Why Children May Idealize Even Malevolent Parents

When people choose to have children, they are essentially creating a being who is biologically programmed to love them.

Children have a natural desire to view their parents positively. They have an intrinsic need (their very survival depends upon it) to bond with their parents and a natural inclination to show them affection; such affection, therefore, can very easily be triggered.

For this reason, children will often even show affection towards abusive parents – a child who is frequently hit, for example, may feel deep gratitude towards the parent simply for not hitting him/her on the occasions this parent manages to restrain him/herself.

It is psychologically too painful for a child to believe and fully confront the fact that someone with so much power over him/her is ‘bad’ and means him/her harm, so, as a psychological defence mechanism, the child of such a parent is likely to convince him/herself that it is s/he who is ‘bad’, not the parent, and thus somehow deserves the parent’s ill-treatment; in this way, the child can give him/herself  hope by telling him/herself: ‘if only I can be good, my parent will love me and treat me well.’

This is tragically sad and helps to explain why children who are abused by their parents tend to end up with such severely damaged self-esteem.

Furthermore, abusive parents themselves almost always have very low self-esteem and are consequently usually highly intolerant of any criticism, often becoming highly, perhaps dangerously, enraged if their children dare to defy their authority or undermine them in any way (this was certainly the case with my own mother). Even sensing the child’s disapproval of him/her (i.e. the parent) can spark terrifying aggression (verbal or otherwise). Many children, therefore, both consciously and unconsciously, learn to hide their negative feelings toward their parent and ‘overlook’ their faults.

Another psychological defence mechanism a child may use to exonerate his/her transgressing parent is to blame others for the parent’s wrong-doing; for example, the child may tell him/herself: ‘if only the pub landlord had not served my mother/father so many drinks tonight, s/he wouldn’t have lost his/her temper and beaten me up.‘ Such a psychological defence is known by psychologists as displacement.

Finally, a child may use another defence mechanism to protect him/herself from seeing the parent in his/her true light – a process known as splitting; this might entail, for example, perceiving the parent as two separate entities, the ‘real, good‘ sober parent and the ‘drunk bad‘ parent. In this way, when the parent is operating in the mode of the ‘real, good‘ parent, the child can more easily dissociate this persona from the  ‘drunk, bad‘ one and more easily relate to him/her as if s/he were ‘wholly’ good.

Children tend not to have any point of comparison/reference when it comes to ‘what family life is like‘ and, therefore, very abnormal family situations may feel normal to the child thus making true, objective insight into one’s family’s psychological condition all the more opaque.

THE TRAUMA BOND

Counterintuitively, it is not uncommon for those who have been badly mistreated by parents or primary carers to still feel an affectionate bond with their abusers. This can be regarded as a kind of pathological relationship that involves the victim ‘identifying with his/her aggressor,’ to use the technical term.

Why should this odd form of emotional bonding between the victim of abuse and the perpetrator of this abuse occur? A leading theory in response to this puzzling question is that it is an unconscious process designed to keep the victim safe. But how would this be? Well, it is hypothesized that if the victim can persuade him/herself that s/he has some understanding, sympathy and positive regard for his/her abuser, and acts in a manner that reflects such feelings, the perpetrator is more likely to reciprocate the positive regard and therefore less likely to seriously harm the victim.

The term ‘identification with the aggressor’ was first coined by Sandor Ferenczi and the concept was developed by Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund Freud). In psychoanalytic terms, it falls into the category of ‘defence mechanisms. When the victim ‘identifies with the aggressor,’ it means s/he (the victim) internalizes his/her (the aggressor’s) attitudes and behaviours; again, this can be seen as a way in which the victim strengthens the emotional bond with the aggressor.

Example Of Traumatic Bonding:

An example of such a paradoxical relationship would be that of a violent father and a physically maltreated son. Because the son is dependent upon the father, he (the son) might internalize his father’s violent behaviour (e.g. by physically bullying peers at school) and attitudes (e.g. the importance of being ‘tough’, manly’ and of despising ‘weakness’). Furthermore, he (the son) may maintain affection and admiration for his father by, for example, being grateful for the material support the father provides, looking up to him because of his ‘masculinity’ and even by having gratitude towards the father for ‘keeping him inline’ with his severe approach to ‘discipline.’

When such a bond develops in the way described above it is also sometimes referred to as the ‘trauma bond’ or the ‘terrifying bond,’ Such pathological bonding has been documented as occurring in many scenarios beyond that which is described above, including between hostages and their captors (referred to as Stockholm Syndrome’) and even between concentration camp prisoners and their guards. And, perhaps best known of all, is the tragic situation when one partner repeatedly beats the other partner in a domestic setting yet the abused partner stays in the relationship and consistently refuses to report matters to the police out of a sense, despite everything, of love and loyalty.

Vicious Cycle Of Abuse:

Unfortunately, whilst such identification with the aggressor may work as an unconscious survival mechanism in some respects to some degree, the internalization of the aggressor’s attitudes and behaviours can lead to the child identifying with the violent father to such a degree that he himself becomes a violent father when he grows up, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse down through the generations.

Vital Importance Of Therapy/Interventions:

The danger of such a harmful cycle developing. then, makes it all the more urgent that perpetrators of such abuse seek immediate therapy and other appropriate interventions.

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Reference: Ferenczi, Sándor (1949) [1932]. “Confusion of the Tongues Between the Adults and the Child—(The Language of Tenderness and of Passion)”. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 30 (4): 225–230.