The Things Parents Do To Hurt Children

Family work is decidedly different from traditional counseling. If individual therapy is simple addition, family therapy is calculus. Each person in the home carries their own unique strengths and challenges, and the nature and complexity of each realtionshiop can compounds exponentialy. In a family, everything is related, and nothing is simple.

If mom and dad are fighting, you can bet that it relates to Billy’s problems at school. If Billy is defiant, you can bet it relates to sexual deficiencies between mom and dad. That sort of thing. I’ve noticed the same behaviors repeated in different homes. It is these behaviors that cause most of the problems. If you are a parent and you are guilty of any of the following, know that they will cause huge problems. Maybe not right now, maybe not next year. But eventually. It’s like a mathematical equation. It is not open for interpretation or nuance.

Dysfunctional families keep secrets.

Here’s a common situation. A few years ago, Uncle Ted molested your oldest daughter. She was 11. She’s 15 now — grades are slipping, she’s growing more and more defiant, maybe she’s dabbling in drugs or having sex with boys at school. The thing is, Uncle Ted is still a regular in the home, because Ted is Dad’s brother, and he’s a good Christian man, you see, and so the family just pretends like it never happened.

So of course your 15 year-old daughter is acting out, because her parents betrayed her and she doesn’t feel safe. And it’s just gonna get worse, because now Uncle Ted has his eyes on the youngest daughter, and she’s only 8.

I absolutely hate pride. I see it rip families to pieces. Sometimes the pride is about ego. Other times it is cultural. All the time it is harmful. Adults who fail to take responsibility for the safety of their children, because to acknowledge there is a problem is a poor reflection on their abilities as a parent. Nevermind that these problems are, in fact, often a reflection of poor parenting. God forbid anyone else in the family find out.

So they keep their mouths shut and they forbid their children to talk about it. And when the kids start acting out or engaging in self-harm, the parents fail to connect the dots and they chalk it up to a phase, or bad behavior, or the schools.

This kind of thing is often multi-generational. People inherit lots of things from their parents — eye color and skin pigment, for example. We also tend to inherit abstract things, too. Religious beliefs, culture, political persuasions. Some families pass down rape and incest. Several years ago, I heard a story from a social worker at Buncombe County DSS, where Asheville, NC is. They had rescued an 11 year-old boy who was being molested by both his grandparents and his parents. At the same time. It was not an isolated incident. Some people live like feral dogs.

Secrets can kill. If you’ve grown up in a family full of secret-keepers, I’ll bet you know exactly what I’m talking about.

“The shared secret and the shared denial are the most horrible aspects of incest.” ― John Bradshaw

Dysfunctional families argue. All the time. About everything.

If you grow up in a family full or arguers, you think it’s normal. It isn’t. Plenty of parents argue, which is not inherently problematic. The problem comes when the parents do not have the presence of mind to argue away from their children.

This a problem in mentally ill families that is so ubiquitous I’ve never worked with a family where it wasn’t a major issue. If you are 8, and your parents are always screaming at one another, how exactly are you supposed to learn the basic tenets of healthy communication? The answer is, you don’t. So the kids end up arguing as much with the adults as they argue with themselves, and the adults end up arguing with the children, as if that is somehow an effective way to parent.

It’s quite simple, really. Have adult conversations in private. If you can’t summon the presence of mind to perform that one simple task, please don’t seek out my help when your kids grow up to be monsters. They learned everything from you. Even awful people can be excellent teachers.

Parents who argue with their children lose 100% of the time. What they fail to realize is that arguing serves two very different purposes, depending on your age. For adults, arguing is an (ineffective) way to express one’s rhetorical stance and tell the other person why they are wrong. For kids, the sole purpose of arguing is to elicit an emotional response from you. The moment you yell, you’ve lost.

Dysfunctional families accept zero responsibility for anything.

Have you ever met a person who was never, ever at fault? Of course you have. No matter the situation, they are the victim. It was the other person who started it. It was the other person who was wrong. They are teflon, in that nothing sticks to them. People like this are experts in blame shifting and denial, and you will never, ever hear them say they are sorry. Why would they be? It’s not their fault.

Unfortunately, people like this also have reproductive systems and little to no insight, so naturally they have tons of kids. They then raise their children to avoid accepting responsibility for anything. Then their children become expert manipulators with an overdeveloped sense of self-esteem, and when they start causing problems at home or school, these same parents scratch their heads and wonder why.

“If mental abuse was a punishable crime, a lot of parents would be in jail serving a long term.” ― Maddy Malhotra

Dysfunctional families are breeding grounds for abuse.

Abuse comes in lots of forms — physical, sexual, verbal. The most common one I see though is emotional abuse. Experience has taught me that DSS will intervene if you spank your kids too hard, but parents can be emotionally abusive with impunity. Maybe it’s because physical and sexual abuse are crimes and emotional abuse is not. It may be because emotional abuse is difficulty to prove, so DSS doesn’t bother. It may also be that, just like everyone else in the mental health field, we are overworked, comically underpaid, and grossly outnumbered.

We apparently have money to build a wall, but often we fail to protect children from the people who are most likely to cause them harm — their own parents.

Emotional abuse is insidious, and it often does not look like typical abuse. So let me provide you with some examples.

If you use drugs in front of your children, or watch pornography, or engage in illegal activities, that is emotional abuse.

If you have small children and you involve them in adult issues such as finances and bills and legal troubles — that is emotional abuse.

If you and your spouse fight with one another using fists or words or both — that is emotional abuse.

If you threaten to kick your kids out of your home, that is emotional abuse.

If you withhold love from your children because you are too self-absorbed to spend time with them — that is emotional abuse.

And if you blame it all on them — that is most definitely abuse, too.

Children are never, ever to blame. The root cause in these families is always the parents. It may not be that they are evil. In fact, it almost never is. But too many people have too many children without stopping for a moment to consider the enormity of all that having children entails. Common sense, it seems, does not factor into the equation for many.

If you’ve done a successful job parenting your kids, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. You may think that most people are just like you. I wish that were so. the reality is, so many parents refuse to put their children’s needs ahead of their own. When that happens, problems invariably occur.

Randy Withers, MA, NCC, LPCA, LCAS

Randy Withers, MA, NCC, LPCA, LCAS

I'm a dually-licensed in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counselor, specializing in Co-Occurring Disorders.
Randy Withers, MA, NCC, LPCA, LCAS

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