Toxic Parents And Absent Parents Produce The Same Kind Of People
I grew up in a community where you were raised to thank God for your parents, no matter how unworthy they may have been. And no matter how toxic your parent turned out to be, they could’ve always been worse, they could’ve chosen to be toxic away from you.
When I came across a thread recently that was dedicated to the discussion of which type of parent did the most harm, the absent kind or the toxic kind, I read through people’s justifications of their parents’ shortcomings. We had all been conditioned to view our childhoods through the lens of what our parents’ lacked, which left little to no room for the side of the discussion that centered around the needs of the parented.
The more engaged in debate people became, the more evident it was just how few of us knew what we, as children, actually needed. We were all familiar with the basic physiological needs, like food, clothing and shelter, but when it came time to display awareness of our varying psycho-social and psychological needs, the conversation bordered on backwards. Not only do children have needs that extend way beyond the dinner table, these needs exist regardless of the parental willingness to meet them. And According to a 2013 study out of the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences in Mönchengladbach, Germany, all children need the same things. Researchers determined that all children, no matter their race, gender or socioeconomic background, had four basic fundamental needs that when met sufficiently, assisted them in becoming healthy, confident, well-adjusted adults. When these needs were not met, however, the outcomes were disturbingly predictable.
Orientation and Control
Our most basic human need centers around understanding our surroundings and having the ability to affect them, we call this Orientation and Control. The satisfaction of this basic requirement is so essential to the development of our psyches that our best examples of it can be seen in the behaviors of babies. For example, when an infant begins to cry, that act is a direct communication to adults, one that, based on how it’s answered, leaves a long lasting imprint. Whether the desired goal be a bottle of milk or a dry diaper, the child has assessed their situation and discovered a need. Upon discovering that need, the child then determines the most effective way to bring attention to the need and have it addressed. The communication, in this instance the crying, is an attempt by the baby to control their circumstances and facilitate the satisfaction of whatever their immediate need may be. When mom or dad respond to the communication and accurately meet the communicated need, the overarching desire for orientation and control is satisfied, this is known as the state of congruence.
Congruence occurs when our understanding of our environment aligns with our perceived ability to manipulate it to meet our physical and psychological needs. The greater our ability to meet those needs, the more in control we feel. And when an infant experiences this cycle repetitively over time, they grow with a healthy conception of reality that is consistent with their goals, an essential component of healthy adulthood.
Pleasure Gain & Distress Avoidance
The second of our most basic human needs has to do with learning to seek the good in life and avoid the bad, it’s a process called Pleasure Gain & Distress Avoidance. At the crux of this concept is the formation of two simple yet vital tools, one that deciphers good from bad, and another that tells you to approach or avoid it. From infancy, these automatic evaluations, known as the Good-Bad Evaluation and the Behavioral Approach-Avoidance Orientation, assess the world around us, gathering a collection of experiences through which to form safety baselines from. Now when these functions work in synchronicity with one another, mental processes transpire with ease and decisions are made in a less stressful environment. For example, when a loud boom is heard, our immediate evaluation is that loud, sudden noises often accompany danger, therefore marking the situation bad and unsafe. Once the Good-Bad Evaluation has been made, our emotional and cognitive appraisal processes determine the appropriate behavioral response to the perceived danger. As these processes function over time, collecting experiences through which to establish a good-bad vs approach-avoid baseline, we shape our perceptions of pleasure and displeasure. When an child develops a repertoire of behaviors that align with approaching good and safe things and avoiding painful or dangerous things, gaining the ability to decipher between displeasure, pain and delayed pleasure, they’re able to focus on setting goals that lead to positive results as opposed to immediate results, a key component to self control and self discipline.
The need to be attached to other humans is arguably the most basic of all the human needs, so much so that psychotherapists refer to it as the centerpiece of our neurobiology. The attachment styles we possess as adults are formed during our earliest moments in infancy, when our parents or caregivers either satisfy our need for healthy human contact or leave us seeking fulfillment elsewhere. In a fully functional world, an infant is born to parents or caregivers who respond compassionately and affectionately to requests for physical and emotional affection. They appropriately perceive and meet needs and demonstrate sensitivity and collaboration for the child, establishing a sense of dependability and stability from child to parent and back. Children who establish healthy relationships with their parents or caregivers demonstrate a healthy attachment style known as Secure Attachment and feel supported and protected in their exploration of the world and relationships. It is the emotional consistency and availability demonstrated by the parents or caregivers, especially in times of distress, that equips the child with the ability to be secure both within themselves as well as within their relationships.
There’s no debating that a negative sense of self leads to serious social, physical and psychological challenges which explains why our formation of self starts to form in the first years of life. When children receive appropriate praise and positive feedback from parents or caregivers, it allows them to form a healthy hedge around their opinion of their self. It encourages them to focus on their positive performances as opposed to harboring on negative things that they cannot change. Additionally, it teaches children to be their own advocates in instances where their character or quality is called into question and affirms them in their decision making and choices, even when made against the grain. When our valuation of self is devoid of external influence, there is less risk that we suffer the toxicity of people’s opinions of us. But when children are raised with negative feedback, constant criticism and devaluation, they not only fail to develop a positive sense of self but learn to maintain the negative one. This process, known as low self esteem maintenance, occurs when an individual has a self view that is lesser than the one they believe the world has of them. Not only does this make negative feedback appear more credible, it makes positive feedback appear less applicable. And it’s not as if this innate need for the development of high self-esteem dissipates, it simply transforms. In adulthood, the lack of a positive self-view can look like sensitivity to criticism, social withdrawal, obsession with physical appearance, hostility, indecisiveness, aversion to compliments, anxiety, approval addiction, or any combination of the aforementioned, but one thing we know for certain is that it’s there.
So let’s say a child is born into the care of a toxic parent or an absent parent. Let’s say, instead of the parents responding to crying with concern, they respond with anger and frustration or simply not at all. Let’s say ,instead of helping the child establish safe boundaries, they repetitively model unsafe behavior and poor decision making. Or maybe the parent is the unsafe party and the child becomes acclimated to the dysfunction of having to approach pain and displeasure in order to have their needs met. What happens to the child that never establishes a Secure Attachment to their parent or caregiver, but instead grows up attempting to extract affection from an emotionally unavailable, erratic, or inconsistent parent? What if both the unhealthy parent and the unavailable parent leave the child feeling unwanted and burdensome, criticizing and chastising them instead of praising and preparing them for the next stages of life? Does it really matter how the poor parenting is packaged if the outcome is more ill-prepared people?
Toxic parents and absent parents are one in the same. Neither equips the child with the tools necessary to tackle adulthood with any preparedness. This conversation isn’t about pointing the finger at our parents who can more than likely point the finger at theirs, it’s about identifying where in our childhoods our adult challenges formed so that we can determine where within ourselves the healing needs to begin. Truth be told, there is no best among the worst, there are only those who choose to do better. And oftentimes, the work required to repair the things our parents broke in us is work most adults won’t commit to doing, therein unknowingly committing to continuing the cycle. Children inherit the work their parents don’t do. There is no dodging it, no dismissing it, those unmet needs remain unmet whether we sugar coat the causes or not, whether manifesting in ourselves or in the children we parent. Judging by the excessive number of both unhealthy and unavailable parents in Black communities and the disturbing environment Black children face outside the home, the last thing we need is more excuses or more deflection or more reasons as to why this issue isn’t a real one. Granted, healthy parenting is not easy, but neither is completing college, working a corporate job, or any of the other adult stuff we find a way to pull off when we deem it worth the effort. And just like these things require intentional preparation and planning, parenthood does too. Parenting is a choice, an elected occupation, we may have had to suffer through our parent’s unpreparedness, but our children shouldn’t have to.