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Mommy Dearest: Bad parenting

Bad parenting imprints indelible damage upon people's personalities, coping skills and leaves them with very little confidence, self-esteem or the ability to trust other human beings, writes Tracie O'Keefe.

Are you the product of your parents' marvellous, poor, negligent or non-existent parenting skills? Will you as a parent elevate, enrich or catastrophise your children’s futures? Who gets the credit when it is going well? Where does the blame go when it all goes wrong?

These are the questions that families and their offspring ask themselves every day in my consulting room. Some are trying to find the answer to these questions that may have enriched or ruined their lives whilst others already know the benefits or dereliction of their parents' actions.

As adults hopefully most of us can remember wonderful times with our parents when we were children. Times when we felt safe, loved, cared for and very special.

For some people, however, bad parenting imprints indelible damage upon their personalities, coping skills and leaves them with very little confidence, self-esteem or the ability to trust other human beings. Parenting though is much more complicated than just getting it right or wrong. Children and their needs can be very demanding, often beyond the skills that young parents may possess.

Traditionally people lived in tribal groupings so there were always members of the extended family to lend a hand. An aunt to babysit, a grandmother to help around the home, or a brother for a new dad to talk to after the baby kept him up all night for a week.

By osmosis those traditional cultures have been able to pass on their parenting skills from generation to generation. In an industrialized society, however, new parents often find themselves isolated in distant locations from their birth families. Single parenting has become increasingly prevalent and sole parents often struggle to meet their daily needs. No matter where you are in the world there will be the rich and the poor divide, with some parents wrestling with poverty.

For some parents the basics of money, food, shelter, and safety are frequently an issue and under the vagaries of day to day survival those parents can find themselves not coping. There are times when young children need several hands and three pairs to eyes to stop them getting themselves into danger and when you are on your own it can prove tough.

If you are in a disaster zone like after the earthquake in Haiti there will be virtually no support to put your family back together again when you are competing for food and shelter with another million displaced people.

Post-natal depression, poverty, isolation, inadequate family support, poor social skills can all contribute to a young mother's load. Just recently I dealt with case of young woman who had had her children snatched for months by social services because she had fallen ill with swine flu.

They gave her no explanation why they were taking the children, except to say a complaint of negligence had been lodged against her  by her violent ex-partner; and she on her own, out of her depth, had to disprove the allegations. The incident was devastating to her as she went through feelings of grief, separation anxiety and guilt about not having been strong enough to evade a system that presumed her guilt.

One of the most common experiences for men of separated couples is the lack of child access. If an ex-wife or partner wants to be difficult and stop him seeming the children the courts find it very difficult to enforce visitation orders. The acrimony that may occur between an unresolved couple can frequently lead to the man walking away rather than subjecting the children to a war between the parents. Men’s rights to parenting throughout the world are far fewer than those of women, who hold the reproductive chalice.

Some children are different, may be disabled, have special needs, be gifted, or a wild child. Parents need to get whatever help they can and extra assistance in parenting these children for their own and their children’s sake.

Communities raise children, not just parents, and parents who make good use of those communities are more likely to produce social children who become social adults. Isolated children find it harder as adults to integrate into society and tend to be more isolated as adults with a greater propensity to problems such as depression and personality disorders. Sibling or peer play is a rehearsal process for life as an adult, just as it would be for puppies or kittens. It helps children manage and define boundaries in human relationships and how to negotiate them successfully.

If you were misparented and you carry that grief around with you like a familiar well oiled set of shackles - get help. Your children will pick up on those outstanding issues and you may pass those remorseful behaviours from your parents through your own behavioor onto your child, and down the generation it will go.

If you cannot afford a therapist, talk to your community leaders so that they can find someone to help you. Don’t leave it to rust, rot and fester until the fruit of the family is poisoned.

Families are meant to be loving, positive environments where you can go for praise, safety, validation and care, and not encounter judgementalism. Whether the family you create is heterosexual, gay, shared community or second and third families, ensure it is a respected sanctuary for all within.

Children like security, constancy, surety, familiarity and to know they can get help when they need it as they find their own personalities and grow up to be their own independent persons.

Treat your children like a bank. Invest in telling them you love them, they are special, their opinions matter and instill in them how lucky you are to be blessed with such a great gift as the opportunity to be their parent. Use the carrot never the stick.

Those little people remember everything when they grow up and you will be praised or held accountable for your actions and attitudes. Rewarding systems are a fantastic way to motivate youngsters.

Remember to allow them to succeed, within the bounds of their abilities, far far more often than they might fail. Explain that failure too is an opportunity to learn valuble life lessons and illustrate how you may have learnt from some of your failures.

Treat family time as something protected and celebratory and always more important than any other part of life. It's an old saying but a true saying that the family who eats together is more likely to stay together.

Just recently a friend came to our house and was surprised at the amount of photographs of the people we love we have on our walls. The older you get the more capable you are of forgiving your loved ones their misdemeanors and disasters; time and temperament become more valued. Create the culture of the family but with an open door to welcome and accept the outside world in your reverent community and happy place.

Most of our family is queer adopted. They are the mad collection of eccentrics we met along the way who became our treasured loved ones. Some we saw recently, others we have not seen for years and there are of course the ones who are no longer with us.

Before our last parents die we have made peace with them, and know that though they are a long way away, they will die knowing we love them. Into our life last year came a newborn - the child of two very close friends -  who enthralls me with his thirst for laughter.

Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or humanist is irrelevant at the end of the day. Each sect can produce wonderfully balanced, happy, life-affirming and engaging children and of course damaged children who will go on to suffer as adults.

Just remember, children are like post boxes – as a general rule what you put in is what you will get out later. Some day in the future they may be sitting in the therapy chair in my consulting room asking those very questions. Make sure they can smile when they mention you and your relationship with them.

Be proud you made the effort, very proud, very proud indeed. Fall in love with your children and your family.

Dr Tracie O'Keefe DCH, ND is an individual, couples and family therapist at the Australian Health & Education Centre in Sydney.


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