Children come to this world with a delicate innocence and wide-eyed curiosity. In the comfort and warmth of parental care, they learn to love and trust. They imbibe language, reason and knowledge from their immediate surroundings. With every experience–positive or negative–they grow, mature and transform into thinking, functioning adults.
Everything children go through, especially during their formative years, becomes a part of who they eventually turn out to be. When raised in a healthy home by loving parents, they are likely to grow into responsible and emotionally stable adults. On the other hand, those who grow up in a dysfunctional set-up tend to develop mental health issues that may stretch well into adulthood.
Many of us may have traumatic memories from our early years that may have shaped us for better or for worse. However, we might not have been part of a dysfunctional family, per se. Those who experienced or were witness to constant conflict, misbehaviour, neglect or abuse, on the other hand, truly know what it means. Explains child neuropsychologist Dr Akila Sadasivan, “When the power balance between the parents is off, it affects the whole machinery of the family and causes dysfunction. It could be due to illness (physical or mental), habits (addictions or compulsions), financial or social situations. These factors may then adversely affect their parenting styles and the general atmosphere in which the child grows up.”
While the toxicity of such a family set-up damages everyone involved, children are adversely affected, given their age and vulnerability. It is especially the case when rage enters the equation. Dr Sadasivan elucidates, “When exposed to anger, aggression and violence, children either turn out to be edgy and anxious with low self-confidence, or they end up being aggressive and violent themselves. Those who are subject to neglect develop a poor sense of self-worth and find themselves, even as adults, constantly seeking external validation.”
Lavanya Narayan, a 25-year-old media professional, admits to having been raised in a dysfunctional family. Growing up, she was frequently beaten by her overly-protective father. Says she, “The first ever time I was victim to my father’s rage was when he discovered I liked a boy when I was 12. This kind of punishment also extended to other things I did–like not scoring well in a test or watching Western TV shows.”
The physical abuse worsened as Lavanya grew older, resulting in her feeling a crippling sense of anxiety and fear all the time. She felt like she couldn’t be herself or share anything with her parents, so she turned into a chronic liar. Moving out of her parents’ house and seeking therapy helped her get to the root of her issues and work on resolving them.
Children are often compared to sponges; they are highly sensitive and receptive. So, it is impossible to shield them from every negative experience that comes their way, even at home.
In Lavanya’s case, the damage is obvious and the dysfunction clear as day. But in countless other examples, there is no physical violence involved, and yet, the children find themselves grappling with emotional issues. Emotional abuse, it is said, can be just as damaging as physical abuse. According to a study conducted at the University of California, Riverside, such abuse can permanently alter an individual’s response to stress, leading to anxiety, depression and adaptation issues.
While the effects of such dysfunction in the lives of the children are often disastrous, it’s not right to completely blame the parents. Often, they are stressed out, helpless or believe they are doing their best to protect or discipline their child. In many cases, the damage might even be inadvertent. Harshikaa Udasi is a mother of a 10-year-old boy. She has noticed that he often mimics his parents’ behaviour. She says, “Sometimes, when my husband and I have an argument, and we raise our voices in front of our son, we immediately realise it’s a mistake. Our aggression makes our son aggressive too. So, as a parent, I believe it is necessary to communicate with the child, and apologise when you’ve made a mistake.”
Harshikaa has a point. It could make a positive difference for parents to acknowledge they are only human and apologise when they err. Unfortunately, in most Indian families, parents often have an I-know-best attitude. This could be an extremely harmful style of parenting, as it disregards the individuality of the children.
Children are often compared to sponges; they are highly sensitive and receptive. So, it is impossible to shield them from every negative experience that comes their way, even at home. Lakshmi S, a mother of a six-year-old, has found a novel way to deal with the issue. She says, “Children are shrewd. They understand more than we think they do. This is why my husband and I have learnt to explain our conflicts to our daughter and get her opinion. It makes her feel valued and responsible.”
Clearly, familial problems need not create dysfunction, especially if the adults are conscious of their behaviour. Dysfunction is a spectrum that comprises everything from the smallest of misunderstandings to outright abuse. The smaller issues could be fixed with open communication between all family members, including the children. But sometimes, especially with bigger issues, the time might be past for corrections and reconciliation. In such cases, it is best for the children to move on as they grow, and try to recover on their own. Where recovery proves hard, the individual may need to seek professional help to overcome the challenging remnants from their childhood.
The shadow of our past maybe dark, but we don’t have to let it loom over our future. By dealing with the bitter memories and putting them behind us, we can begin to recover from the damage. Difficult as it might seem, forgiving our loved ones for their shortcomings might just be the key to restore our peace of mind. That way, we can bid goodbye to the hurtful patterns, close the door on our past, and head towards a healthy future.