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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Why Parents Bully Their Children

One of the strangest and saddest phenomena of psychological life is that there are parents, too many parents, who end up — while sometimes only half realising it — bullying their own children.

The bullying may take many forms: from suggesting the child is ugly and stupid all the way to physically and sexually abusing them. It’s quite literally one of the saddest things in the world.

Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

Why do parents bully their children? In short, in order to try to feel better about themselves. Because they suffer intensely in the very same area that they are bullying their child in. If we, as children, want to know what our parents were afraid of or haunted by, we only need to ask: in what areas did they bully me? What did they make me feel scared or inadequate about? Someone made them feel awful and they surmise — by twisted logic — that they will feel better through the process of making their own child feel very bad indeed. They aren’t doing it personally, the child is collateral damage to a misguided project of healing and attenuation of symptoms. It doesn’t make any sense of course,  but it may actually work for the parent, for a time.

Let’s imagine a parent who harbours a terrible fear of being stupid; somewhere in their own past, they were belittled and made to feel hugely inadequate. Now a child comes along, their own child, full of the normal hesitations and weaknesses of early infancy. Without really realising what they are up to, the parent grows inflamed and incensed by this child’s apparent stupidity — and starts to mock and attack in another what they fear and hate in themselves. It makes them feel a bit better. The child becomes a repository of all that they fail to tolerate in themselves. They (the child) are the dumb one, so they (the parent) don’t have to be; they (the child_ are the stupid and ugly one, so they (the parent) don’t have to be. The child is a cry baby, a weakling and a pathetic twig. And therefore the parent is liberated to live more easily within itself. The bad is contained and localised; it can’t be in them, if it is all in little him or her. ‘Don’t be such a moron or a ninny. Stop being such a wimp,’ the parent screams at the child, in the hope that no idiocy or weakness remains in them.

The same logic operates in the most appalling form of bullying that is child abuse. Let’s imagine that the parent is carrying a sense of being corrupted, ill and soiled. Perhaps they too were abused — as so often happens — long ago. By abusing a child of their own who is as pure, hopeful and innocent as they once were, they hope to rid themselves of their poison, to inject it into some other being in order to live more freely and lightly. The child will go around thinking it is bad and wrong so that the parent no longer has to. It will be doomed and perhaps the parent will get a new lease of life.

It can take bullied children a very long time to realise they have been bullied. They don’t, after all, grow up thinking that someone else has actually made them feel stupid or made them feel ugly or made them feel soiled — let alone their own parent, whom they depend on and admire and long to be loved by. They simply think they are stupid, ugly and soiled. There is no call for an explanation or a cause. 

Yet if we are those now grown up bullied children, we don’t need to wonder too much more about what might have happened to us. We simply need to take stock of how we feel about ourselves and guess that the terrible judgements and sensations that we have about ourselves did not arise spontaneously. They are the outcome of events — physical behaviours as well as words and atmospheres that we were subjected to. The feelings we harbour of ourselves are legacies of real occurrences in the world. Someone, who isn’t necessarily owning up to it, made us feel a certain way — and that is why we are now in such pain.

Typically, those who have been bullied don’t look backwards. Their illnesses point them relentlessly to the present and the future. The bullied anticipate terrible things happening to them that echo events that once happened to them but they don’t remember these in any way. They are cause-less paranoiacs, self-haters and worriers. Catastrophe is never far away. A person feels they are ugly because two decades ago, a mother made them feel as much. A person feels they have done something very wrong because, even further back, someone did something very wrong to them. The fear contains the imprint of unconscious history.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We overcome our bullying when we learn to discriminate: between what actually belongs to us and what was placed in us, between who we are and what we’ve been told we are, between how our caregivers like to present themselves and what they have actually done. Our triggers and apprehensions lie along the faultlines of our early traumas; they can guide us back to what we were suffered through when we are ready to explore.

It’s sad enough that children are bullied by their parents; it’s even sadder that a legacy of this is that children can’t realise what happened to them. And instead typically fall victim to the same tricks played out by substitute figures in their later lives: partners, colleagues, even the media. 

We’re on our way to overcoming bullying when we can say, at last, I am not ugly, I was made to feel unacceptable. I haven’t done anything wrong, something wrong was done to me. And in general: I am not awful — something awful happened to me.

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