STICKS AND STONES
Is your relationship with your child verbally abusive?
As a child, Athira was always quiet, timid and very reserved. She was also quick to burst into tears and would get upset quite easily. Many of her teachers often wondered if perhaps the little girl was simply used to getting her own way at home and, as a result, struggled to fit in as part of a collective group at school.
The notion that Athira’s personality may have been the direct result of something a little more serious never once crossed any of their minds. There were, after all, no obvious reasons for concern and the little girl had never shown any signs to indicate otherwise. As a result, Athira’s withdrawn personality and unsocial temperament were erroneously dismissed as diffidence, when in fact they were testament to a deeper, more worrying cause.
If only the teachers had been able to delve into the young child’s mind, they would have seen the myriad of concealed injuries and scars, both old and new, that the child carried within her. They would have understood that Athira’s low self-esteem was the direct result of how she had been raised and interacted with. They would have recognised that the child’s fragile emotional state was less to do with being spoilt, and more to do with the fact that she had been on
Such forms of abuse, also collectively called emotional abuse, are often very hard to pinpoint and harder still to address, because the effects are generally silent and hidden out of sight despite their far-reaching consequences. Unlike physical and sexual abuse, which can be somewhat easier to detect and are generally self-evident forms of mistreatment, emotional abuse can often prolong surreptitiously for extensive periods without anyone connecting the dots between maltreatment and a child’s deteriorating disposition.
In addition, emotional changes and variances are common occurrences during the growing years, thus rendering the task of identifying emotional abuse in a child, an even more challenging one.
Furthermore, many parents and caregivers themselves, especially within certain cultural settings, don’t always consider harsh verbal reprimanding, including the use of negative words, to be abusive in nature.
Athira’s parents, for example, were always convinced that they were doing the right thing by their child. This belief, however, was somewhat misplaced, for although they never physically rebuked or punished Athira, much of their interactions with her were heavily marred by criticism and disapproval. She was often called ‘stupid’ for bringing home less than satisfactory report cards, ‘useless’ for not winning any medals on sports day, ‘lazy’ when she struggled to complete her homework, and ‘careless’ when she lost things.
If Athira told her parents about being teased in class, they would dismissively tell her to ‘toughen up’ and stop complaining, without bothering to even ask what she might have been teased about. When she fell down and hurt herself in the playground, they shouted at her for being ‘naughty’, rather than rushing to check if she was alright. If she cried, they simply ignored her until she stopped. Not being good enough was the predominant, underlying theme throughout Athira’s childhood – and although her parents were confident that how they parented would push her to do better, in reality, they did nothing more than hold her back.
For Athira, and other children like her, the effects of the emotional abuse unleashed upon them are often channelled via the manifestation of less than conducive behaviour and character traits. Vanitha Chandrasegaram, a dramatherapist and creative arts therapist who has extensive experience working with abused children, concurs, stating that children who have been on the receiving end of verbal and mental abuse are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, engage in risky behaviour, fail academically, and adopt other deviant behaviours. She adds that such children may also have trouble interacting with others and struggle to adapt to regular social settings.
Dr Anjli Doshi-Gandhi, the former deputy director general at the National Population and Family Development Board, and an expert in family development and parenting, drives home the same point about emotional maltreatment. Research, she says, strongly indicates that the longterm effects of emotional abuse on children are significant and something that parents should take into serious consideration.
CYCLE OF SELFDESTRUCTION
“Many parents think that abuse only happens when you hit a child but constantly directing anger at a child, and/or labelling them negatively, also constitutes as abuse,” Dr Anjli states, adding that children who are raised in a hostile environment and often subjected to emotional abuse have a higher propensity towards antisocial behaviours, and are at greater risk of developing disorders such as substance abuse and self-harming. Victims of emotional torment and maltreatment are also more likely to become involved in abusive relationships as teenagers and adults, and continue to perpetrate the same vicious cycle with their own children due to not having the skills and knowledge to act and behave otherwise, she explains. The consequences of emotional abuse on children can be extensive and long-term, with negative implications that carry on well into the adult years. As such, it’s crucial for parents and caregivers to recognise the enormity of their words and actions, and be extremely mindful about harnessing the power that they have over children to build them up, rather than break them down.