The most important aspect of emotionally healthy, loving discipline centers around the idea of control. Discipline should be designed to give the child control, to give them a choice. Too many parents think that the control should belong to the parent, but this is wishful thinking. You draw a distinct boundary and let your child know that he or she must not cross it. The choice to obey you belongs to them. Consequences will occur should they decide to ignore your boundary, obviously. But the locus of control belongs to them. After all, they must make choices their whole lives. It is never too early to start them learning to make good ones.
Emotionally abusive parents switch up the boundaries on a whim. A boundary yesterday may not be one today. Or conversely, something acceptable one day is the focus of extreme parental disapproval the next. This unpredictability destroys a child’s ability to form their own internal boundaries. Instead, they vacillate from self-indulgence to extreme self-loathing because that is the external message they receive. They receive mixed messages about what is acceptable and what is not, destroying the possibility of a stable self-image.
Healthy discipline seeks to fit the punishment to the crime. If a child doesn’t obey a curfew, he or she loses the privilege to go out the next time. Failure to do chores results in some extra work. The more connected the consequence is to the actual disobedience, the more concrete the lesson becomes. This helps develop a sense of justice in a child; the idea that wrongs can be righted, restitution made, and forgiveness obtained.
In abusive homes, punishments vary widely, even for the same infractions. I cringe whenever I see parents use humiliation as a punishment for their teenagers. Instead of linking the behavior to the consequence, they rely on heavy-handed techniques that teach a child that life is unfair. While life is often unfair, we as adults have the choice to be fair in our dealings. Destroying the fragile self-esteem of a child is harsh and destroys their sense of self.
For those parents who do not think self-esteem is important, the Bible frequently tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we do not love ourselves, we have none to extend to others. Furthermore, while narcissism is always to be discouraged, the most precious gift God has given us is the gift of our own life. The world is filled with people who throw that gift away because they were never shown their own value.
The last important thing to understand about justice is that parents must differentiate between mistakes and deliberate disobedience. A parent can deeply injure the heart of their child if they do not seek to understand the motivation behind the behavior. Even God, in giving the law in Numbers, differentiates between purposeful disobedience and accidents. Abusive parents do not give any credence to accidents, but instead look to assign blame. This will cause children to become blamers as well as terrified to accept the consequences of their actions.
Mature adults understand their actions often have unintended consequences and undertake the responsibility for those actions. We can actually nurture narcissism in our children with overly harsh punishments, shaming, and injustice. These teach a child that they must never be at fault. They learn to blame everyone else for their mistakes, whether willful or not.
A nurturing parent will create ways for the child to please the parent. Parents who cannot be pleased deny their children any sense of accomplishment. I think that this is one of the deepest roots of anxiety today. Children whose parents did not express pleasure in them grow up to feel isolated. They can never good enough, and are terrified of the poor opinions of others.
One way to accomplish this is to teach chores incrementally and in an age-appropriate manner. I painfully remember expecting my oldest to pick up her room at the age of two. Such a thing was completely beyond her capacity. She did not even know where to begin. When I began to give her specific instructions that involved smaller pieces of the bigger picture, she enthusiastically participated. Her success made us both happy.
Abusive parents expect performance without instruction. Their discipline always involves instructions that sound like if a job is not worth doing right, it is not worth doing at all. While that sounds good on the surface, it simply isn’t true. Attitudes like this develop a perfectionistic and performance-oriented child into an anxious and paralyzed adult. Many jobs are worth doing imperfectly. If we had to do everything perfectly, then we would never leave our houses!
Discipline should be age appropriate as well, giving ample opportunity for the child to make up for the behavior. Abusive parents demand their child please them and yet make it impossible to do so. This is so injurious to the spirit and soul of a child.
Emotionally healthy discipline recognizes that the child is not the sum of their misdeeds. Once a misdemeanor is dealt with, it is no longer dwelt on. Loving parents are quick to extend forgiveness and declare their child innocent. If we do not see our children as people worthy of love and dignity, they will not see themselves in that fashion. This can create a permanent division between the child and God. They will be unable to believe in grace or unconditional love, never having experienced it.
Unhealthy discipline attaches guilt to the child. More than merely saying you are a bad girl, which is bad enough, abuse uses lectures and constant reminders of past failings to force the child into compliance. Labeling a child or failing to welcome a child back in reconciliation teaches them that mistakes are permanent and that they themselves are the sum of their misdeeds. Without forgiveness, love cannot grow.
The goal of parenting is in part to nurture a sense of unique identity within the heart of a child. This requires listening to a child and engaging in discussion. Because I told you so may occasionally have its place in discussions with an argumentative child. But abuse will provoke a child to anger and allow no emotional outlet. Disagreement is seen as defiance and the child exists only as a mirror image of the parent.
We must nurture good boundaries within the souls of our children by allowing them to say no, even to us at times. Giving a child personal space allows them to develop a healthy identity and does not force them into looking like the perfect child for the sake of our own ego.
The fruits of inappropriate parenting are so painful. If you suffer from one of these following symptoms, you may have some healing to accomplish. This is especially important if you have your own children. You can stop generational patterns only by owning up to what is true. You may have had abusive parents if you regularly:
- Feel out of control of your own life. Circumstances swirl around you and you have a variety of compulsive behaviors that you feel powerless to stop.
- Cannot receive forgiveness. If you can’t let your mistakes go, you may need to learn to experience forgiveness on the inside, where it really counts.
- Think everything is your fault. Even if it isn’t your fault, you still feel guilty. You feel guilty by default.
- Feel unable to be authentic. Masks feel safer. Besides, you aren’t even really sure who you really are.
- Can upsell any tragedy. Abusive parents do not allow the expression of negative emotion without enacting negative consequences. Their children spend a lot of time trying to convince everyone around them that everything is ok as a result.
- Believe you are a bad person. You spend your life waiting to be found out and exposed for the horrible person you really are.
I wish that no one ever needed to read articles like this. The number of people I minister to testify to the idea that the world is filled with parents who lack parenting skills. Fortunately, we have a Father in heaven who has adopted us. He’s pretty good at this whole parenting thing since He did invent it. Let Him take you under His wings today and minister healing to the hurting child inside you.
If any of these abusive parenting styles sound familiar to you, I highly suggest digging deeper to understand your family of origin.
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