Why do children often idealize abusive parents?
When we are children, our own home environment is the only one we know; we have nothing to compare it with. Therefore, we may think such an environment is ‘normal’, even when, in reality, this is very far from the case indeed. In other words, we may believe that what we experience at home is just a part of life – one that everybody has to somehow tolerate and survive.
The child is utterly dependent upon the parent. Because of this, it is psychologically least uncomfortable for him/her to view the parent as essentially benign and as having his/her (i.e. the child’s) best interests at heart. To believe otherwise would be overwhelmingly psychologically distressing.
Also, abusive parents are likely to have low self-esteem, low confidence and a poorly developed sense of self. Because of this, they are also likely to be highly intolerant of any criticism. Indeed, if the child is critical of them, the parent may become hostile, angry, aggressive or otherwise punish the child.
It follows, therefore, that if the child is able to convince him/herself that the parent is, in fact, ‘good’, s/he is far less likely to criticise the parent and more likely to avoid punishment. In this way, idealizing the parent has, in evolutionary terms, ‘survival value’
Sadly, children who are abused by their parents almost invariably (and irrationally) blame themselves. For example, if the parent frequently displays hatred towards the child, the child may convince him/herself that it is his/her own fault and that any parent would act in this way towards him/her.
The child may then be unconsciously driven to ‘prove’ this to him/herself by behaving towards all adults in aggressive, hostile and rude ways with the (again unconscious) goal of alienating them (thus ‘proving’ his/her theory that s/he is intrinsically unlovable and an inspirer of the hatred of others all (not ‘just’ his/her parents).
Similarly, if the child is rejected by his/her parents, s/he may behave in ways that encourage others to reject him/her so that s/he can tell him/herself: ‘it’s not my parent who is at fault, it’s me.’
Such psychological devices help the child to perpetuate the myth of having parents who are not at fault.
Importantly, too, by blaming him/herself, rather than his/her patents, s/he gives him/herself the illusion s/he has control over the situation and the power to change it for the better. His/her reasoning may be as follows: ‘If I change my behaviour my parents will treat me well.’
Sometimes the child will attempt to maintain a ‘perfect’ image of the abusive parent, where this is blatantly a false image, by a psychological process known as splitting.
It involves (unconsciously) mentally splitting off the parent’s negative characteristics and behaviours by attributing their cause to something external to the parent (thus exonerating the parent from personal responsibility for them).
For example, if a mother screams hate-filled abuse at the child (as my own mother was prone to doing) the child may tell him/herself it is ‘only’ because she is overtired.
Or, if a drunken father hits his child, the child may reason that it’s ‘only’ because of the alcohol or because ‘all men are naturally physically aggressive’ (thus attributing the father’s behaviour to his gender).
A final example of splitting, in this case attributing the cause of the behaviour to another person, is that of a child telling him/herself that the father only abandoned him/her because the mother was impossible to live with (indeed, my own father gave this as a reason for leaving the family home when I was eight. I internalised and accepted this; indeed, I only came to question its validity relatively recently. It also begs the question, of course, of why he left an eight-year-old with such a mother).
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).