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The Importance of Empathic Parenting

by Jan Hunt

Swiss therapist and author Alice Miller does not mince words: "Any person who abuses his children has himself been severely traumatized in his childhood... there is no reason for child abuse other than the repression of the abuse and confusion once suffered by the abuser himself."1 How, then, does an abused child overcome painful experiences enough to give his own children more love than he himself was given? Are such children, as they reach adulthood, doomed to repeat an endless cycle of anger, abuse, and retaliation? Or are there ways to stop the cycle, and learn more empathic, responsive ways of treating children?

While every hurtful parent was himself hurt in childhood, repetition of this pattern is not inevitable: some abused children grow up determined to give their own children the childhood they missed. My father, who was sometimes beaten, and sometimes belittled, by his father, expressed it as the desire "to give my children a better life than I had." But the apparent simplicity of this statement is an illusion. It actually encompasses two complex steps: first, the parent must gain an awareness that he or she did indeed experience abuse in childhood. This is the most difficult step, because abusive experiences of childhood are so painful that we suppress them; they may thus become unavailable to us even when we feel ready to confront our emotional limitations. As Dr. Miller explains, "Many people can scarcely remember the torments of their childhood because they have learned to regard them as a justified punishment for their own 'badness' and also because a child must repress painful events in order to survive." However, it is not inevitable that every abused child become an abuser himself, "if, during childhood, he had the chance - be it only once - to encounter someone who offered him something other than pedagogy and cruelty: a teacher, an aunt, a neighbor, a sister, a brother. It is only through the experience of being loved and cherished that the child can ever discern cruelty as such, be aware of it, and resist it."

Awareness is not enough, though, to stop the cycle of abuse. The second step toward this goal is that the parent must learn new ways of relating to children, ways that she may have seldom, or never, witnessed as a child herself. How can such a parent learn to treat her own children with dignity and respect?

Dr. Elliott Barker, Director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse, recommends four critical steps which all prospective parents can take to raise emotionally healthy children, "no matter how inadequate their own past experience of nurturing has been":2

  1. A positive birthing experience. As Dr. Barker explains, "If both parents are present at the birth, and there is a positive birthing experience, the mother and father are very likely to fall in love with their baby ... the hard work of looking after their child feels much less like hard work; they're obsessed with how wonderful their baby is."
  2. Extended breastfeeding. "Breastfeeding until the child no longer requires it is another of those things a mother can do which will cause other good things to happen... as if by magic. Breastfeeding keeps you in love with your child. Extended breastfeeding can help the mother-infant attachment survive rough times which might otherwise lead to emotional unavailability and detachment."
  3. Minimal separations and consistency of caregivers. According to pediatrician William Sears, only the parent "is perfectly attuned to the child's needs. Being away from him during stressful times deprives him of his most valuable support and also deprives you of a chance to further cement your friendship... Babies learn to accept unfulfilled needs, but at the cost of lowered self-esteem and the capacity to trust."3
  4. Careful spacing of children. According to Dr. Barker, "it requires an enormous amount of time and energy on the part of both parents to adequately nurture one child under the age of three. Spacing children is one important thing that parents can do to prevent the exhaustion that occurs when well-intentioned parents take on the very difficult task of trying to meet the emotional needs of closely spaced children."

These four steps have a profound effect on the entire family. Not only do they establish the capacity to love and trust within the child, they also help the parents to heal from the pain of their own childhood. By establishing a close bond of love and trust between parent and child, these steps can halt the cycle of abuse in one generation. Dr. Miller assures us that "It is absolutely impossible for someone who has grown up in an environment of honesty, respect, and affection ever to feel driven to torment a weaker person...He has learned very early on that it is right and proper to provide the small, helpless creature with protection and guidance; this knowledge, stored at that early stage in his mind and body, will remain effective for the rest of his life." Such a child will grow up with a profound conviction that it is wrong to hurt another human being.

Unfortunately, many new parents are unaware of these four critical steps. Abusive parents, who have themselves never experienced unconditional love and trust, may find it difficult to learn new ways of relating to their children. What can be done for these families? Dr. Miller believes that changes in legislation can force parents to "come to terms with their past" when "the child is no longer available as a legal scapegoat." In Scandinavia, there are laws prohibiting child abuse - not only physical and sexual assault, but also spanking and bullying. These laws do not carry penalties; they are intended to raise public awareness of the legitimate needs and rights of children. Will such legislation be effective, when all else has failed? Dr. Miller believes that "every human being caught in a trap will search for a way out. And at heart he is glad and grateful if he is shown a way out that does not lead to guilt or to the destruction of his own children... In most cases, parents are not monsters - they are desperate children who must first learn to see reality and become aware of their responsibility."

Through the loving treatment of children by those who interact with families, educational programs that emphasize the four steps of empathic parenting, and new legislation, the relentless cycle of abuse can be stopped. Fortunately, the capacity to love and trust, once established within a child, can transfer down through the generations as readily as can mistrust and cruelty. Dr. Miller assures us that "It is quite simply not true that human beings must continue compulsively to injure their children... Injuries can heal and need not be passed on, provided they are not ignored. It is perfectly possible... to be open to the messages from our children that can help us never again to destroy life but rather to protect it and allow it to blossom."
 

 
1
Miller, Alice. Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries. New York: Anchor Press, new edition, 1997.
2 Barker, Elliott. Film Guide to CSPCC Videotape "When You Can't Feel No Love", 1991.
3 Sears, William, M.D. Creative Parenting: How to Use the Attachment Parenting Concept to Raise Children Successfully from Birth Through Adolescence. Montreal: Optimum Publishing International, 1987.

Portuguese translation

Polish translation
 

 
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers telephone counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting, unschooling, and personal matters. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.
 
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