“She was very controlling, very manipulative. She ruled like a dictator…When I got to high school and learned about [Hitler], I thought, Oh my God, he must be related to my mother.” (1)
Sexual abuse of children is a popular and entertaining topic for many people, but physical abuse is more deadly and emotional abuse is much more frequent. Daughters are particularly vulnerable to emotional abuse by their mothers, and some victims report that the effects of their mother’s emotional abuse were worse than the sexual abuse they also suffered. An old saying in some cultures is: You only have one mother, thank God!
Although sexual abuse is commonly called a “violation” of boundaries, that choice of words is a rhetorical attempt to justify moral blame and legal punishment. In sexual or emotional incest, a more accurate label is confusion of boundaries since the parent doesn’t recognize that the child has a separate mind and may normally have different preferences that contradict the parent’s preferences. The emotionally abusive parent reacts to a child’s different preference as if it is a self-contradiction within the parent’s own mind.
Respecting boundaries means knowing where your territory ends and another person’s territory begins. Ethically, you need the other person’s permission to cross into her territory, and the other person needs your permission to cross into your territory. Some abusive parents don’t merely ignore a child’s boundaries, they deny that the child’s boundaries exist at all.
Ideally, every individual should be free to choose her own boundaries as long as they don’t impinge on another person’s boundaries. Other people may offer suggestions on boundary choice, and may suggest that some boundaries may be rigid while other boundaries may be fluid; but if another person says: “You must choose this boundary for yourself” or “Certain boundaries must be rigid or must be fluid,” we may strongly suspect that the other person dictating such rules has some selfish political, economic, or ideological motive for saying that. Each individual should be free to choose her own boundaries, as well as being free to choose if her chosen boundaries are rigid or fluid.
Abusive parents mistakenly see the child’s dependency as a negation of the child’s unique and independent identity. The dependent child is seen as no more separate from the parent than the parent’s hand or foot. Such parents confuse descendance or resemblance with identity. In reality, even in very close proximity or with the umbilical cord still attached, a child has a separate brain and a unique genetic program. An emotionally abusive parent acts as if the child is a reincarnation of her own youth, conveniently ignoring that this new child has different genes and the new child’s brain is developing in a different environment. Or the parent denies that such differences are significant or relevant.
The classic expression of emotional incest is the jealousy parents feel for their child and their consequent attempt to have exclusive power over a child’s every choice, thought, word and deed. I have argued that the classic problem of jealousy is not inevitable but rather a result of the relatively modern, monogamous “nuclear” family. In an ideal polyamorous family children never learn to be jealous because they don’t see models of jealousy in their home, and they aren’t isolated from other children and adults. Unfortunately, jealousy is clearly rampant today in the tiny nuclear family.
The belief that jealousy is supposedly inevitable has become ingrained in modern Western culture. An elementary lesson every young teacher must learn is to keep proper “distance” between himself and his pupils. Nowadays we think of the risk of accusations of sex abuse, but the policy of proper distance existed long before the contemporary mass hysteria over child sex abuse. One thing a modern parent can’t stand is a child coming home and going on and on about how great her teacher is and how she can’t wait to be with her beloved teacher again tomorrow.
In fairness the average parent hasn’t studied child development and isn’t dedicating her life full-time to making children’s lives richer and happier. Most parents spend the majority of their time earning a living and trying to deal with many other immediate problems they have inherited or created or stumbled into. So unfavorable comparisons between a mediocre parent and a good teacher are quite unwelcome at home. Parents are much happier if a child has no special feelings for her teacher, or even better if a child wishes her teacher could be more like dear old mom.
Grandparents and other relatives are in the same position as teachers. From a parent’s point of view, it’s not fair that the parent has to pay all the boring expenses like rent, utilities, groceries, and medicine, and then some free-wheeling aunt or uncle or idle grandparent comes along and offers to buy the kids toys or take the kids to the circus. One generous grandparent who offered to buy a gift for a child was told by the frustrated parent: Give me the money and I’ll buy it.
I was teaching in a girls’ school in 1990 when the mass hysteria over child sex abuse spread from the U.S. to continental Europe. In the beginning I thought it was funny that any parent would suspect a teacher of wanting to molest his students. In my case I was more likely to strangle the teenage girls in my class than make love to them. But the abstract threat of sexual “stranger danger” is convenient for parents. Any threats that exist outside the home are a perfect excuse to keep kids inside the home and away from any competitors for a child’s admiration and affection. Abusive parents conveniently ignore the statistics that clearly show the vast majority of child deaths and serious injuries are caused by parents rather than strangers. The mass hysteria over stranger danger is merely an excuse to justify isolating children and cover-up a parent’s real, selfish fear: losing exclusive authority and control over her little captive audience.
Isolating children to indulge a parent’s jealousy is a form of emotional abuse that is common and widely accepted nowadays, but it is no less damaging or reprehensible than sexual abuse or neglect. Under the guise of “protecting” children from the risk of spoiling or bad influences, such parents are themselves a bad influence on children. In the U.S. the exaggerated risk of stranger danger has become so popular that parents themselves are being arrested for letting children outdoors unsupervised, and a movement has arisen – Free Range Kids to combat the hysteria.
Human beings are social animals, so isolation is extremely painful for a growing child and is usually just the tip of the iceberg. Parents most likely to emotionally abuse their child are the ones who have no adult partner and need a child’s company and “loyalty” to ward-off the parent’s own loneliness. Such parents either have low self-esteem and feel insecure and dread rejection, or they have an unrealistic opinion of their own expertise in supervising the child’s education, character development and social skills. The emotionally abusive parent thinks she is a jack-of-all-trades who doesn’t need any “outside interference” in her child’s life. In other words, a child is typically isolated by the worst possible parent.
In some cases a single parent isolates the child and then neglects her. I have witnessed a child make a comment and her parent simply doesn’t respond. After a reasonable pause the child makes a follow-up comment, and the parent doesn’t respond again. It may be that a parent is so incompetent she doesn’t know how to respond and doesn’t have enough self-esteem to say “I don’t know” or “I’m too exhausted to talk right now.” Or it may be that the parent doesn’t really want to be with the child, so by not responding in effect the parent isn’t there. The child is left wondering if she is hopelessly boring or completely worthless. That is a kind of emotional abuse just as bad as helicopter parenting.
Jealousy, forced isolation and neglect are certainly the most common expressions of emotional abuse today, but there are other ways that parents emotionally abuse children. A parent may actively shame a child’s sexual curiosity and natural lack of inhibition, or a parent may passively neglect to answer a child’s sexual questions and thereby model the parent’s own toxic shame. Regardless of the parent’s motivations, the effect in both cases is likely to be the child’s mental castration and eventual sexual dysfunction. A division of labor is useful in parenting as in most other kinds of work, and a parent should be competent in the kind of work she has to do. If a mother was mentally castrated by her parents when she was a little girl and is now sexually dysfunctional, she should not be supervising her own children’s sex education or anybody else’s.
Before a parent appoints herself supervisor of her child’s sex education the parent should ask herself: When she was a child did she enjoy the benefit of accurate, balanced, and comprehensive sex education, or was her sexual development neglected? Was she allowed to fondle herself whenever she wanted or was she made to feel guilty about her natural genital sensations? Does she still experience normal and healthy clitoral erections as every little girl does, or is her body now silent? A responsible parent feels overjoyed by her child’s healthy genital function, not jealous and resentful.
In reality child development is not an exact science, so in theory parents should be free to raise children as they see fit and vary from current fashions of political correctness if they prefer. However, ideally all children should learn that they too are free and may communicate with anyone about anything, including and especially if they disagree with their parent’s opinions and wish to protest their parents’ behavior. Not as an opportunity for government authorities to impose politically correct preferences on parents, but as an opportunity for parents to dialogue with other adults in the community and receive constructive feedback.
Traditionally, women play the role of the weak, innocent, childlike saint who can do no wrong and is always above suspicion. So whenever a mother does something clearly wrong it’s easier to blame the husband, father, brother or some other male. Some victims of child sex abuse confide to their therapists that they initially accused their father of being the perpetrator, when in reality it was the mother.
Some emotionally abusive mothers are not blameworthy, because they are deeply disturbed. Another daughter/victim described her mother this way: “She would call me from phone booths when I was a child to say that she had slit her wrist and that she was at a phone booth, that she was about to bleed to death.” (Ibid). In such cases serious psychiatric intervention is called for. I focus responsibility on the mothers who are otherwise fairly normal, not basket cases, although there may be many more deeply disturbed mothers out there who avoid detection because of the traditional parental privilege of isolating children and terrorizing their children into silence.
Selling treatment for sexual or emotional abuse is a big business, even though there is no evidence that any such treatment method is safe or effective by medical standards. Some therapists exploit confused victims of abuse by hiding the lack of evidence, while claiming that just as the child is helpless and not responsible for the abuse, so is the therapist helpless and not responsible for the cure. The victim/patient must “take responsibility for her own recovery.” Nonetheless, if any abuse victim refuses to experiment by trying unproven treatment, it’s a sign of weakness and lack of courage!
Rather than waste time and money on ineffective and possibly dangerous quacks and charlatans treating abuse after-the-fact, I suggest that parents and especially mothers should try to prevent emotional incest by allowing children their own identity and providing even very young children with the freedom to develop their own personality and preferences. Children today have to face a world of information that is very different from the world parents grew up in.
- Quoted in Beverly A. Ogilvie’s “Mother-Daughter Incest.” (Haworth Press, 2004.) Although I don’t doubt that some mothers do sexually abuse their daughters, and this book is purportedly about sexual abuse, almost all of the abuse described in the book is clearly emotional, not sexual.