STICKS AND STONES

Is your re­la­tion­ship with your child ver­bally abu­sive?

Herworld (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS -

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

SILENT CRIES

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.

BRO­KEN SPIR­ITS

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.

LEFT BE­HIND

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.

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