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Spare a thought, spare the rod

Aug 16, 2012 16:44 IST

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There are several psychological and emotional fallouts from resorting to physical violence to instill discipline. Maullika Sharma explains this further

Today, for the fourth time in many days, in my counselling room, I met with children who are victims of physical abuse at home – either with a bare hand, a ruler, a stick, or even a hot metal rod.Apart from the fact that it got me really agitated, it also made me think about the reasons that could possibly drive parents to physically hurt their child; the myths surrounding domestic abuse; and the psychological and emotional fallout of this parental behaviour on their children.

I would like to believe that such acts of violence are mindless, automatic responses to a stimulus, rather than thought-out actions. And this is a humble attempt at making parents aware of the implications of these thoughtless acts. If they then still choose to indulge in such behaviour, it is at least a thought-out, mindful choice that they make, the consequences of which they fully understand.

So what drives a parent to physically hurt their child? My conversations with several parents over the years have thrown up many possible reasons. One of these and a very significant one is the way they were brought up, and, therefore, that is the only way they know. They turned out okay, and so will their children, they tell me. “How can you discipline a child without beating them?” is a common refrain. My question to those parents is, “Did you like being hit, when it was being done to you? What were your feelings at that time?” It may have been a long time ago, but take a minute to recollect those feelings.

The second reason is anxiety — anxiety about their child’s performance and a feeling of helplessness and being unable to control it. Anxiety about how society will judge their child, anxiety about how society will judge them as parents, if their child does not turn out “right.” This also ends up being a conscious or unconscious outlet for their other anxieties, stress, frustrations and failures. They feel angry with ‘life’ and this is their way of expressing their anger. What ‘safer’ way for the parents to express their anger than targeting someone who is ‘powerless’ to respond?

There are several myths surrounding the “need” to resort to physical violence while bringing up children. Parents believe that they should be strict and their child should be fearful, so that they remain in control. On the contrary, these children believe their parents are ‘out-of-control’ and stop trusting their abilities to guide and mentor them.

Parents believe that if they beat their child, he/she will stay on track. On the contrary, children who are hit, learn to steer clear of their parents’ track. Parents believe that there is no better way (or other way) to discipline or bring up children. On the contrary, this is probably the least effective way.

Parents believe that disciplining must involve painful, punitive punishment for it to be effective. On the contrary, this results only in feelings of hatred and dislike towards the offending parent. Parents believe that the role of disciplining is to make the child pay for past misbehaviour. On the contrary, the purpose of disciplining is to stop future misbehavior. Parents believe that if their child is scared of them, he/she will not do anything “wrong”. On the contrary, their child is even more motivated to do “wrong” behind the parents’ back.

Parents believe that if their child is scared of being hit, then he/she will focus on his/her work. On the contrary, this distracts the child and the fear stops him/her from being able to concentrate and focus. Parents believe that fear is essential to focus and achieve “something” in life. On the contrary, fear may motivate them to avoid failure, but it can never make their journey joyful, or motivate them enough to achieve their true potential.

There are several psychological and emotional fallouts from resorting to physical abuse to instill discipline. For one, the child lives in constant fear. And, more importantly, they learn that violence is an acceptable reaction and so start practising it themselves.

They act out in school — either by becoming bullies, because they also want to feel powerful at least somewhere, or by becoming subdued, scared and submissive, so that they get targeted by other bullies.

Children will then work just enough to avoid failure, rather than being self-motivated and pushing themselves to achieve success, exploiting their true potential, and enjoying the journey that is life. They will slowly stop communicating with their parents and hide their feelings and activities. This may lead them to maintaining only a ‘duty-bound’ relationship with their parents. But that is not a relationship built on love, bond, communication, trust and care.

So, parents, find a way to deal with your anxieties, whether that means practising meditation or talking to a friend or seeking the help of a counsellor.

Take a minute to reflect on the time when you were at the receiving end of such behaviour.

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