Often when in counseling, sufferers resist facing the damage parents have done in their lives. The two biggest barriers to confronting childhood pain are: 1) reluctance to assign blame, and 2) the Old Testament commandment to honor father and mother.
When we are children, our parents represent God. The amount that parents’ character and actions are distorted by dysfunctional behavior, ignorance, and sin largely determines the degree to which a child’s image of God will be skewed. Moms and dads who know the Lord understand their job: it is pointing the child to relationship with God.
These parents demonstrate Biblical principles and unconditional love consistently in everyday life with their children, while humbly acknowledging their own mistakes to them. As the youth matures, they gradually and consciously release them to the care and direction of Father God, the only perfect parent.
When there is severe wounding, the themes contained in primary childhood memories must be acknowledged and examined before an individual can let go and fully surrender her heart to the Heavenly Father. Throughout the process of realistically deconstructing the hurtful experiences involving Mother or Father, adult children often need to be reminded that honoring parents and other caregiving figures means acknowledging the tremendous influence they have on the course of our entire lives.
Parents are also profoundly honored when a child grows up with solid character to successfully use her gifts and talents, surmounting the obstacles put in place by heredity and early conditioning to become more than was ever expected or even dreamed for her.
Many persons have a powerful need to protect their families, even when they have been severely damaged. Why would this be so? For one, small children want to idolize parents and see them as perfect. Even incest survivors will defend the molesting relative. This is called forming a fantasy bond with a perpetrator.
Secondly, some injured adults pretend their abusive parents were just fine, in order to avoid dealing with the pain of facing the truth about the past. Using the Ten Commandments’ command to honor mother and father as reinforcement for that denial, they tell themselves it is a sin and dishonoring to criticize any of their parents’ actions, however harmful. These sufferers need to hear that acknowledging parental behaviors by facing the truth is not the same as dishonoring them.
And in addition, some adult sufferers are so identified with a parent that they are unable to bring up to consciousness the fact that they were maltreated and damaged. In effect they may think, “If I admit my father abused me, I must admit I have hurt my own children.”
Exploring the effects of early wounding on one’s life today is different than blaming parents for present behavior. Mothers and fathers are not directly at fault for all the choices their children made in response to them. That said, hurting adults still need to be willing to look at and process the pain caused by parental dysfunction, whether it was intentional or not. As long as a person stays in bondage to fantasies of an ideal or “normal” childhood, she will continue to live out negative parental messages bathed in lies.
Children are good recorders of events, but poor interpreters. Their narrow experience is the whole of reality to them. If there is no one around to clarify and explain life’s occurrences, the child interprets based on his own very limited perceptions and perspectives. Also, young people tend to be egocentric in their outlook; i.e., they fail to understand complexities in causality and have not yet developed empathy.
When something bad happens, children naturally think they are responsible, that it is their fault. Unfortunately, parents sometimes reinforce this by inadvertently or deliberately lying and covering their own blame to their children. This adds to a sense of guilt and shame. Since the child feels she must believe her mommy or daddy, the feeling of guilt is introjected and becomes in the child’s heart, “The abuse is my fault and is what I deserve, because I am bad.”
Children react to pain with many defensive constructs designed to hide from the hurt, because trauma, especially that which is not honestly explained to the child or must be repressed, causes fear of death. The abused or wounded young person naturally seeks to preserve her self-awareness and live. Since the goal for the child is survival, her energies and adaptations to severe psychological stress are aimed to preserve her sense of being. No matter how the young person copes with scary situations, we often find that at some point she has in her mind separated the conscious public part of self from the hurting child part.
The source of damage is generally associated with unhealthy relationships: between Mom and Dad, parent and child, or with another older person. For example, the mother may be unable to nurture because she is emotionally needy, abandoning, competitive, or codependent. Father may be angry, abusive, neglecting, emotionally distant, or separated from the child by divorce. Less often the hurt is associated with sibling relationships or authority figures outside the family.
Even in the absence of severely abusive behavior, well-meaning parents can cause pain because of ignorance or poor character modeling. Following are several types of ineffective parenting, which may contribute to difficulties for adult children decades later:
1. Permissive parents—do not teach boundaries or self-restraint. This often causes insecurity, anxiety, limited development of self-control, or rebellion in the child.
2. Overprotective parents—shelter the child from experiencing or controlling his environment, to the point that he never encounters the realities of life. The child, bound too closely to parents, is stifled in creativity and hindered in his ability to develop flexibility and coping skills.
3. Bribing parents—barter with the child for acceptable behavior, developing in him a false or improper motivation for obedience. The child learns to obey for rewards alone, not from the heart. As a result, he can become manipulative and selfish, seeking payoffs for everything and requiring constant gratification of desires.
4. Threatening/repeating parents—constantly repeat commands, followed by threats for not obeying. This trains the child not to listen, since immediate response is not required. He also learns disrespect for adults and all authority. Ultimately, the young person will tend to ignore the still small voice of God.
5. Silent/delayed parents—give little or no guidance to the child or warning of impending consequences. Instead, they wait for him to make a mistake, then jump all over him. This brings on fear in the young person as well as lack of sensitivity to others’ feelings, resulting in a non-productive kid who is robbed of creativity and dignity.
6. Absent/substitute parents—are found where Mom and Dad have left or are always busy at work and the child must develop relationship with an alternative parent–such as a caregiver, another child, even the television or computer. This can result in frustration and deep bitterness in the young person, and cause long-standing feelings of inadequacy and sadness.
7. Manipulating parents—gain control over the child’s behavior by appealing to primal needs for love and security, developing extreme dependency. Love is conditional, based on performance; guilt is ongoing, because acceptance is based on the whim of the adult. Manipulative parents tend to produce long-term fear of failure and rejection, prohibitive guilt, a hardened conscience, and ongoing anxiety in their children.
8. Unapproachable/discouraging parents—are not available, either because the child is afraid of the parent’s inflexible, authoritarian rule, or because of their negativity. As a result, the child’s “love tank” is never full; he tends toward attention-seeking behavior, remaining emotionally and psychologically immature.
9. Child-centered parents––make the child the center of their world, above the husband-wife relationship. This can result in slow emotional and psychological development in the child, or selfish and manipulative behavior with little respect for others.
In contrast to the above, balanced parenting is predominantly guided by moderation and common sense. The child develops in an atmosphere of solid love, discipline, and training, with the example of strong marriage and family relationships. Young people are taught right from wrong by being shown the moral reason “why” at the time instruction or correction is given, and by seeing solid character as their parents interact. Standards in making decisions are based on respecting self and considering the preciousness of others. The child learns to govern his behavior out of desire to do the right thing rather than fear of punishment.
Also, healthy parenting techniques model transparency because Mom and Dad confess and ask forgiveness when they make mistakes. Vulnerable relationship-based parents are not hypocritical; they honestly and consistently live out their choices regardless of who is watching, because they know God is always present. In this way they illustrate integrity and teach by example, carefully developing their children’s trust through quality and quantity of time spent together.
All parents are imperfect; there is always a mixture of the positive and negative in any family structure. Though everyone falls far short of the ideal, there is yet much that adults can do to plant positive, life-affirming values into the hearts of children.