Blog 96. Parenting: Did you know that self-harm is often rooted in emotionally or physically absent fathers or fathers who are critical and demanding– especially when a child is between 3-6 years of age?
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As seen from the information and shocking statistics provided in Blog 94, it’s becoming more and more apparent that fathers have a very important role to play in the lives of their children. This was certainly true throughout my years of client and relationship observation.
This role is often not always recognised or fully understood – that fathers have an important role to play in the emotional development of their children and especially when they are aged around 3-6. Although more prevalent in daughters than in sons, if fathers are absent, especially during this stage, then it could lead to all sorts of repercussions like self-harm or self-destructive behaviours.
Let me explain why:
The consequences of an absent father as a result of separation, divorce or indeed through death.
If for whatever reason, a father (or indeed any parent) is:
- Either emotionally or physically absent through separation, divorce or indeed through death, it is rare that a child does not blame themselves for that loss or,
- If a father is controlling and deeply critical, this can be experienced as a deeply wounding form of abandonment resulting in doubt and a loss of self-esteem.
Usually children are quick to immediately start wondering what they did to push a parent away or what they could’ve done better, to keep a parent. Unfortunately, it never occurs to many – that it was not their fault or that their parent can at times be an emotional idiot.
But, if these feelings are not spoken about, they could get buried. And what is often not properly identified is the massive grief a child can experience when losing a parent – even if it’s only through emotional unavailability. (But even if feelings ARE spoken about, sometimes the hurt can still linger for many years to come).
Unfortunately, these feelings can affect a child’s self-esteem as they begin to worry what they did wrong to send daddy (or indeed mummy) away. These questions can override any sensible thinking because emotions as we know – are not always rational. Consequently, grief can become a symbolic container that can carry an assortment of emotions, especially if they feel that it was their fault that a parent left or became unavailable.
Unfortunately, these buried emotions can lead to children acting out their emotions and this can be done in various ways.
The emotions that are usually acted out can range from acute and intense feelings of grief, blame, shame, anger and ugliness. These feelings can intensify and this can lead to daily critical and habitual hatred of themselves, along with feeling that, “I am bad and therefore I need to be punished”, and so on. Unfortunately, when children or young adults choose to act out these feelings, it often leads to negative or even destructive results.
And how a child chooses to act out negative emotions can differ from child to child.
Sometimes they can start acting up at school, or they can stop doing their homework, or privately they can start finding ways of punishing themselves for whatever they feel they did wrong. Unfortunately, this can go on for quite a while without any parental knowledge because usually it is done in secret and because usually the feelings are private too.
Adults don’t often realise that children and even young adults do not actually have the capacity or indeed adequate emotional or mature language, to explain themselves. Often they are still grappling with who they are and all the other things teenagers deal with. So even if they are confronted, it is often difficult to get much sense out of them – because sometimes their feelings can be felt so intensely that words never seem to do much justice. Or indeed finding the words that compliment the emotions can be hard for kids – let alone adults.
And sometimes they choose to act out these emotions publicly.
If it’s done publicly then usually it is through social media, demonstrations, gangster activity, art installations, grafitti and so on. Some may consider this as a constructive method of releasing feelings. But these days self-harm, eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa and so on, are less constructive and often done privately in the confines of bedrooms when no one is looking.
And as already discussed in my previous Blog, social media or what is currently ‘in fashion’, isn’t helping this problem area. Some sites even advocate self-harming and so on. And often this can become a shared group activity. If found not to be participating, teasing can result or they may even feel left out and so often peer pressure can be a cause of worry too.
But as I always say, “Early buried emotions often rear their ugly heads – and when they choose to do so – is never really convenient or even appropriate.
Unaddressed feelings can emerge at any stage whether a child is a young adult or even much later on in life. And usually it starts with depression, leading to even more serious conditions and possibly even suicide, and so on.
However, an area that needs to be understood more fully is the period of child development – when a child is age 3-6. And if a father is absent, particularly during this stage, this can cause further and more far-reaching traumas:
Age 3-6, is an important period when sexuality, identity, power and control are worked out, and when both parents are required to be present to assist in the process. Sigmund Freud called this the ‘Oedipal Stage’.
In Blog 38 and 39, you may remember me writing that if there is only one thing you ever get to know about psychology, it should be Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal Stage. I explained why, and I suggest you go back and read it, as it will certainly give you a deeper understanding of the psychology behind much of our behaviour. I also urge you to read Blog 94 and 95, as the information in this blog follows on from that too.
But how exactly does Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal Stage apply?
This is because this is the stage when children start working things out and asking questions. It’s when they start experimenting with their power – made especially clear when little girls dressed in their pink dresses, sit and flirt on daddy’s knee, whilst ‘wrapping him right round their little finger’. And if she wears pink she knows this sweetness will probable melt his heart too.
Simply put, it is when children work out how relationships work. It is when they find out who belongs to whom: mummy belongs to daddy, and I have a daddy, or I have a mummy, but they are together, so where do I stand, and so on. It is therefore a very important stage when a lot gets worked out and worked through.
And children around the age of about 3 to 6, begin to test their power as expressed in tantrums and so on. This is when they test to see whether they can get away with the game or not – depending on which parent is available at the time.
And they also begin to study their genitals – realising that if they have a penis they are boys or if they have a vagina they are girls. And this has traditionally how the difference between girls and boys has been designated. And during this period they can be seen testing their power as they either gain more of mummy or daddy’s attention.
But if daddy were to suddenly disappear, a daughter especially at this stage, may feel utterly bereft and worried that she had done something wrong to push or send him away.
Suddenly the person she trusted and who allowed her to grow into womanhood, but who she knew would praise and protect her is gone – can be devastating for children. And if she had brothers whom mummy bonded with, her struggle would be made all the more difficult, as her assured support system will have gone.
Also, and if whilst still working through the Oedipal stage, a parental loss is experienced, and if this grief is not addressed or spoke about, then also, many children often land up emotionally stuck, having been unable to work sufficiently through either the Oedipal Stage or the grief experienced.
Years ago, whilst I was training as a therapist, an older colleague informed me that self-harm and gender issues were on the increase and that often it was as a direct result of an absent father.
I was left intrigued. But over the years what she said began to make sense.
Self-harm and gender issues are complex areas to understand but it is only really complicated if there is no knowledge of psychology or in particular and once again – an understanding of Sigmund Freud ‘s Oedipal Stage and how it pertains to a child’s development and their relationships later on in life.
Unfortunately this important stage is often either forgotten, or it just doesn’t get taken into account and as a result, many areas often remain unnecessarily perplexing or mystifying.
But why are self-harm issues related particularly to fathers?
As I have already written, the Oedipal Stage is an important stage of development. During this stage daughters need their fathers, as they will as teenagers again – but why?
1. Fathers don’t always realise that their masculinity counterbalances a mother’s femininity:
If a father is not present to help a child (especially a daughter) mirror and reflect back the difference between male and female roles, then this can lead to a lack of confidence, and strangely enough – confusion and an uncertainty about her body or who she is.
Furthermore, fathers can help their daughters via compliments and guidance, to develop their self-esteem and body image.
But when this is lacking, a daughter may struggle, and in particular, she may develop confidence issues and she may find herself uncomfortable around people of the opposite sex. This could lead to all sorts of self-doubts, questions and uncertainty and so on.
2. The consequences of an emotionally unavailable or critical father:
But also, if the loss was more as a result of an emotionally unavailable parent or if a parent sent out the wrong messages or for whatever reason, a child felt inadequate, unloved, criticised, maligned or just not good enough, this could also lead to a type of grief and a loss. Feeling unloved can also cause massive feelings of anger, confusion and guilt. A child may wonder what it is about them that is so unworthy or undeserving of a parent’s attention.
As I have already stated, if a parent leaves or in this case, if a father leaves the family for whatever reason, this usually results in a child feeling helpless and not in control, (because usually there is very little they can do to bring daddy back), one way they can counterbalance this feeling, is to self-harm via the need to punish themselves.
But once they begin to slash themselves, the endorphins released by the brain may lead to more cutting and so on. And consequently, self-harm can become a behavioural addiction – which in itself can be another form of self-punishment.
Then I Googled and found these statistics in the UK:
The NHS in the United Kingdom has released data that shows that the number of admissions to hospital of girls aged 18 and under for self-harm had almost doubled in two decades, from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017.
The Children’s Society estimates that 109,000 children aged 14 may have self-harmed across the UK during the 12-month period in 2015 – 76,000 girls and 33,000 boys.
The NSPCC says common reasons for self-harming include:
- having relationship problems with family or friends.
- pressure at school
- emotional abuse
Matthew Reed, chief executive at The Children’s Society, said: “It is deeply worrying that so many children are unhappy to the extent that they are self-harming.
He continues, “Worries about how they look is a big issue, especially for girls, but this report shows other factors such as how they feel about their sexuality may be linked to their unhappiness.”
This proves further that sexuality is very much part of the problem and absent fathers and certainly absenteeism during the Oedipal stage, is certainly not helping. Neither is social media or many other factors – but at least we can begin to realise the importance of the role a father needs to play in his children’s lives.
But also, in the case of boys – boys desperately need a father whilst growing up. They need a role model and they need a mentor – so as to witness the role that a father or indeed husband plays within the family. If this is missing, this too can lead to possible self-harm and self-destructive behaviour, and certainly a lack of belonging or a sense of self-worth, along with all the issues raised through the worrying statistics in Blog 94.
Also but not least, our parent’s relationship becomes a child’s relationship blueprint. A child is like a sponge. They absorb everything there is to know about relationships from their parents. If this does not happen, it becomes very hard for a child to know how relationships work or how people stay together and work through things. But also it is evident that providing a feminine and a masculine foundation within the home helps children mirror and develop their own identities and therefore self-worth.
Absent fathers is an issue that certainly needs to be addressed and looked at far more carefully before these worrying statistics (as seen in blog 94) get out of hand and more kids have to deal with grief and further emotional confusion.
A parent’s role is to offer a child a safe and secure environment so that they can develop relationship skills and grow into fully functioning human beings having worked sufficiently through all the emotional stages human beings go though.
However, a critical, controlling, bullying or absent father/role model/mentor can leave a child traumatised and grief stricken for years to come – leading to self-harm, depression and all the other disorders we now know about.
As a child develops, how they develop becomes their preparation and indeed foundation for adult life and the relationships they will go on to have.
And sadly, even though a stepfather or male mentor may step in, this may only offer a partial and sometimes an inadequate emotional substitute. Often too – by the time they arrive on the scene, the Oedipal Stage will have passed, leaving the child with many unanswered emotional questions which may go unaddressed for years, buried as new issues arise.
It is therefore important that for a child’s sake we begin to become more aware of the issues at stake and the harm we adults may be imposing on our children.
And for the children to realise that it is safe for them to choose joy and self-acceptance rather than deny themselves happiness by living in fear, hatred and rejection. Getting to this stage can however, take a lot of hard work and it may require a will from deep within – to work through the messages they were given as to who they may or may not be.
© 2018 Deidré Wallace All rights reserved.
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