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Why I think emotionally smothering a child is the same as abandoning a child

One relationship therapist and teacher's experiences with clients inspired her to create a system to address the similarities between children that are confronted with these circumstances

Why I think emotionally smothering a child is the same as abandoning a child

Photo by Deidre Wallace

Photo by Deidre Wallace

As a relationship therapist and teacher, and formerly owning a private practice for nearly 20 years, I came across a number of areas that were either unaddressed or required further explanation. This led me to develop my step-by-step relationship knowledge system to share my knowledge with a wider audience.

A particular area that I stumbled upon and often led clients to feel seen, heard, or understood – for the first time, ever.


Through years of client observations, I got to recognize this area when it became clear to me that emotionally smothered children or over-parented children often present similar aspects to abandoned children. Even though these two narratives, emotional abandonment versus emotional smothering, may initially appear to be on opposite sides of the scale and experienced as such, the outcome can actually be quite similar when examined more closely.

Why?

Suppose some parents are uncertain or lack confidence. In this case, if they are self-effacing or indecisive, their children can become ensnared in their insecurities and emotional neediness or their fear of being abandoned. This often happens because children mainly learn and take their behavioral cues from their parents or carers.

Children are like sponges - they absorb everything. Early on, they absorb what's expected from them by each parent or from the family system. It's mostly the unspoken, subtle emotional nuances that get ingested both consciously and unconsciously - not only from what is said but also from a parent's reactions and responses to everyday occurrences.

For example, if 'little Johnny' is taken to the park, he may point excitedly at a tree, hoping to climb it. One look from mummy will tell him all he needs to know. If adventure or risk-taking is not encouraged, little Johnny may already know the answer. As a result, he will get molded into what mummy will or won't allow. If her response is one of fear or horror – he may turn away dejected. If this experience is constantly repeated, he may begin to feel stifled, eventually feeling resentful and even angry. Sadly, his free and adventurous spirit may have been forever suppressed.

This happens when children realize that to keep the peace, they may have to choose, albeit reluctantly, to acquiesce so as not to disappoint or upset a parent. This is done in order to maintain the love, attention, and admiration of a parent. Indeed, they may realize that the best policy is to shift their needs out of the way and maintain the status quo to satisfy everyone.

However, by doing so, they may also eventually lose their free spirit, along with their self-respect and confidence, especially if they find standing up to a parent difficult. And in some cases, children can even give up altogether. Any contemplated freedom may be discarded, and safety preferred from therein onwards. Some would also agree that this is a form of emotional abuse. Because it is subtle and insidious, people get away with it all the time.

Sadly, many parents are just not aware that their actions can have these results. This is especially true if a child is prevented from becoming who they want to be or expressing themselves independently (this can certainly affect their career choices later on).

We also know of some parents who try to live through their children by expecting outstanding exam results or excellent career achievements. But sadly, some children may find living up to these expectations hard, especially if they get forced into careers they may not be suited for.

This can cause a non-rebellious child to become emotionally numb, or they may work off their resentment by becoming cruel bullies themselves. Also, once a smothered child grows up, whatever happened in childhood can sometimes get in the way of maintaining long-term relationships in adulthood.

photo of girl riding on person shoulder Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Another area associated with emotional smothering, although better recognized, is when a parent uses a child as a surrogate substitute for their husbands or wives. This often happens in single-parent families or if either of the parents is frequently absent or emotionally unavailable. When this happens, a child can feel emotionally claustrophobic, and any anger felt could be directed at both parents.

It could be directed at the parent who uses the child to fulfill their emotional needs and the other parent for allowing it to happen in the first place. This could have varying consequences from a child experiencing resentment to becoming withdrawn, depressed, resigned, compliant, and even emotionally numb. And this could also influence their future relationships.

In healthy situations, once a child reaches adulthood, the child would leave home. The child would also feel free to return home whenever necessary, depending on their financial independence or until they got married and created families of their own.

However, a smothered child will find this difficult. Usually, the smothered child would find cutting the umbilical cord very difficult, and becoming independent would be hard to achieve. Even if they do manage to leave home, they may still find themselves returning home to leave their washing and so on.

But if the parent fearing abandonment also has narcissistic tendencies, then leaving home would be excruciating and agonizing. The child would be made to feel guilty for abandoning the parent, and the parent would make their feelings of rejection or anger quite clear. In some cases, they may even resort to threats or further bullying to emotionally hang on to their child. In these cases, one may ask, "will the smothered child ever escape?"

If emotionally smothered children leave home, they may find themselves still tied to their parents in some way or another, and as a result, they may feel tremendous guilt and disloyalty for leaving. Many may choose to live alone, as being able to 'escape a parent' often offers sufficient solace to last a lifetime. And in other instances, many find it just too difficult to meet some else's emotional demands. Marrying or being with someone else could also feel too much like a betrayal.

Sometimes a parent might have to die before the emotional tie or umbilical cord is ever broken. Often, very little grief may be experienced, as the relief or freedom felt would overwhelm any feelings of grief. In some cases, grief may only come years later once the freedom achieved becomes normalized. Indeed, I remember one client admitting that they would only be free to marry once their parents died. And sadly, some children remain at home until this happens. I know of someone who waited and who only became free to marry at the age of 67.

Even if a child does escape, they usually have to either run a mile, leave their town, or even their country. And many often struggle to maintain long-term relationships. After giving so much of themselves emotionally in childhood - giving to another adult is often too difficult to contemplate.

Consequently, they often prefer to remain single, and even if they do manage to keep a companion, it's at arm's length. Marriage is usually avoided at all costs, fearing what commitment may mean to their emotional well-being unless, that is, if they were to meet someone who is fiercely independent.

The emotionally abandoned child/adult would have learned in childhood to deal with loneliness and isolation. As a result, they may never feel the need to marry, even though they may crave intimacy and someone to care for them. If the smothering experienced was excessive, this might never happen.

They may try, but more often than not, they usually find themselves pushing people away and thereby struggling to maintain relationships. This is when long-term therapy can offer a solution if only to make sense of the experience. Over-parenting or smothering a child is therefore not to be underestimated.

In Khalil Gibran's poem,"On Children," he wisely wrote:

"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet, they belong not to you."

This article is not about beating parents with a stick. Rather it is to nudge parents to become more aware that what they may consider as protective nurturing behavior can stunt a child's emotional growth, leading to them struggling to cope later on in life.

Sadly, we are already seeing and reading reports of young adults battling depression and mental health issues.
If a child is not allowed to develop and find their creative expression or independence naturally, and if they find themselves emotionally tied to a parent, this may stunt their emotional growth.

Herein lies the abandonment I wrote about earlier. Not allowing a child's personality to grow can suppress a child's natural need to inquire, explore, and learn. Indeed, it is the parent's role to nurture a child so they can develop techniques that will allow for natural independence. Sometimes, a child is also given mixed messages like, "go, but I need you," which can cause emotional confusion.

Parenting is, however, NOT a form of therapy.

If a parent needs emotional support, they should find it within the adult world. If this is a struggle, then maybe therapy or life coaching should be sought out; this should never be a child's concern. A child's role is to be free to play, experiment, and to learn as they slowly reach adulthood – within, of course, disciplined boundaries.

Smothering a child is to give a child the wrong message. It tells a child they are not good enough. It tells them that they're not capable of 'climbing that tree' as written about earlier. It implies a parent has no trust in a child – in their decisions or indeed, in their choices. Sadly, this is not a constructive method of helping children develop and build their inner confidence or self-esteem. On the contrary, it can create resentment and anger, leading to depression and emotional numbness.

Being used as an emotional extension of a parent, a child can lose its identity for the sake of a parent's needs. And this is not healthy, which is why I chose to write this, because sometimes we do things without realizing the long-term consequences.

Teaching children how to cope often occurs within everyday events. For example, I recently had noticed the untied shoelace of a young boy around 11-years-old. Upon pointing this out, his mother immediately bent down and tied the shoelace for him. There could have been all sorts of reasons why she did this; however, the boy looked really embarrassed. He should have been given the space to tie his own shoelace and not left to look inept. And this is what I regularly see now – parents jumping in and over-parenting their children without realizing the long-term effects.

Nowadays, too, there seems to be an aversion to risk-taking. Children aren't allowed to play as they used to, let alone climb that tree. As a result, a generation of mimsy kids is being produced who don't know how to take risks, resolve conflict, make decisions, fail, or make mistakes – without feeling a failure, without falling apart and losing all their confidence. And it is unfortunate to see some grappling to form long–term relationships due to having been smothered or over-parented.

It is time to stand back and allow children a bit of breathing space. It is time to stop rescuing and doing so much for your kids. No matter how hard it is or how time-consuming it may be, or how much of a hurry you might be in - give your child the space to grow and to make mistakes.

Allow them to take a few risks and, yes, explain the consequences - but let them learn for themselves how right or wrong you were. Because this is a parent's job - to help a child make their own decisions to become the adult, they are meant to be. Doing so within disciplined boundaries allows a child to feel safe. It allows a child to explore - knowing that parents will support them when things go wrong.

But keep in mind too, no one likes a spoiled child or a spoiled adult either. And sadly, they are the ones that also struggle in relationships when they suddenly find that they cannot always get their own way. Learning this lesson might come as a hard surprise when adulthood is reached or when a partner leaves, taking the children with them. It is therefore important that we all heed what Socrates once advised:

"The only life worth living is the examined life."

And these days, it seems that we can all do with a dose of this because, as adults, we want to make sure that the next generation is left with all the necessary tools to succeed triumphantly.

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