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Does parental neglect lead to childhood trauma?

The sheer absence of parental presence or engagement, amounting to neglect over a period of time, can also cause trauma in children. This often goes unnoticed and, thus, unaddressed

Parental attachment depends upon three things, that can best be abbreviated as TLC: time, listening and consistency. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

It would be stating the obvious that for parents, a significant goal is to avoid any and all kinds of trauma for our children. It is common to find ourselves checking and double-checking locks, tracking locations and seeing what they are up to with their gadgets. We feel neither guilty nor embarrassed, and remain completely convinced about the need for this kind of vigilance. And this way, we anxiously navigate the humongous responsibility of keeping our kids safe and trauma-free.

Trauma, in all its forms, and ways of helping children deal with it is, thus, an important topic to create awareness around.

It is often viewed or deduced as a serious loss, accident, a significantly painful incident or abuse that takes place in the child’s life. This is not an accurate understanding. Without doubt, a painful incident may cause trauma to the child, but there is another form that goes unnoticed and, thus, unaddressed. The sheer absence of parental attachment, presence or engagement, amounting to neglect over a period of time, can also cause trauma.

While abuse or pain is something that needs to be avoided and must not happen in a child’s life, parental attachment absolutely be present! The absence of it can cause more damage than commonly imagined.

While we all do our best as parents and hope to form attachments, at times life, circumstances or an absence of tools and guidelines can lead to emotional distancing and neglect. Parental attachment, according to me, depends upon three things, that I like to abbreviate as TLC.

T stands for time. For many different reasons, both natural or accidental, children may get limited time with their parent/s. Spending time with children is an irreplaceable responsibility that parents need to commit to in order to form healthy, solid and safe attachments with them. I do not mean spending every waking minute with your child, or supervising every move of theirs. But I mean being engaged with them in activities, doing things you both enjoy, investing in planning and carrying out tasks, or even just laying down together daydreaming and discussing imaginations. This helps children form secure relationships with themselves and their parents. It gives them a repertoire of memories to fall back upon in times of distress and challenges.

L stands for listening. This term has been spoken of in every possible therapeutic orientation, stressing upon its value in being able to empathise and communicate effectively. Listening requires us to be in the moment, stay in the present and allow our children to speak about their thoughts and feelings. They can identify their issues, emotions and struggles, allow them to express them only when they truly feel listened to and accepted. This will help children form deep connections with their parents, which later in life will provide them a safe harbour to come back to from their various voyages.

C stands for consistency. To have a parent do things sporadically, moodily or without commitment to consistency can confuse children. They can start believing that love and attachment is conditional and that they need to be deserving of it to earn it. The key to consistency lies in parents sticking to a general predictable daily or weekly routine with their children to provide a sense of predictability. A heads-up on a disruption on the valued routine is generally easily accepted and understood by kids. As far as possible, sticking to a short, simple and practical activity, for instance, a round of gratitude before bed, a dice throw deciding how many hugs can daddy get today, a family prayer ritual or simply leaving a tiny love note on their pillows, can give children a secure attachment that lasts a lifetime.

Achieving connection with our children is a significant goal while also being a challenge at the same time. When options are few and life is tough or busy, without being hard on yourself, making small and consistent efforts to ensure engagement in any form is worth it. The absence of parental attachment has been found to impact children’s development, personalities, self esteem and adjustment.



  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    25.01.2021 | 10:00 AM IST

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