He couldn’t have been older than seven or eight years. He walked with a large backpack, weighing down his already sagging shoulders. His eyes were downcast. His spirit vacant. She was right behind him screaming, “Don’t you ever do that again!” or “You’re going to get it when you come home from school!” or some semblance of the verbal abuse de jour.
Every morning, just as the sun rose, this scene played out. Right in front of our apartment window. Right outside the walls of our living room.
I wonder where this boy is today. I wonder where he’d be if I had the courage to call Child Protective Services or at least brought him a hot chocolate while he waited for the school bus on the cold New Hampshire mornings after receiving his daily dose of projected hate. My heart grieves for him and what he had no choice but to internalize.
Sadly, this scene, although available in many variances, is not uncommon. We are experts at disempowering our children. Because we are bigger, stronger, older, wealthier, more powerful, in charge and just because we have the opportunity to unload, we pass along our self-hatred. Like a hot potato we want to discard, or shit that rolls downhill, we split off what we don’t like about ourselves and can’t own enough to heal and we cast it to those that are innocent and powerless, vulnerable and unprotected, those beneath and below – our children.
As a result, the receptacles of our shame – our children – become like us – shame-based. They psychologically craft a foundation of feeling worthless, flawed and defected. Their self-esteem nose-dives into a one-down position where they don’t feel entitled to their human wants, needs and feelings.
As they become incapable of holding internal warmth and a moderated, healthy sense of self, they often take one of three coping paths: (1) Become the aggressor. Hell, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So the child grows into the one, like his or her parent, who doles out the abuse. This result can wear many costumes – control, judgment, rage, violence, passive-aggression, etc.; (2) Stay the victim. Resign, withdraw, people-please, approval-seek, manipulate, become depressed; (3) Flip-Flop between the aggressor and victim, depending on what might “work” in the moment.
However, none of these responses to a shame-inducing parent are healthy and functional. All they do is continue the generational family legacy of self-loathing. Like a tried and true family tradition, shame just continues on and on down the pike. That is, until someone has the courage and fortitude to stop the perpetual cycle. Until someone stands up, speaks the truth, intervenes and carves out a different path – one of health – for him or herself and the generations yet to come.
Were you the small child at the bus stop?
Were you the parent who only knew how to unleash ill repute because that’s what was done to you?
Wherever you might be, it is never too late for you, your child and the legacy you are passing down. Brave to be the one who stops the shame and the continuance of disempowerment. You may not have written the beginning of the story but you certainly have the power to write the ending. Be the one that turns the tide toward an upward evolution of emotional health.