Working in trauma and abuse often causes you to reflect on everyday, seemingly normal behaviours that replicate and reinforce abuse, control and violence. Sometimes you notice a behaviour in a family member, or you become intolerant to some forms of language. Sometimes you notice a behaviour or value you hold yourself, that you then have to confront and unpick.
This blog will be challenging for many. It was challenging for me to write. I’m a parent too, of two children who are growing up quickly. I’m not a perfect parent. I often joke that parenting is a lot like having a personal social experiment at home. A social experiment that you conduct for 18 years and see what you produce at the end of it.
When you become a parent, you have no idea what you’re doing. You go from being a single or couple of adults that can just about cook dinner and not poison yourselves, to being totally and utterly responsible for a tiny human life. At some point, that realisation hits us and we sit there thinking, ‘Oh shit. Can I do this?’
We all go at it from completely different angles. We all try lots of tactics. We read parenting books. We ask other parents. We copy our own parents. We ask google. We go on forums and ask for advice. We all find things that work and things that backfire. Parenting faux pas are common. Parenting mistakes are common. Parenting regrets are common.
Know what else is common?
Sexual and domestic abuse. Super common. As a human, you’re more likely to be abused and raped in a relationship than to have green eyes. Think of all the people you know (even yourself) who might have green eyes. Billions of people. Well, technically you are around 10 times more likely to be abused or raped in a relationship than have green eyes (Eaton and Paterson-Young, 2018) – and we see green eyes as pretty common, right? Yet we still think abuse is rare or something that people make up for attention. You don’t catch people saying ‘Woaaaah green eyes are so uncommon. You must be making it up. There’s no way you have green eyes.’
Anyway, abuse is common. Parenting is common. What have our parenting tactics got to do with abuse?
Well, I’ve been thinking and maybe it’s more related than we think.
I’m not talking about parents who actually abuse, rape or harm their children, I’m talking about the ones who don’t. Or the ones who think they don’t. The ones who are using accepted, socially normalised parenting styles that mirror abuse – without even knowing it. Loads of us. Maybe most of us.
What would that mean for us, as a population of parents, if we realised that some of our chosen tactics to bring our kids up, were actually mirroring sexual and domestic violence and abuse?
Are we normalising abusive relationships in our parenting?
Should we be surprised that children and young adults can’t identify abusers if we behave like them too?
Here are some behaviours and tactics commonly used by parents that mirror abuse.
Physical assault and violence
Okay well, let’s start with the obvious. Arguably some people will feel this is abuse anyway, and that’s justified. But what about the parents who tell you that kids just need a good smack to keep them in line? The parents who slap, pinch, grab, shove, smack and drag their children and adolescents are mimicking exactly what a violent abuser would do to them. How will these children know that they are in an abusive relationship when they are older, if we have always used these behaviours on them ourselves? If we have spent their whole childhoods hitting them every time we got angry and lost control, why would they ever leave an abusive partner who hit them when they got angry and lost control? How can we tell children that it’s not okay for their boyfriend or girlfriend to do that to them, but it’s okay for us to do it to them?
And how can we teach our children not to become violent abusers to their own children if we have role modelled that behaviour to them? How can we say to our children ‘do not hit that other child, that’s very naughty!’ if we hit our kids?
Shouting at children
Shouting at children is pretty accepted all over the world. Parents do it, carers do it, general public do it, teachers do it, police do it. Shouting at children is seen as some sort of right of an adult. Children are not allowed to shout at each other, or shout at adults, but we are allowed to shout at them.
Some people shout in childrens’ faces, shout in rage, shout in frustration – some even say they shout as some sort of ‘shock factor’ to ‘get through’ to children.
The reality is that we are teaching children and adolescents that if their partners or friends shout at them, that’s a sign that they are in an abusive relationship. However, why would they recognise shouting as abusive at all if they had spent years being shouted at by us? Would they think that people who love them shout at them? Would they think that shouting at their own children is normal? Would they think that shouting at someone is a good way to get their point across?
With similar effect to physical violence and shouting – name calling is going to change the way the child understands themselves and their relationships. You might be wondering what I mean by name calling, as many parents would probably tell themselves they’ve never done it.
However, I’m talking about calling our kids ‘stupid’, ‘dumb’, ‘idiot’, ‘little shit’, ‘bad’, ‘a nuisance’, ‘waste of space’, ‘doing my head in’, ‘sick of the sight of you’, ‘thick’… and a lot more words and names that I know some people use about their kids and to their kids.
The issue here is that reading these terms in black and white will make you feel a bit sick. But how often do parents lose control of a situation and resort to name calling and shouting? Probably quite often. How many of us have said this or had this said to us? Loads of us.
And then how will those same children react when they find themselves in a relationship with a partner who tells them they’re stupid or a waste of space? What on earth makes us think that those same kids would identify and escape an abuser who mirrors the way their parents treat them?
But what about the more subtle things we do as parents? The threats, the grooming, the control? How might that mirror an abuser?
Threats: empty and real
Lots of abusive relationships contain threats. Some threats are empty and some are not. However, living under threat in a domestic or sexual violence situation is extremely stressful and traumatic. As an adolescent or adult, it might mean living with someone who constantly threatens to break your things, take your phone away, stop you from seeing your friends, telling your secrets, stop you from seeing your family or threatening to stop you from going out or doing something important to you.
It might even mean threatening to leave you, threatening to find someone else or threatening to report you for something. Some people know that the abuser is using empty threats to control – and some never really know if the threats are real or empty. Either way, they serve to control the victim and keep them in check. They utilise their favourite or most important things to threaten them with.
This got me thinking. We do a lot of this in parenting. How many parents threaten children with removing their favourite thing, stopping them from seeing their friends, stopping them from going to their clubs, taking away their most treasured possessions? How many parents threaten their kids with the police or a care home? How many parents threaten their teenagers with kicking them out or leaving them?
The reality is, parents are using empty and real threats against their children for control tactics. They are very common ways of parenting:
‘If you don’t do this, I’ll take away/ break/smash your xbox’
‘If you don’t behave at school, we will kick you out.’
‘If you don’t get better grades, we will stop you from seeing all of your friends.’
‘If you don’t eat all of those vegetables, I’ll tell your teacher how bad you are at home.’
People don’t realise how much these tactics mirror abuse. This is exactly what thousands of victims of domestic and sexual violence live through every day.
‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll stop you from seeing your parents.’
‘If you don’t stop doing that, I will leave you.’
‘If you don’t do what I want, I’ll snap that phone in half.’
‘If you don’t do what I want, I will tell all your friends that you are a liar.’
It’s all the same tactic. It might be being used in a slightly different way, but it’s the same human mechanism being used. It’s the threat of something horrible to control another person. To keep them in fear of that horrible thing happening to them in order to make them do what we want them to do.
Obviously, the problem here is that we teach children to live in this context for years. And then for some strange reason, we expect children and adults to be able to recognise this an abusive behaviour when they are in a relationship. We tell them that anyone who threatens them to control them is abusing them… but it’s only what their parents and teachers have been doing to them for 18 years. So how come it’s okay for them to do it but not a new partner? Why would anyone see this behaviour as abnormal or abusive?
And how can we tell those same children NOT to use these tactics on each other in their relationships? Aren’t we supposed to role model healthy relationships?
Rewarding children when they do what you want
This final one is interesting, because it is seen as a positive parenting and professional technique to use with children and adolescents. However, we have to see the parallels between positive reinforcement using rewards and praise – and the grooming process in sexual and domestic abuse.
It doesn’t mean that positive reinforcement with our kids is wrong, but it does mean that years and years of controlling and raising our kids using rewards and praise primes them for relationships and grooming processes that use gifts, rewards and praise.
For example, if our kids don’t want to do something at all and we manipulate them by offering a gift or praise, that mirrors exactly what some abusers and offenders will do. Look:
Child of 8 years old who hates vegetables
‘If you eat all of these vegetables, I’ll give you a cookie. So you have to eat all of them. Then you will get a cookie for being so good.’
Child of 12 years old who is being groomed
‘If you try this vodka, I’ll buy you some new headphones. All you have to do is try this vodka. It’ll be fine. Then I’ll buy you those new headphones.’
Child of 14 years old who is being groomed
‘I’ll give you everything you want and need if you just touch me. All you gotta do is give me what I need and I’ll give you what you need.’
See how it’s exactly the same?
It’s identifying what the child or adolescent wants and then using it as an incentive to do things they don’t want to do. The agenda might be different (getting your kids to eat carrots versus trying to get a child drunk so you can abuse them) – but the tactic is the same.
And when the tactic is the same, and it’s been used every day for 18 years, why would we expect children to notice or identify this in the grooming process in child sexual abuse, domestic abuse or sexual violence as they get older?
Millions of our children will be abused, raped or harmed in relationships. Millions of us already have been. There are charities, governments, experts, academics, activists and scientists trying to figure out why it’s so prevalent and why people cannot identify abuse. The same groups are still scratching their heads as to why children and adolescents can’t get themselves out of child abuse and child sexual exploitation.
One thing I always say when I’m teaching is that we need to stop seeing grooming and abuse as a monstrous, rare, sick thing that only a handful of humans do.
We have to start seeing grooming and abuse as a common extension of normal, every day tactics and mechanisms humans use to communicate and manipulate each other. The outcome might be different, but the tactics and approaches are all the same. And millions of people are abusing children using those normal, everyday tactics.
What if we are missing the point? What if we are expecting children (and therefore adults) to spot behaviours and tactics and approaches in abusers that are completely normal in parents and teachers?
What if we are laying the foundations for abuse and control from birth?
What if the way we talk to and manipulate our children in an effort to bring them up, is actually teaching them that abuse, control, threat and bribery is normal?
Aren’t abusers just using the exact same tactics as parents, carers and teachers that kids spend 24 hours a day with?
Isn’t it strange that we have such high expectations of children and adolescents to notice, recognise and act on behaviours and tactics that we tell them are abusive and manipulative – but have featured in their lives since birth?
Written by Jessica Eaton
2018: My year in review video is here