Unconditional love refers to a stance of caring and positive bonding that characterizes relationships that have what therapists refer to as a secure attachment. Parents who love their children in this way correct a child's mistaken behaviors instead of rejecting the child. The message they give is "I don't like what you did; and I still love you." Spouses with positive relationships do the same, raising concerns about behaviors and still appreciating the person they love. What happens though if a parent or a spouse (or a friend, relative, or boss) reacts with unconditional dislike? For spouses, this attitude can become a cause for divorce. Children whose parents convey "I don't like you" however have no divorce option. These children are stuck with parents whose attitude conveys that they are unlovable.
Unfortunately, the psychological damage from emotional/verbal abuse can be lifelong.
The problem of parents who verbally abuse their children by yelling at them, calling them hurtful names, and turning them against themselves is related to the topic of an article in a recent Wall Street Journal, States Tackling Child Abuse. The newspaper's article highlighted child maltreatment in the form of physical abuse, and the need for stronger responses from state protective services.
What though is done for children whose unconditionally unloving parents intermittently or consistently denigrate and rage verbally at their chidlren, committing emotional abuse?
State protective services are empowered to mobilize when they see visible marks of physical abuse on children's bodies. When the abuse damages instead a child's soul, eroding self-esteem and fostering hatred and fear, protective services generally has no juristiction. How totally inadequate are the responses that we as individuals and as a society seem to be able to offer these children!
I recently received the following note about a parent who is raising her children with unconditional hostility. The poignant situation the writer described prompted me to write this blogpost:
Dear Dr. Heitler,
I was reading your information about BPD on the Psychology Today website and I am hoping you can help.
My 32-year-old sister has BPD and rages everyday. It is really really bad and continues to get worse over the years. I live in another town and can get away from her rage but her daughters, who are 4 and 10, can't.
My sister is not married right now. She's been divorced four times. The children both have different fathers.
It is a very negative environment for the girls. My sister manipulates and uses them, and verbally, mentally and emotionally abuses them. She is now alienating my older neice from friends, neighbors, and from the rest of our family, turning her into an insecure recluse who has no one.
What can I do? Surely there is a law in place that can commit her or something? Please help. My mother, who lives near her, gets the brunt of it all. It pains me terribly to see my mother suffering and my innocent neices being harmed so badly by their mom.
Here's some thoughts on response possibilities:
1. Reach out to a verbally abused child to initiate kindly interactions.
A little bit of kindness can go a long way.
I recall years ago reading a study that said that when children of abusive parents have even one adult with whom they can experience a normal positive relationship, that one attachment can offer a profound counter-weight to all the abuse. An aunt or uncle, a neighbor, a teacher who reaches out even intermittently can provide a saving grace.
2. Explain the reality about the sources of verbal abuse.
Explain to the child that the verbal abuse that mom or dad rains down when they are angry is an inaccurate description of the child. Explain that when people get mad, they say things they don't really mean and that are untrue. Explain also that the verbal abuse is not the fault of the child. It is caused by a problem in the parent's brain that makes it produce too much anger.
Children depend on parental "mirroring," that is, feedback from others, to develop a self-image of who they are. Verbally abusive parents convey that the child is bad, stupid, and worse. Looking the child in the eyes and explaining that you see the child as a good child who is actually smart etc can make a huge difference to that child's self-image.
Children who recieve verbal abuse tend to believe that they are receiving this berating because they have done something wrong. "Disabuse" them of this notion so that they understand that raging comes from the parent's emotional dysfunction, not because the child has been bad or has acted provocatively. Their parent's anger is not their fault.
Abusive parents get triggered by normal childhood actions. When an abusive parent's anger gun is cocked and ready to go off, even the mere presence of the targeted child will be enough to release the trigger.
3. Ask someone with authority to intervene.
Alerting social services, a church leader, a trusted doctor or school personnel can lead to helpful interventions from these institutional systems.
4. Encourage the disturbed parent to get help.
Empathizing with how much pain the adult seems to be in may offer an opening for the parent to see that he or she might benefit from counseling help.
Parents who abuse their children tend to be low in insight, and to run from any form of treatment that assumes that insight will be helpful. A better form of help therefore might be a non-verbal treatment that soothes the parent's hyper-reactive emotional functioning. A treatment method called "BodyTalk" is one option. Sometimes acupuncture can have a similar calming impact.
5. Encourage the disturbed parent to get help for their child "so that the child behaves better and does fewer things that are upsetting to you."
Unfortunately, joining the parent in regarding the child as the cause of his or her anger is likely to prove more productive than trying to break through the parent's self-absorbed and blaming orientation to access feelings of empathy for the child. Better to meet the parent where s/he is than to put stumbling blocks on the path toward getting help.
Will these options for stopping verbal abuse of children prove sufficient?
Probably not. These solutions all have potential to be at least partially helpful, although they can also backfire, leading to increases in the abuse. Even when they work relatively positively however, they are likely to prove insufficient to meet the gravity of the situation.
The dilemma of what to do vis a vis parents, whose job it is to nurture their offspring, poison their children with harmful verbal abuse is one that as a society we have yet to fully face and conquor. I myself have been working on finding a cure for bpd. Please see the article I've recently posted on the experience from within of borderline personality sufferers. That is the first in a series of 5 or 6 articles which will culminate with a posting on the treatment for bpd that the therapists in my office suite and I have been exploring.
Meanwhile anything you personally can do in this arena of prevention and treatment for children whos parents are verbally or emotionally abusive could help.
FURTHER RESOURCES ON THE TOPIC OF BORDERLINE/NARCISSISTIC/ANGER PERSONALITY DISORDER PARENTS
For more information on parents who rage at their children, do check out Randi Kreger's blogpost The World of the Borderline Mother and Her Children which focuses types of mothering described by Christina Lawson.
For a resource to help children living with a raging parent, see the book "An Umbrella for Alex"
For somewhat older kids, see this resource.
Dr. Heitler's blogposts on the subject of borderline personality disorder include:
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book,workbook, and website that teach the communication skills that save and sustain positive relationships.
Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test.
Click the Power of Two logo to learn the skills that sustain a strong and loving marriage.