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When toxicity begins at home

Though not talked about often, toxic parenting and childhood trauma are considered major factors leading to suicides. And it is important to shred the age-old practice of idolising parents and talk about the importance of responsible parenting.

When toxicity begins at home

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CHENNAI: “You are a disgrace”. “People of your age are doing so much better in life and career.” “Our parents did not sit with us to discuss everyday issues at school or college.” “Are you even half as good as your brother?” “It would have been better to not have a child.” “I sacrificed everything for you and you have not achieved anything in life.” “You are bringing shame to the family.”

While these are some of the statements that many parents use regularly to ‘motivate’ their children to work hard, they might backfire and scar the young minds permanently. The kids, who grow up hearing these, tend to have trauma accumulated over the years and tend to be more vulnerable to self-harming and suicide, as they consider themselves as utter failures, a belief instilled by their parents, whom they look up to during childhood.

Pressure to fulfil expectations

17-year-old Jeevan* (name changed to protect anonymity), a suicide survivor in the city, says that his father’s constant comparison of him with his cousins had a deeper effect on him than he thought.

“I attempted suicide when I was in college. I did not understand the reason why I wanted to kill myself until I got help. It deeply affected me how my father would always compare me to my cousins in academics and even physical looks. When I was bullied by them, he would joke about it and never lent an ear to listen to the challenges I faced at school,” Jeevan said.

Jeevan, who wanted to make his father proud of his son, eventually took engineering even though he did not like the stream. Nonetheless, the pattern continued even in college, he said.

“I didn’t want to be an engineer and I knew that it was not my strongest ability. At one point, I stopped believing that I could do good in academics because I couldn’t concentrate. The pressure to at least clear the examinations was immense. I couldn’t forget how my father thought I would be a failure in life,” says Jeevan.

The story of Jeevan is not very uncommon in counselling rooms, where academic pressure and parental pressure have killed our young minds. In a State where many young minds were killed due to their inability to clear the NEET examination, discussion is crucial on how too many expectations from parents can impact their kids.

“Parents do not understand how the expectations are different from pressure. We need to normalise that the dreams of parents need not necessarily be fulfilled by their wards. The expectation that a doctor’s son or daughter has to be a doctor, or they have to get into a specific profession or get a specific amount of salary, is not healthy beyond a certain limit. They also don’t understand if their child is having any form of learning disabilities and there is a lack of acceptance in such cases,” says Jessie N, a consultant psychologist.

Life at home is how you see the world

The perception of relationships, success and failure, marriage and prosperity is defined by parents for their children through their approach and it is reflected in the behaviour, self-image, and mental health of their children for a lifetime. The lack of quality time with children can instil the need for attention, acknowledgement, validation, and appreciation from various other means.

For example, if the father is an alcoholic and beats up the mother in front of their children, they might develop a negative image of marriage itself. The children might feel angry towards their parents for such an environment at home or can even end up believing that it is normal for the husband to use violence against the wife. Psychologists say that the children also can grow up scared and socially withdrawn hence affecting their interpersonal relationships and social life.

As parents, it’s important to understand the struggles, day-to-day behaviour, habits, academic performance, and career choices of one’s child as the emotional neglect from parents might lead to unnecessary academic pressure, fear of disappointing the parents, insecurities, and thereby the quality of life.

“Parenting is extremely important. Particularly, if we look into suicidal behaviours. A child, who has been abused sexually or physically below the age of 10, has a higher chance of attempting suicide during their adolescence or adulthood. Many young girls, who were sexually abused during their childhood, make suicidal attempts or even die by suicide, as it has a lasting impact. The abuse would have happened when they were five or six. But, when they are 20 or 21, suicidal behaviours appear and they will not be able to trust anyone. They also get into unhealthy relationships and face anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc.,” says Dr Laksmi Vijayakumar, consultant psychiatrist and founder of SNEHA, a non-governmental organisation that works towards the prevention of suicides.

Trauma lasts for a lifetime

Suicidal thoughts need not be triggered or formed by just one conversation. It can be the outcome of silence about some form of abuse, harassment, bullying or pressure and the way parents react and respond to such situations, impacting the mental health of children.

The scenarios that a child witnesses in their home shapes their outlook and depending on the parenting, a child can also be influenced wrong leading to issues including addiction.

“Parental discord has been significantly associated with suicidal behaviour in children. We have assessed and found that when the parents are understanding and protective, the children don’t have any kind of mental health issues. But, where there is parental discord, at least one-third of them develop depression and suicidal behaviours. A person, who has been exposed to physical violence, has more fear and anxiety, etc., and a person who has been exposed to sexual violence at a young age has more suicidal ideas and thoughts,” says Dr Lakshmi.

Someone, who has been emotionally abused, becomes withdrawn, aggressive, dependent or develops anxiety and might face difficulty forming relationships. If there is moderate to severe anxiety, medication is the first choice, and if there is mild to moderate depression or anxiety, counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy,” says Dr Laksmi Vijayakumar.

As children grow amidst the chaos and confusion of their identity and self-worth during adolescence, harsh parenting practices can add to their stress.

Lending an ear to kids

Psychologists opine that it is never just one issue or factor that pushes the child towards taking extreme steps such as suicide, but what most parents do not understand is that their child needs to communicate with them about what are they stressed about. However, in many cases, it is dealt with abuse, bullying, harassment or even torture, if they communicate such issues to their parents and this leads to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

“A child, when in distress, looks for an outlet to share their feelings with their parents. However, if they are not given the right kind of support and are not able to communicate their stress healthily, it will only be accumulated. We instead see that parents humiliate and insult their children when they talk about their struggles and stress. This builds up feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and shame and can develop thoughts of self-harm and suicide,” said Dr. Poorna Chandrika, former director of the Institute of Mental Health.

“We see a lot of children in the age group of 14-17 years, who are suicidal because of the verbal and physical abuse they went through while growing up. A lot of them recall their parents humiliating or scolding them and develop a feeling of abandonment from the family,” said a psychotherapist from the Institute of Mental Health.

“Especially in the case of girls, we have seen parents humiliating or verbally and physically assaulting them for developing a relationship with boys or going out with friends. Children are very vulnerable and their age is very crucial because adolescence is already filled with a lot of questions and self-doubt for them. If parents don’t deal with them in the right manner, they can have suicidal thoughts too,” added the psychotherapist.

Importance of right parenting and seeking help in need

A lot of children in their early adolescence show signs of mental health issues in their behaviour if they are victims of toxic parenting. However, when they are identified with some form of mental health problems, many parents tend to hesitate and deny that something is wrong with their children.

“In a lot of cases, parents move from one mental health professional to another hoping that either one of them would say that nothing is wrong with the child. They do not accept that their child can have issues. Teachers play a significant role in identifying the children in distress and being able to communicate with them. A lot of parents come to us with their children after their teachers point out the changes in their behaviour patterns,” said Dr Poorna.

Psychologists say parents must identify when there are behavioural changes in children and seek help.

“If the cause is due to the parenting style, some parents react very differently. So it takes some sessions for us to make those parents understand what is needed. If they start implementing changes, they will notice differences. In this rapidly moving world, the children are evolving and facing challenges and parents must be aware of what’s happening around them so they can speak to the children in an understanding way. Only then there will be a bond between the children and parents,” says Dr R Vasanth, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Malar Hospital.

Shweta Tripathi and Tinisha Rachel Samuel
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