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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

If Our Parents Never Listened

There are few more important tasks for parents than to be able to listen properly to their children, that is, pick up on and give room to, their children’s moods, hatreds and enthusiasms, even when these run contrary to their own inclinations. It’s on the basis of having been listened to with close sympathy and imagination that a child will later on be able to accept themselves, remain in touch with what they feel and find partners who are interested in their core selves.

Why should listening properly prove so hard for many parents? Partly because what children say and do can prove so threatening to parents’ sense of their identity. We may as parents have said a very firm goodbye to vulnerability, imagination, frankness, sexual fluidity or sadness. But our children come into the world unaware of any such repudiations; what we have put into our shadow sides may lie in the midday sun of our offspring’s young lives. The kids have no compunction saying that granny is a big fat poo, that they want to dress like an opposite gender or that they long to live in a bigger house. They may in addition be terrible at maths and hopeless at tying their own shoelaces. This may rattle us to the core: how could we have worked so hard to expunge weakness from our personality, only for it to show up in the next generation? How can they be so shockingly needy and difficult, so illogical and impolite?

There can be jealousy behind much of the resulting non-listening. Parents may not take their children’s cries to heart because no one paid particular attention to their own lamentations. Why would they be patient with another’s petty sorrows when they had to grow up with brutal speed? The best way for parents to protect themselves against registering their latent frustrations and regrets can be to ensure that their children also don’t get what they want.

Non-listening parents are to be found constantly rewriting their children’s experiences: ‘That’s nonsense,’ they will say, ‘I know you love going for walks in the rain!’ Or: ‘Why would my brave little soldier cry about something like that!’ Or they’ll insinuate that there is simply no way to devote oneself to something (ballet or business, being shy or dressing as a fairy) and remain legitimate and loveable.

The legacy of not being listened to is a split personality, in which we are unable to allow in the sadness or anger, vulnerability or confidence that our parents once denied in us.  Properly growing up may involve asking ourselves a very unfamiliar question – what sides of me could my parents not accept? – and making friends with the answers.

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