Why Children Idealize Their 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 towards the 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.
In conclusion, it is worth pointing out that 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.
Sidebar : For those who have watched all episodes of ‘This Country’ on the BBC (available on iplayer), Kerry’s relationship with her father offers a brilliant and moving satire of the kind of blind, psychologically self-defensive idealization of a malevolent parent described above.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.