A particularly devastating form of emotional abuse is when parents or primary caregivers treat their children with contempt.
Psychologists define contempt as a blend of two primary human emotions – anger and disgust. Acting contemptuously towards an individual also entails treating him/her as a much inferior being (eg. intellectually, morally).
Sometimes this contemptuous treatment may be relatively subtle and insidious, perhaps involving making, on the surface, seemingly neutral remarks but delivering such remarks in a condescending tone, perhaps with a slight, barely perceptible, smug, superior and self-satisfied sneer or smirk.
Or, at other times, the expression of contempt may be flagrant and overt; at such times, the parent may take a sadistic delight in humiliating their child.
When a child is treated in such a way, his/her morale, sense of worth and confidence are gradually eroded away and destroyed.
Why Do Some Parents Treat Their Children With Contempt?
Often such parents are narcissists who have a powerful need to make themselves feel ‘superior to’, ‘above’ and ‘better’ than others.
Many psychotherapists regard people who feel the need to treat others with contempt as employing a psychological defense mechanism that protects them from facing up to their own repressed feelings of shame, unworthiness and inferiority – in other words, they DENY these feelings about themselves, and PROJECT them on to others.
However, the child, of course, does not realize the parent is behaving as s/he does due to his/her own buried feelings of inferiority and is therefore very likely to end up internalizing the parent’s contemptuous attitude to him/ her.
If, when we were growing up, we internalized our parents’ negative and contemptuous attitude towards us, and, now, as adults, and as a result, have come to see ourselves as ‘of little worth’, ‘inferior’, ‘unlovable’ etc, therapy may be necessary in order to rid ourselves of such erroneous beliefs. There is evidence to suggest that, in this regard, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be of particular benefit.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)