolating the child.
This includes both social isolation and segregation within the home. Example from CP Listing: ‘the girl, aged 12, has to put her nightdress on straight after school so she cannot play with friends and is ashamed if anyone visits’.
This means keeping a child from associating with her peers, like not permitting her to play with friends, have sleepovers, join her friends after school at the mall or go to the movies with them. It means isolating the child not only through such restrictive practices but also by isolating the child by making them “different” so that she is shunned by her peers. This includes not allowing the child to dress similarly to her peers but also keeping her culturally ignorant: not permitted to watch TV shows that are popular amongst her peers or read magazines and websites that are part of the child’s age-relevant culture.
Isolating within the home not only means specifically removing the child from the rest of the household by sending him to his room when he is not engaged in work, but it also means creating an environment in which the child feels unwelcome amongst the rest of the family or even fearful of being with the family. If the child is picked on by a sibling or another member of the household and the parent does not intervene, if the child’s presence triggers other members of the household to send him to fetch and carry, like a servant, if the child has not been protected from abuse by one of the family members, the child may voluntarily withdraw in the interest of his own safety. This is creating an environment in which a child becomes isolated due to lack of support.
As a child I quickly learned that the safest place for me to be was out of my mother’s sight. If she didn’t see me she wasn’t reminded of me and if I wasn’t on her mind, I wasn’t likely to be pressed into service or treated to one of her diatribes about my hair, clothes, weight, posture, grades, or taste in boyfriends. It was just safer all around for me to stay out of sight.
Not recognising or acknowledging the child’s individuality or psychological boundary.
This involves denial of the child’s unique attributes of temperament and personality. The parents try to actively mould the child into meeting the parent’s emotional needs. The parent may have complicated misperceptions of the child and attribute feelings, wishes and motives to the child that belong in the parent or in their history. If the parent has an enduring, serious mental illness, they may actively involve the child in their misperceptions of the world about them. Although fabricated or induced illness falls within the definition of physical abuse it is a variant of this example.
The biggest incidence of this, I think, is parental projection. That can work several ways: 1) the parent projects his tastes onto the child; 2) the parent projects his behaviours/beliefs onto the child; 3) the parent perceives the child’s insistence on his individuality as defiance and rebellion.
In the first instance the parent’s projection can be as petty as insisting a child dislikes a vegetable the parent dislikes and as weighty as trying to force the child into a career path that was the parent’s dream. A blue collar worker may insist his child become a doctor because that is what he wanted to do; a doctor may insist his child follow in his footsteps or become a sports star because that was his dream. Regardless of what tastes the parent projects onto a child, whether it is food, fashion or a career path, the very fact of the projection dehumanizes the child because it tramples and ignores the child’s own tastes and desires.
In the second instance, the parent assumes that the child’s beliefs are the same as his are or were at the same age and therefore imputes onto the child the same behaviours. I experienced this as a teen when my mother would accuse me—and even punish me—for things that had never even crossed my mind. Many years later I learned from my uncle that my mother had frequently sneaked out of the house after her parents had gone to bed and she went to roadhouses and hung out with a fast crowd. Recalling her own misbehaviour as a teen, she assumed I was doing the same and punished me for it.
Other parents may assume the child shares their political or religious beliefs and values and signs the child up for such things as religious camps or political volunteer work. It doesn’t occur to such a parent that the child may hold other views and the child has either not expressed a contrary belief out of fear of retaliation or the child’s opposing views are denigrated and not accepted. “Oh, you don’t really believe that! How could you even think that is okay?”
In the third instance, the parent is so entrenched in his view of his child is an emotional and psychological clone that he treats the child’s overt insistence on individuality as a full-scale rebellion. An artistically-inclined child, for example, is signed up by a parent for soccer camp and the child’s refusal to cooperate (or simply to become a “star”) is treated like treason against the parent and possibly even the family.
What these all have in common is that they deny the child his actual personhood. The child and his real likes and dislikes, talents and interests, desires and dreams are trampled by the parents’ headlong rush into vicariously fulfilling their own ambitions through the children who are viewed as little more than conduits to the parents’ realization of aspirations heretofore denied them. This obliterates the child as a separate individual and makes him the extension of his parent(s) and this is abusive.
Corrupting the child.
This refers to parents who mis-socialise the child by actively involving them in criminal activities, or encouraging them to assault/abuse others. Example from CP Listing: ‘the boys were taught that they should fight the police and hit girls. They were encouraged to steal from shops. In the foster-home they were surprised the foster carers were buying items rather than stealing them.”
When we think of corrupting and mis-socialising a child we think of criminal activity as noted above. But there are other ways of mis-socialising and corrupting a child.
Young children are like little sponges. Whatever you soak them in, they absorb. A parent can corrupt his child by teaching him to disrespect others through teaching him racism, sexism, ageism. A parent can corrupt his child by teaching him entitlement so that when he grows up and joins the real world, he doesn’t know how to compromise and negotiate with others. A parent can corrupt a child by teaching him cynical and even untrue views of the world, by inculcating him with beliefs that impede his ability to integrate with the world he finds when he goes out into it, by teaching him specious beliefs over science, by teaching him entitlement due to his colour or nationality or religion or anything else. Such parents corrupt and mis-socialize their children by failing to give them the tools they need to succeed in the greater society outside the parents’ own personal enclave. This is abusive because they fail to prepare the child for the world as it is, not as the parents want it to be and now the child suffers because he doesn’t have the tools necessary to compete and succeed.
Exposing children to domestic violence.
Domestic violence is terrifying to experience and terrorizing to witness. Even if you, yourself, are not the perpetrator of domestic violence, by allowing your children to be exposed to it is still just as abusive as if you were perpetrating the violence yourself. Exposing children to domestic violence, whether you are the perpetrator, the victim or a bystander is abusive to the child.
While we do not have control over the behaviour of others, keeping children in an environment in which domestic violence occurs is still abusive. If, for example, you live with your parents and your father hits your mother and your children see this, you are exposing your children to domestic violence. If you believe an abuser’s promises to stop and you stay after he breaks that promise, you are exposing your children to domestic violence. If your partner or some other person abuses you—not just physically but emotionally as well—you are exposing your children to domestic violence. If you scream and call people names, throw things at them, threaten them or hit them, you are exposing your children to domestic violence.
What does a child get from this exposure? At first the child is frightened. They fear for themselves both directly and indirectly: will he hurt me? Who will take care of me if he hurts Mama? As time goes on, children can become inured to it, an unhealthy attitude in itself. Most of all, however, children learn that this is what a relationship looks like, sounds like, feels like. They grow up to become abusers themselves or to choose abusers for partners because this is what they know.
Any way you slice it, exposing children to any form of domestic violence is abusive.
It is interesting to read through these behaviours and see people and incidents from our own lives: with the exception of domestic violence, in one way or another, I could see my mother in every one of these behaviours and, if you count her beating me as domestic violence, then she even exposed us to that. But parental behaviour, to be abusive, does not have to be physical, it simply has to be detrimental to the emotional development and well-being of the child and to be a regular feature in the child’s life.
We ACoNs often question ourselves, wondering if what we endured growing up was normal or whether it was abusive. We have little experience with normal—indeed, normal is not easily quantified as normal can manifest in a bewildering variety of ways—and so we may not know how to recognize it opposite, abnormal. When abusive parental behaviour is commonplace, we tend to normalize it in our minds and from there, define “abusive” as anything we think is worse than what we endured. And this makes our definition of “abusive” very, very subjective.
But there is now an objective definition of emotional abuse, and part of identifying it involves recognising, analysing and identifying parental behaviours that result in the abuse of a child. Emotional abuse if often overlooked or down played but, in truth, it can be much more devastating to the developing psyche of a child than physical abuse.
Now you know.