Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
How Unloving Parents can Generate Self-Hating Children
A central fact about early childhood is that babies are born into the world entirely at the mercy of others. They have no native strength, intelligence or utility, they cannot fight or complain, walk away or argue their case, their survival depends solely on their capacity to look up from their cots with vast innocent beautiful eyes – and charm their parents into caring for them. It’s their power to attract love that ensures they will be fed and clothed, protected and kept alive.
In exchange for this nurture, young children readily offer their parents or caregivers unconditional admiration. They naturally adore and are boundlessly impressed by those who pick them up and bathe them, warm their milk and change their sheets. They are in awe at these giant people who know how to turn on a washing machine and kick a ball over a tree. There is – at this stage – no innate desire whatever to question or doubt figures of authority.
Given what is at stake, it follows that small children are instinctively hugely sensitive to how well they are doing at getting their admired protectors on their side. If they feel they are loved, they can relax into themselves and get on with the many other pressing priorities of early childhood: working out how to eat solids, figuring out what a plug socket is, how a button functions, what words are and how soap bubbles form.
But if love is in more restricted supply, the picture grows a whole lot more complicated. There are childhoods in which, for a variety of reasons, parents fail to be charmed as they might be. They leave the baby to scream, they shout at one another, there might be violence and hysteria, lethargic despair and terror. The young child knows instinctively it is in grave danger, if the situation is not somehow corrected, in extremis, it may be left on a hillside to die.
At this point, our biology initiates a desperate yet darkly logical process. The young child starts to try a lot harder. It redoubles its efforts to charm, to be good, to do what could be expected of it, to smile and to ingratiate itself. It wonders what may be wrong with itself to explain the parental disapproval and harm – and doesn’t feel any alternative but to search in its own character and behaviour for answers.
At the same time, the child resists what might – from an adult perspective – seem like the obvious move: to get annoyed with and blame the adults in the vicinity who are not looking after it as they should. But such a bold thought does not belong to the defencelessness of the early years. We are in no position to mount a challenge to our protectors when we can hardly reach the doorhandle, let alone turn on a tap; we need to have our own front door key and bank account before cynicism is a realistic option. It is far more intuitive to wonder why we are horrid than to complain of being unfairly and unkindly treated.
Small children therefore naturally turn injury done to them into dislike of themselves. They ask not so much ‘Why does my parent fail to care for me?’ as ‘How might I have failed this admirable person?’ They hate themselves rather than doubt those who should be protecting them, shame replaces anger. It feels, on balance, like the safer option.
A vicious spiral of self-hatred then sets in. The unloved growing child wonders constantly about their faults. Their parent may be alcoholic, narcissistic, sadistic or depressed; they may never cook a proper meal or shout intemperately from their bedroom, but none of that matters in the slightest. The parent cannot be envisaged as anything other than substantially impressive. To explain the lack of love from the paragons of parenthood, it must be that the child is an awful person, they must be stupid and mean, selfish and slow, physically repulsive and irritating and shallow.
As childhood gets left behind, much of this dynamic is forgotten. The adolescent and young adult overlooks exactly what went on, they cannot necessarily think clearly of the early years – and parental figures may be keen that they never do so. Instead of an honest psychological exploration, there is the sentimentality of the photo album and the evocation of the more cheerful moments of family holidays. The former child can’t tell any more that their feeling of shame has specific origins, it can feel like something they might have been born with, a natural phenomenon, like bad weather or the flu.
Liberation awaits us when we dare to take on board a highly implausible idea: that our self-hatred, far from being inevitable, is an internalisation of early deprivation and that far from needing to revere and admire those who denied us love, we are in a position to understand, to question, to be annoyed and to mourn what we did not receive. We are not so despicable after all, we’ve just – till now – lacked any better ideas to explain why we didn’t manage to charm those who should have loved us from the start.