Children as Pawns

child_pawn02by Harry Butler, Ph.D. Psychotherapy

When we think of child abuse, most of us think of physical abuse and physical neglect. We have images of children brutally beaten, burned with cigarettes, left alone for long periods, malnourished, and sexually exploited for adult sadistic gratification. All of us are horrified when we learn of such cases and we readily identify with the plight of these children. Emotional abuse, however, is less easily detected and more often rationalized by everyone; abusers, the abused, and society. Yet, the lifetime consequences of emotional abuse are equal to those of physical abuse. Children see morality as black or white without shades of gray. For them, the world is divided into good and bad people, good and bad behavior, and good and bad thoughts. Children find great comfort in stories, movies, and television plots where good overcomes evil. When emotional abuse comes from those whom they identify as good, they lack the understanding necessary to comprehend why good and loving parents would hurt them. Children readily adopt rationalizations that the abuse is for their own good or that they deserved the abuse because they have been bad. Even some of the most sophisticated adults believe that bad things only happen to bad people. Thus, for example, many cancer patients believe they have done something to bring the disease on themselves. Believing themselves intrinsically unloveable, abused children often begin a life of self-defeating reenactments of childhood pain.

A more subtle but highly toxic form of child abuse occurs when parents, consciously or unconsciously, use children as pawns in service of their own frustrated life agendas. A healthy consequence of a psychologically painful childhood can be a strong desire to produce and rear healthy children. This usually comes from people who recognize the deprivations of their own childhood and the effects of these deprivations on their own lives. Without a doubt, many of the best parents are motivated by a desire to improve upon the parenting they received. Like all compensatory motives, the desire to overcome can be misguided. Impoverished children who came up the hard way can overindulge their own children; regimented children can be too permissive with their children; and socially marginal children can make social-climbing materialists of their children. Misguided attempts to overcome are legendary. All inhibit a child from developing a separate life and personality.

More insidious are parental motives to use children as weapons to even a score with their own parents or a spouse or an ex-spouse. Some parents use a child as a source of lifetime compensatory love and security. Frequently, these are parents who idealize their own parents and deny the abuse they suffered at their hands. They fail to recognize that they seek to extract from their children what they didn’t and couldn’t get from their own parents. In psychological literature, these people are called “defensive deniers” who exhibit “illusory mental health.” Their idealization of family life is exaggerated to the point of caricature. The imagery is that of a Norman Rockwell painting of the American family. This imagery of family has high public appeal and is superficially faultless. Judith Crist attempted to penetrate the veneer of the perfect family in her novel Ordinary People which was later made into an award winning movie of the same title. Children in such families have only two courses of adaptation—compliance or rebellion. Rebellion, while the psychologically healthier of the two, has little chance of success. Since the “Norman Rockwell families” co-opt all virtue, few courses of opposition are available to abused children other than compulsive self-destructive or antisocial behavior. The rebellious child is frequently seen as the troublemaker and this label can easily become part of the child’s character structure. If rebellious behavior continues into adulthood, the consequences for the person can be serious. If the negative identity of troublemaker continues into adult life, the Norman Rockwell family will have produced its antithesis in an adult child who not only rejects the family’s values but behaves in ways to mock and bring embarrassment on the entire family. Even when such rebels are able to transform their rebellion through creative efforts in the arts, the suicide and depression rates are quite high. William Styron chronicles the history of the depressed and suicidal artist in his book, Darkness Visible.

Many adults insist that they love their children while admitting they have been unable to love anyone else. They believe parental love comes naturally—that love between adults does not. This common misconception obscures the true parent-child relationship when parents use children to meet their own immature needs. When children feel emotional pain, they lack the cognitive capacity to understand the basis of this pain. It is common for parents to say they never fight in front of the children. Many parents never express love for each other in front of the children even though children respond well when parents do so. If the parental relationship is conflictual, overtly or covertly, children will be influenced and confused by the conflict. Whether divorced or living together, parents in conflict have difficulty supporting a loving relationship between their children and their spouse. They can tend to emotionally recruit the child away from the other parent and to their side of the conflict. The child’s needs frequently get lost in the struggle of the parents to defeat each other. It has been said for many couples in conflict that they have a choice between winning and being happy but that they can’t have both. In the case of children, they can neither win or be happy when their parents are in conflict. When the conflict is underground, children absorb the feelings of the conflict without awareness of the basis of the feelings. Thus, children can develop chronic states of anxiety, insecurity, rage, and fear with little ability to connect these feelings with observable life events.

Many parents don’t believe children should be permitted to express their feelings and opinions. Children are frequently punished, or even worse, ridiculed for expressing feelings unacceptable to adults. Instead of helping children understand their feelings, children are frequently taught that they are bad for having unacceptable feelings. Since children have no control over what they feel and since their parents find their feelings unacceptable and label them as bad or evil, the child is placed in a circumstance of great difficulty. At the least, children in such families learn to keep their true feelings to themselves and outwardly mirror the families expectations. As for feelings, they numb them, act them out, or internalize them and develop physical symptoms. In the case of numbing, this is the beginning of depression. In acting-out unacceptable feelings, the child becomes a behavior problem. The internalizer, in an effort to please the family, dissociates awareness of the emotional pain but suffers physical symptoms. Thus, psychological symptoms (depressed, behavioral or physical) emerge when a child’s only possible way of adapting to family expectations is to renounce his or her own feelings and inner self. In the book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller points out that overly- adaptive children are deprived of experiencing certain feelings such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, impotence, and anxiety. More often than not, symptoms are not recognized as such by family members or other adults and unless the symptoms are severe, the child enters adult life emotionally retarded and unprepared for adult relationships. Many such psychological symptom-bearing adults are expected to express enthusiastic gratitude toward their parents and to show well at family functions. Thus, they can become impostors in their own families. When these ‘impostors’ seek therapy, they frequently claim they have no life of their own and have no feelings or desires of their own. One client mentioned that he “paints life by the numbers.”

Parenthood is a gift which offers the parent an opportunity to give love, structure, education, and support to the unfolding of a unique personality. Parenthood works best when parents delight in and cherish the individuality of their children. When individuality has been supported, adult children grow to like their parents and return their love. When parent’s needs obstruct a child’s development, the grown child often turns against the parent. This can occur in a variety of ways. The most obvious is open rebellion and an emotional cutoff by the adult child. In more subtle ways, adult children “handle” their parents but have no emotional connection to them. They attend and perform at family rituals but otherwise treat their parents as emotional strangers. For the adult child of an emotionally abusing parent, more often than not, their own marital and parenting relationships re-enact these abuses. Thus, “the sins of the fathers” (and mothers) are imposed on the next generation. While there may be a form of poetic justice in the idea that “you reap what you sow,” there are no winners in this toxic heritage.

Many parents painfully report that they didn’t have an instruction manual for parenting. The tragedy for parents is that many of them are terribly guilt-ridden over what has happened to their children and they desperately seek to make it right. This isn’t easy to do. Sometimes parents do realize the consequences that their attitudes and behaviors imposed on their children. Often, they come to this realization too late to reverse the damage. Frequently, the cruelty they have imposed on their children is returned to them by their children. For many, their adult children go through the motions of participating in family life but find themselves unable to discover enthusiasm or any emotional vitality in the presence of their parents. Other parents are never able to see or admit their unfair treatment of their children and they continue to emotionally reject or ridicule them. Many feel they have made sacrifices for their children and that the emotional problems of their children are trivial concerns when compared to the treatment they themselves received in childhood.

These conflicts have produced a growing demand for psychotherapy. A large number of clients, mine and those of other therapists, report that their relationship with their therapist is the closest and sometimes only understanding relationship they have ever experienced. Therapists are confronted with a difficult task of validating the feelings and experiences of their clients while holding out some hope that family relationships can ultimately be reconciled. Sadly, some people only feel free after the death of their parents. Others make attempts to get their parents to understand them and are forced to acknowledge the inability of their parents to do so. Indeed, the lucky clients are the ones who find that their parents have grown and are no longer the same people who imposed such pain upon them when they were children.

Some will attribute the problems presented here as a “breakdown of the American family.” While there is considerable truth to this point of view, it is equally true that the relationship demands of previous eras were different than they are today. Increased personal freedom, geographical and social mobility, and greater equality for women have altered relationship demands and expectations. Few would seek to reverse the progress obtained by these social changes. Our problems are to some extent the problems created by success rather than failure. As our society has evolved toward greater freedom and entitlement for all people, we have not developed the means by which we socialize people so as to give them the skills to construct lives and relationships outside the family. Children treated as pawns have been socialized to meet the needs of family members at the expense of their ability to separate from and develop healthy relationships outside the family. Ironically, in these situations, the family has “too much,” not too little influence.

Families are needed to provide a foundation and a support system for the complex relationship lives required of modern adults. When families are unable or unwilling to assume their responsibility to prepare their children for adult life in society, children need backup systems as a means of making the transition to mature social and emotional functioning. In a less complex world, the extended family provided the backup. In past generations, school teachers and other professionals have rescued children by offering encouragement, understanding, and vision. The time has come for us to recognize that most children require outside-the-family adult influences if the children are to be prepared to live in our complex and rapidly changing society. The healthiest families recognize their own limitations and actively encourage the influence and participation of other adults such as teachers, coaches, counselors, tutors, and friends.

Originally published in Living Better San Diego, September, 1996.

Harry Butler, Ph.D. Psychotherapy–LCS 8954

2780 Cardinal Road, Suite A Mailing Address

San Diego, California 92123 1010 University Avenue

(619) 298-0224 Fax (619) 440-8380 Box 406

E-Mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. San Diego,

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