Blog 12. How It All Starts: Emotionally Smothering A Child – Is The Same As Abandoning A Child. Find Out Why.
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Following in the footsteps of my previous blog on Narcissism, this blog goes a step deeper – I explain why emotionally smothering a child is similar to abandoning a child.
Many years of client observation led me to realise that an emotionally smothered child presented similar aspects to an abandoned child. Even though the two narratives, emotional abandonment versus emotional smothering, appeared to be on opposite sides of the scale and experienced differently, when examined more closely the outcome is usually the same:
Using 2 examples, I will explain the main 2 forms of emotional smothering, then I will explain how an emotional smothered child struggles with relationships in adulthood. Then I’ll explain why emotional smothering is similar to emotional abandonment.
What is emotional smothering?
Example 1: The first example I always used to begin my explanation is initially quite subtle. It then builds to more complex reasons as to why emotionally smothering a child is similar to abandoning a child:
If a parent takes a child to a park to play and the child wants to climb a tree, it is expected that the parent let go of their fears, irrespective of whether the child may or may not hurt itself. Normally the parent will allow the child to explore and climb the tree possibly with much caution and advice. If a child is still given permission to explore that tree, the child leaving the parent may run or walk away and yet they may still first hesitate and glance back at the parent for reassurance. And in an ideal situation, the parent will continue to encourage the child to be adventurous.
In other words, the notion and expectation of parenting is to teach a child how to become a fully functioning and independent adult.
Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Unfortunately, the needs of the parent sometimes gets in the way of a child being allowed to develop emotional independence.
If a parent has never ‘climbed a tree’ and lacks self confidence the child may pick up on the hesitation. This might stop the child from being adventurous especially if it senses danger – danger being not just about falling out of the tree and breaking a leg, but also the emotional danger or the emotional expectations of a parent. Climbing a tree with the possibility of breaking a leg, can distress a cautious or timid parent. It however, can also create anxiety in an overly possessive parent.
If a child senses that the parent needs them to fulfil a gap in the parent’s emotional life, they may soon realise that in order to keep the parent’s love and praise, it is better to maintain the status quo. A dictionary explanation of the phrase status quo is “in the state in which things were before the war”. The child may learn that what is expected is to remain at mummy’s side at all times, as this keeps friction within the family at bay.
Children are like sponges, they absorb everything – and mostly it’s the unspoken that gets ingested consciously and unconsciously. They watch and they see ‘the actions that speak louder than words’.
The child may sense that a parent might feel abandoned or rejected if they sense that the child is attempting to leave them in any way. So the parent may get angry. (This I also discussed in my previous blog with regards narcissism).
Consequently, the child can start to feel stifled, resentful and even angry, if they begin to feel emotionally controlled or manipulated by a parent. The child may turn this anger inward: They may stop trying out new things. Their school life, their grades, their sport activities as well as possible weight issues can be affected. They can just give up.
A child can begin to loose it’s identity and self confidence if they sense that they are there to please a parent – even if it only means that pleasing a parent requires achieving outstanding exam results and a career that a child doesn’t feel they can fulfil. They may become very angry and resentful at the parent’s negation of their identity.
On the other hand, the child may have gathered that in order to keep the peace and in order to maintain the love and admiration of their parent the best policy would be to do as the parent wishes. This is how the non-rebellious child can become emotionally numb.
Example 2: The second example I used is when a parent uses a child as an emotional surrogate substitute husband or wife. A child may be used as a substitute in one-parent families or if either of the parents is frequently absent or emotionally unavailable.
This could have varying consequences from a child experiencing resentment, anger, claustrophobia to becoming withdrawn, resigned, compliant even depressed or emotionally numb.
This anger could be directed at both parents – the parent that uses the child and the other for allowing it to happen in the first place.
The likely result of smothering is that by the time the child is expected to leave home it either can’t, or if they do manage to leave, they ‘run a mile’ to get away.
In normal healthy situations the child would gradually leave and feel free to return home whenever necessary (depending on their financial situation) until they get married and create families of their own.
Usually the smothered child would find cutting the umbilical cord very difficult and becoming independent would be just as difficult to achieve. If the parent has narcissistic tendencies then leaving home would be excruciating for all involved. The child would feel guilty for abandoning the parent whereas the parent feeling rejected may get very angry and often they may resort to threats, or further bullying in order to hang on emotionally to their child.
Consequently, when the child becomes an adult, they may even continue to stay at home. Obedience to a needy and manipulating parent may result in the child/adult using various excuses to stay at home.
Yet a huge resentment and a frustration may lie deep within for not being able to escape. This emotional paralysis will of course not bode well for developing self-confidence in the child/adult. This can cause terrible resentment, anger and guilt, not only towards the parent but also towards themselves for not having the courage to cut the ties.
The Emotionally Smothered Child And Relationships In Adulthood:
The emotionally smothered child would find having relationships very difficult. Dealing with a possessive and jealous parent, and having a relationship or even friends of their own, would just incur more guilt.
For those however, who are able to wrench themselves from the family and snap the umbilical cord, the result is that they hardly if at all, return home.
This can be traumatic for parents and the child, causing isolation and loneliness.
In other cases, a child may actually leave home but if they are still emotionally tied to the parent, they may feel tremendous guilt and disloyalty for leaving the parent. A relationship or even marriage (to someone else) may feel like a betrayal. Plus, any emotional demands made or asked of them from either the parent of their new partner would be difficult. It would remind them of the emotional smothering experienced in childhood.
There are many people who find giving emotionally to partners in adulthood really hard because so much was expected of them at home – this should not be under-estimated.
In adulthood, emotionally smothered people can sometimes attract partners who are older and who can supply them with the emotional needs that they never got as children.
Sometimes a parent might have to die, before the emotional tie or umbilical cord is ever broken and in this case, grief can be experienced as feelings of huge relief.
Usually the emotionally abandoned child or adult learns quickly to deal with loneliness and isolation. They learn that their own needs are secondary.
Even though they may crave intimacy because they have learnt that their needs come second, developing a close and intimate relationship would be very difficult and this result is similar to what the abandoned child would feel deep down – that they are unworthy of intimacy or that intimacy is too scary to develop so they run a mile.
To Reiterate: How Emotionally Smothering Is Similar To Emotionally Abandoning A Child:
As explained in previous blogs, the abandoned child may begin feeling that they’ve been abandoned because there’s something wrong with them. Then they may begin to internalise these feelings of worthlessness and consequently find ways of punishing themselves. This I have discussed in previous blogs.
The smothered child however, can feel abandoned for different reasons. If their needs have been overlooked, put aside and ignored for the sake of the parent’s needs, this in itself is a form of emotional abandonment.
Consequently both the abandoned child and the emotionally smothered child would experience common feelings of rage, anger, sadness, resentment, they may withdraw, become resigned, even emotionally numb.
However, the difference is that the abandoned child usually is extremely needy of affection. This neediness can actually drive people away therefore having the opposite effect to the required love they so crave. This may also mean that being unable to deal with the intimacy they so crave, they may unfortunately land up isolated once again.
The emotionally smothered child feeling claustrophobic within relationships may also push people away. Having been required to obey and constantly give emotionally to the needy parent entering an adult relationship may be extremely difficult. The fear that people may once again expect too much would loom large. So they too may land up being isolated and lonely – yet if asked they would easily choose this option above being expected to give of themselves once again.
So both the abandoned and the emotional smothered child can land up finding intimacy hard to achieve, relationships difficult to sustain and they might even land up living alone.
As a result of a narcissistic parent or an emotionally needy parent, a child can feel emotionally smothered. They can also feel smothered if they are not allowed to naturally develop their independence. Parents who have self confident issues may prevent through their often hidden messages can prevent children from exploring life and developing their own sense of self. Achievement expectations from parents can also be smothering to a child especially if the expectations don’t match that of the child’s hopes and desires.
Emotional smothering is therefore similar to abandonment. Emotionally smothering a child can also imply that the child is not good enough to do anything much without the parent. It implies that the child has no confidence and is not capable. Most importantly it implies a lack of trust in the child and the child may grow up lacking self-confidence or a sense of self worth. Or if the child feels forced by the parent into a career or a marriage and so on the child may feel resentful and very angry. This could lead to depression and emotional numbness.
By being an emotional extension of a parent the child and its identity or personality gets abandoned for the sake of the needs of a parent.
Sadly, patterns that start in childhood may not be so helpful in adulthood. Our parents leave us with all sorts of emotions that we may have to sort out in later on in life.
Understanding my blogs will give you a deeper understanding of how we all develop and what the issues are that prevent us from having constructive relationships. By the way, the second section of my blogs will help you understand how and why we choose relationships.
Knowledge is power. Getting to understand the issues will help you see what might be getting in your way of moving forward. Once you have begun to understand your self better then you can begin to make better life choices.
I always said the following to my clients, “Therapy is not about change. It is about understanding and then comes choice”.
Note: © 2014 Information Copyright Deidré Wallace
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