A few years back, one headline rocked the world. ‘Child divorces parents’ it said. In an unprecedented ruling, an American court had allowed a boy to divorce his parents. This shook people, especially counsellors and psychotherapists the world over. In India, where merely moving out of the family home to a nuclear family, is still considered ‘wrong’ and where children are conditioned to treat parents like ‘gods’ [irrespective of the way they treat you], the American boy had committed a ‘sin’. What could have caused the child to take such drastic action against his parents?
The tug-of-war victims
Teenager Komal’s parents were involved in a ‘messy’ divorce. Mud slinging, character assassination and violence, with both parents pouring out their sob stories on to her, forcing her to take sides. This put her in a position where anything she felt towards either parent filled her with guilt and anger. To escape this inner turmoil she sought refuge in one abusive relationship after another. She got involved with anyone who gave her the slightest attention. She was physically and emotionally battered and referred to me from a drug rehabilitation centre.
Teenager Sandeep drifted aimlessly, completely unmotivated and was involved with a much older woman. He had grown up witnessing prolonged depression and suicide attempts by his parents. Accompanying his parents to psychiatrists and rushing them to hospitals to have their stomachs pumped after an overdose of drugs was part of his childhood. After every attempt, they would tell him how the other spouse was responsible. And how much they actually loved him. During the ‘normal’ period, the father would demonstrate his ‘love’ by relaxing the ground rules set for the child by the mother, saying that he understood the needs of the child, which she did not. This act was to win Sandeep’s loyalty and affection and to get back at his wife. The mother on the other hand, raised her son on the foundation that ‘your father has ruined my life and he will ruin yours too’, thus venting her frustration and poisoning his mind against the father.
Most parents say they love their children and claim to care deeply for them, but make the most unloving and uncaring gestures towards their children. One of the worst of many such acts is using your child against your spouse. This is nothing short of child abuse. By making your innocent children pick up the tab for the hostilities between you and your spouse, you scar them emotionally for life. Children look at their parents as the solid and safe base of operations. They rely on you as parents for their personal security and safety. But when they have to witness open hostility, and are held hostage by their own parents to get back at each other, the base gets shaken to its absolute core. They feel extremely insecure and constantly fear the disintegration of the family as a unit. Moreover, children are typically not around for the reconciliation. Therefore, while they are exposed to the mud slinging, they do not get the benefit of the peace-making. The self-esteem of the child is badly eroded and trust in the family as a ‘soft place’ to fall back on, gets shattered.
Children often blame themselves for problems between their parents, and take upon themselves the burden of both parents’ pain. This is the worst psychological place for the child to be in. There is a role-reversal, wherein the child who needs to be parented is, in fact, forced to parent her parents. What does that do to her? She now feels like an ’emotional orphan’. Those, on whom she needs to depend, are now depending on her.
Parents use children as companions/therapists to fulfil their venting needs. They spew venom about their spouse to their child without thinking about its effect on the child’s self-esteem. They don’t consider the child’s feelings towards the other spouse, the relationship the child shares with them, the feelings of loneliness and the helplessness s/he would experience. Children resent having to take sides and feel guilty and torn apart because of the same.
Parents also use the child to enhance their sense of self-worth. They often feel guilty and condemn themselves for the dysfunctional atmosphere they provide for their child. Because of the guilt and anger they feel towards themselves, they anxiously look for a validation from their child that they are ‘okay’, they are ‘good’ as parents, and more importantly for how ‘right’ they are. In their need to win approval and get adoration from the child, they behave in self-defeating ways. They try to outbid their spouse by buying gifts and doing favours for the child. They often play the ‘poor me’ victim and show the spouse as the victimiser for sympathy and to justify their own stance against the spouse.
Parents who lack in assertiveness and who feel incapable of standing up to their spouse or resolve issues through healthy communication, often try to team up with their children. This is because they find their own resources falling short. Ganging up against the spouse and ridiculing is an attempt to alienate the other spouse. They end up distorting the familial relationship forever in the bargain. Asking the child to choose his loyalty between both parents is the greatest emotional trauma a child can undergo, and I cannot stress this enough.
What is it that makes parents who proclaim undying love for their children and who want to have a happy family, behave in such self-defeating ways? The answer is ‘sweet revenge’. The anger and resentment built up against the spouse if not resolved through healthy means of communication, assume monstrous proportions which engulfs the person completely. Their entire being burns with feelings of revenge and they hunt down their prey like a blood-thirsty animal. They want to hit out at their spouse where it hurts the most, taking away what matters the most, which is, respect in the eyes of the child. Thus, they resort to stripping away the dignity and the worth of the other by shaming the spouse in front of the child, using expletives and derogatory labels. This ‘sweet revenge’ on the spouse takes its toll on the child. Revenge is not ‘sweet’ then. Children feel unloved, alone and ashamed of their lineage. Their self-concept gets affected and their self-worth shatters. This also contaminates their future relationships.
A home away from home
Where does an ’emotionally orphaned’ child go? Who does he turn to? Of course to emotional orphanages, some of which are healthy and some are not. The child looks for a family outside the family, thus landing up in emotional orphanages like spiritual cults, prayer meetings, psychiatrist’s waiting rooms, counselling sessions, or ‘friends for life’ which comprises a group of other emotional orphans looking for a surrogate family, internet chat-rooms, getting into abusive man-woman relationships, anti-social groups, terrorist outfits, prostitute dens and bars. Juvenile delinquency is the direct result of a dysfunctional family where the child is constantly looking out for a home away from home.
A family is known as dysfunctional when the desired goals of closeness, self-expression and meaning cannot be attained by the family members. When this happens, symptomatic behaviour takes place.
The family unit is the institution where values and attitudes are taught. Hostility, anxiety, stress, and depression are learned and expressed here. Parents are the only world children know for a long time. The foundation of their relationship with themselves and with the rest of the world is laid here. Their attitudes and behaviours in their future man-woman relationships are also greatly influenced by the relationship shared by their parents.
It is important for parents to understand that a healthy and harmonious relationship between both of you is not only good for you, but also in the best interest of your child. By using the child against each other, you condemn your own flesh and blood to a lifetime of hell—all in the name of love.