Why some parents do a bad job

At the root of miserable parenting is an intimidated parent—either by role itself or by the child

Vanita was a bright and intelligent lady who used to work for a multi-national company. Unfortunately, she had schizophrenia since her daughter’s birth and was being treated for it. When she visited us, she told us that she loved her 3-year-old daughter very much but was scared that her internal organs were being stretched and growing larger since her daughter’s birth. She feared that her organs might burst one day, killing her. This, we knew, was symbolic of her fear of the responsibility of parenting. Her parents and husband told us that she had been reluctant to conceive and be a mother, but was pressured by her husband for the same.

Tanuja gave birth to a little boy who had a minor congenital disorder of the digestive tract. He would throw up if fed beyond his capacity and hence had to be given small frequent meals. This would keep Tanuja confined to the house more than other new mothers. She would get angry with the infant and delay his feeds, and then when he cried incessantly, she would feel angry and guilty for the delays. One day, she ended it all by suffocating the infant with a pillow and went into deep clinical depression.

Such cases are not uncommon, however, the fear of the responsibility of parenting and its avoidance might manifest more subtly wherein the parent wishes that the child dies a natural death. Or else, the parent chooses to rely on someone else—a family member, friend or maid, boarding school—to look after the child and finds every opportunity to do so.

Those who find parenting intimidating are, in fact, children themselves. Therefore, far from looking after a child, they themselves feel the need to be looked after with someone else assuming responsibility for them. This is because of their own dysfunctional upbringing, which leaves them stunted as needy kids at the emotional level.

Sheila had a depressive father. Her mother used her work as a coping strategy to get out of the difficult environment at home. Sheila was left alone to look after her father, with no one to look after her. She grew up to be a needy woman—like a bottomless pit her emotional hunger for demonstrative love remained unsatiated no matter what her husband did for her. When she gave birth to a child, she was threatened by the thought that her daughter would now become the sole object of the family’s love and attention. So she sent the little girl from one relative to another to be looked after, while she continued to nag her husband to fill her emotional vacuum. When the daughter was with her for a short while, she would obsessively do things for her daughter to make up for the guilt of keeping her away. But anyone who saw Sheila up close could see how obsessed, anxious and tense she looked while being with her daughter.

Needy parents like Sheila become so obsessive and zealous in their parenting that they go to the other extreme of doing everything for their children. This is only because they need to feel that they are the best parents—while all along inside they are aware of feeling intimidated with the task of parenting, and wishing that they did not have to do it. To add to this, is the pressure of ‘right parenting skills’ that comes in the form of books and workshops, which leaves the new age parents with more anxiety than they can handle.

This swinging from procrastination to perfectionism continues, till the parent ultimately becomes an emotional adult who has transcended his/her own neediness, and can therefore be there fully for the child in a genuinely relaxed and balanced way. This, of course, requires parents to heal the child within themselves, in order to appropriately parent their own biological children. If, however, there is no healing in the parents, it could generate neurotic feelings like anger, anxiety, and depression in the children, leaving them emotionally stunted.

father playing with sonSometimes parents are intimidated by only one of their children. This is usually because that child is not conforming to their dos and don’ts, and asserts his/her own individuality. A feeling of loss of control with the non-conformist child makes the parent not want to parent her. This worsens matters because the child feels rejected and acts up more in order to gain acceptance and validation from the parent.

This also happens when a parent is not happy parenting the child because of the gender of the child. For example, if a mother doesn’t want a girl child but has one, she perceives the child to be a burden, and might be unwilling and unable to emotionally be there for the daughter. This may result in the daughter manifesting behavioural problems.

Priya was a bright and expressive child who questioned everything. By the time she became a teenager, she was already feeling unloved and invalidated by Jharna, her mother. Jharna disapproved Priya’s views and ways, judged her as an obstinate and abnormal child, and saw parenting her as a painful task. Instead of establishing a communication with her daughter, she cut herself away and gave the task of parenting Priya to a counsellor. Jharna did not once realise how orphaned her daughter felt, and how much she needed her mother’s validation and unconditional acceptance of her, and how a lack was the main reason why Priya had behavioural issues.

Sometimes the parent might even feel competitive with the same sex child, especially as the child becomes an adolescent and then an adult. Jealousy in the parent for the child is often seen if the child is getting more attention from the other parent and if the relationship of the couple is strained because of this. At such times the jealousy as a competitor for the spouse’s attention overtakes the role as a parent to the child, and parenting can then feel like an unwanted task. Also, if the child achieves or possesses something that the parent always wanted at that age and does not have even today, jealousy could arise in the parent, wherein the parenting role is put aside and a raw competitiveness arises.

Sheetal did not have a great marriage, so when her daughter got all her husband’s attention she would feel jealous. As her daughter grew older, married and had her own home, Sheetal would compete with her in homemaking skills, and found every opportunity to prove she was better than her ‘immature’ daughter. Healthy parenting was virtually impossible for Sheetal because she only saw her daughter as a rival.

Besides the emotional incapability, which makes parenting appear like a daunting task, there are also practical problems like both parents being absorbed in their careers with children being tended to by others. There is also the societal pressure of producing a super race of those who can do-it-all and have-it-all. Time constraints due to career do not allow parents to be as involved as they might like to be in parenting, keeping them worried about other influences on their children. Parents find it difficult to exert their influence especially if the time spent with their children is limited. With pressure to perform at competitive exams, and to have a high intelligence quotient as well as a high emotional quotient, children are getting just as stressed out as their parents.

All this and more, makes parenting intimidating for so many people. Is it any wonder then that workshops on parenting skills are packed with anxious parents, and books on parenting are making it to the list of bestsellers?

Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.
Rajan Bhonsle
Dr Rajan Bhonsle, MD, is a consultant in sexual medicine and counsellor. Along with his wife Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, who is a consulting psychotherapist and counsellor, he runs a unique therapy centre


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