In my introductory piece, I had promised to explore the link between parenting and mental health, so here’s my take on the possible impact of a parent’s frustrations on a child’s mental health.
An adolescent child (in Standard 6) was sent to me by her teacher because of poor academic performance. The teacher felt she was very distracted and unable to focus and, having spoken to the parents a few times, she thought there may be more to the child’s problems than met the eye. So this young girl came to meet me and fortunately we were able to connect quite quickly.
On a little bit of probing, this young girl showed me some scars on her legs. Those were scars from her mother using a hot iron rod on her. I was unsettled. No matter how experienced you are as a counsellor, some situations still have the power to leave you numb. This was one such. Being a mother, with a daughter of almost a similar age, I couldn’t comprehend what was going on.
This needed a lot of work. I was preparing myself for the long-haul. I decided to meet the parents to understand the complete picture, or at least however much they would share with me. What could possibly compel a mother inflict such pain on her child?
After some persistent calling, the parents finally came. I learnt that the parents were both working full time. When the child’s academic performance started dropping, and she was assessed for a learning disability, the school called the parents and informed them of the need for more personalized attention. The school also started putting subtle pressure on the mother to pay more attention to the child. The mother, frustrated, gave up her full time job to attend to the child.
What were her frustrations? They were not only about having to give up her job for the sake of the child, but also around gender equations (why does the mother have to compromise on career and not the father?); self-esteem (having the external validation that a job could provide, and parenting could not); dissatisfaction with her marital relationship (why did the husband pressurize her to leave? Why does he not give her the validation she needs?); and anger at her parents/in-laws (why couldn’t they come and attend to her child?)
So much baggage! And there was probably more, but we could only get that far in our short time together since she didn’t come back after the first session.
And who was bearing the brunt of this baggage? An unsuspecting 13-year-old child who couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out why her mother hated her so much, when all her friends’ mothers seemed to adore their children. This child lived in fear of not knowing when her mother would lash out at her; she lived in pain – emotional and physical. And having been conditioned not to wash the family’s dirty linen in public, had no one to talk to and lighten her burden. She thought she was a curse to the family and that she was not good enough. It is no mystery, at least not to me, about why the child was so distracted in school.
I never met her after the first couple of sessions, because the parents chose to change her school. They did not come back, either for individual sessions or for family sessions which I was pushing hard for. After all, the school was the problem, not them!
Several questions remained with me, some of which I will raise here.
How would the situation have changed had the mother chosen to confront her own issues by recognizing them, accepting them and addressing them? I don’t for a moment grudge the mother her frustrations. Of course, they are valid. But if she had chosen to address them, she may not have been driven to pour them out onto her child. And the first step towards addressing them is recognizing them, acknowledging them, accepting them and then understanding what’s going on.
What has been the long-term impact of this dumping of personal frustration on the child’s mental health and wellbeing? While I have no data, I can only speculate. She may grow into an adult with very low self-esteem which will impact her future relationships, both on the personal and professional front. She may not be able to trust other relationships in her life. She may not achieve her potential because she will not have the safety net that is so essential to be able to step out of her comfort zone. She may become an overly anxious adult. And worse still, she may perpetuate the cycle of dumping her own frustrations on her children – having not known or experienced any other form of parenting herself.
For all you know, the mother was just perpetuating her own experience of growing up, as well.The sooner we recognize the pattern, and break the cycle, the sooner we can reclaim the wellbeing of our children. In the interest of our children’s mental health, let’s grab the reins and take the task of confronting our frustrations into our own hands. If not for ourselves, at least for our children. It’s not that we should not feel frustrated, or that it is wrong to feel that way. Getting frustrated by various situations is normal and natural. But just being mindful of that frustration and what it is leading us to do, will help us rein it in when needed.
The example I have given may seem a bit extreme, and we may tend to think that it does not relate to our situation, and therefore, we don’t need to pay attention to it. Yes, it is extreme, and the reason it stayed with me is precisely because of that. But sometimes to pay heed to something we need an ‘extreme’ reminder. The frustrations could come in much milder forms as well – a single mother trying to cope with the recent loss of her husband, having to bring up two adolescent children and hold herself together all the time; a mother having to focus equally on all of her five children while the father is away in another country; a step mother needing to prove her worth in her marital relationship by ensuring her step-child does well in academics; a stay-at-home mother fearing the loss of control and the loss of the purpose of her existence as her last child prepares to flee the coop. It could be anything, just anything.
Frustrations come in many forms – we need to recognize them, accept them, and own them as ours. Let’s spare our children from them.
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at email@example.com. Questions will be answered with the publication of this column every fortnight.