Does your child feel safe with you?
Why do we transfer our fears and our rage on to our children?
Most people of my generation have stories from their childhood when they strayed away from their parents in a public place and were lost for some time.
Perhaps it was a more familiar world then, and parents were less paranoid about the safety of their children. In my version of this incident, I got lost along with a younger cousin in the streets of a small town called Faridkot in Punjab. I was five years old.
There was a wedding in our family and all the adults had gone to the bride’s home for a function. Some of us small children were on our own and I had some money I had received as a present. I was confident about being able to trace my steps back home, so I convinced a younger cousin to come with me and buy toffees from a shop nearby. We bought the toffees and then we got lost in a maze of brick-paved streets, some of them with a dead-end. Bravely, I held on to my little cousin’s hand and kept walking. We were lost for a long time. A man who was servicing his scooter outside his home saw us cross him many times over and asked us where we were from. When we told him that we were visiting the house where the wedding was, he summoned help from others and finally brought us home.
I could see a group of very anxious adults on the street as we arrived. I felt intense relief that I was now safe again. My aunt, the mother of my little cousin, came straight towards us, took off her slipper and began to hit her four-year-old daughter repeatedly.
I have never forgotten that scene between parent and child. Instead of the love and hugs we were expecting, my little cousin got nicely thrashed and abused for straying away from home and giving her mother so much grief.
As a parent and adult, I understand my aunt’s behaviour much better now. She had been scared. She was mortified that she had neglected her child. She wanted to teach her a lesson that would inhibit her from leaving home ever again. Her biggest dread was the wrath of her own husband and extended family.
She took it all out on her child, who was anyway whimpering with fear, and had been too young to know what she did wrong.
The scene became a template for how not to behave in any moment of crisis with one’s own children. You are likely to panic, but don’t transfer the weight of your fears and anger on to the child, who is in enough distress anyway. Get help from other adults. Make sure your child feels safer with you than without you.
As we grow older, most of us internalize this unchecked parental rage. Many a time we find ourselves at a crossroad where we feel that getting into trouble with our parents is more dangerous than the trouble we may have to face in the world outside.
I have had friends who have been in accidents, in conflict with their educational institutes, done badly in exams, who have needed an abortion or other medical interventions; and instead of seeking help from their own home, they have feared that the consequences of their parents finding out the truth about them will be worse than the risks they are enduring without them.
If this is not one of the greatest parenting failures, then what is? That it is mostly inadvertent, makes it even more pathetic.
The reason we resent our children when we do is because it is a safe place to dump our negative feelings. The mother might not have beaten her little girl if she hadn’t felt so powerless and scared for her own self. If she had found support for her own distress, she would have been able to support her child too. She doesn’t dare stand up to the adults who oppress her in her own life. But she has power over the child.
So she turns her rage towards her children. Fathers do it too. Children cannot retaliate in the moment, they don’t have the immediate power that other adults have around us. What is lethal is that the adult’s voice becomes the inner critic that nags the child throughout her life—I am bad, I always make mistakes, my presence is the problem.
Culturally, there is so much written and spoken about the love of parents for their children and such little acknowledgement and understanding of the love of children for their parents. We label it dependence, clinginess or timidity. We mistrust it. We laugh at it, infusing shame into the act of expressing love.
Most adults do not even recognize our own inability to receive love. We have little experience with practising trust and respect within family spaces. We repeat the abusive transactions of the extended families we have grown up in without being conscious of it. Fear, control and domination become the default parenting paradigm.
When children become tongue-tied and withdrawn in response, we judge them indiscriminately, without realizing that something in their environment has pushed them into their shell.
If these words resonate with you, then you know it is time to heal. It is time to set aside toxic behaviours and allow family spaces to flourish with the expression of our love.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar. Read Natasha’s Mint Lounge columns here