D'vorah Klein
A Child and Family Therapist and Child Advocate

Witness to an Assault

There are times in life when we are aware that something significant is happening. Something that will change life as we know it.  The memory is so etched in our minds that we know where we were and what we were doing at the time.  Ask any American alive at the time where he or she was when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers were hit and they will not even need to think.  Ask an old-time Israeli what they were doing when the UN declared Israeli independence or when Rabin was assassinated. All these events carried with them the feeling that this was the beginning of a new era; things would now be different.

The same can be said when people go through certain experiences.  The terrible effects of war or other major tragedies come to mind.  There is a shift in how one thinks and experiences things from that point onward. Life is divided to before the event and after it. There are, in addition, events that children experience which are not, on the face of it, tragic or traumatic in the usual meaning of these words, yet they can hold the key to real difficulties which begin at that point and continue even later in life.

Some time ago, I was witness to just such an event in, of all places, the supermarket.  A young mother was shopping with her two daughters in tow. The younger one, a toddler, was sitting in the front of the cart that often serves as a seat for children her age. The older child, about six years old, was running to catch up with her mother who was going along at quite a clip.  And the child was crying..As I got closer I found myself standing still, unable to move. The child was begging her mother to love her — “but you have to love me, I’m your child!”  The mother’s answer?  “No, not when you behave like that.” The daughter, “Please, please love me.”  “I can’t right now,” and the zinger: “You are just unlovable.” Bam!*

This was said as the mother gave the toddler a cookie and a smile.

It occurred to me that I might just have witnessed the event that could possibly change a lot of things for the worse in the life of this little girl.  She paled and her shoulders were shaking. She remained very quiet for the remainder of the shopping, held her head down and kept a good distance from the shopping cart. My first instinct was to grab her and take her home with me, first saying some very unsavory things to her mother.  But I was truly struck dumb.

My thoughts were racing and in my mind’s eye I began to consider the various ways this awful interchange could affect this child.  I saw her as a young adult, possibly a spouse and mother, working with her therapist to try and recover how she lost her sense of self, why she had no feeling of self-worth and why she allowed people to “walk all over her”. When a child is told by his or her parent that they are “unlovable” or that they have to earn love by some specific act, they cannot later on understand the concept or feel the wonderful warmth and fullness of unconditional love and acceptance.  The chances of this being the first time this child has been treated so thoughtlessly are slim.

Children learn who they are from the adults in their life, especially from family. An adult who cannot deal with being somewhat overwhelmed may easily say things that they don’t really mean in order to reduce their tension.   Keeping her daughter quiet, behaving and not running around, was the main objective here.  Seen this way, parenting becomes all about the parent. This is where calm heads must prevail.  The most effective tool I have found in situations like these, is thinking ahead. If this mother would have either decided to do her food shopping at a time when the child was in school, or left the two girls in the care of a sitter, mom would have a quiet shopping experience and the incident would not have taken place.

There is another dynamic that is being affected here.  When your mother tells you that she cannot love you and at the same time is smiling and feeding your sister, what are the chances that you and your sister can develop and strong, loving bond?  I have seen resentments between siblings, especially of the same gender, last a life time and turn to deep loathing. It can even transcends generations. I knew that I could have witnessed the incident that contributed to such a feud.

There are definitely times when our children can drive us crazy.  Times when we are ready to use any means to make them behave.  But we regain our senses, often at the last minute and give a dire ultimatum instead.  Or promise of a reward if the behavior we ask for is complied with. The trick to doing this is to remember that parenting well is not about us, it’s about the child. It’s about how we behave. The basic task of good parenting is to deliver to the world an emotionally healthy, socially appropriate adult.  What kind of feelings do we want the child to have when s/he thinks of herself? When she thinks of us? Not just after we are gone, but right now?  Have we given her a “safe place” where she can go within herself where she knows that she is always accepted?

While very negative statements towards a child on a regular basis can erode a sense of any esteem or self-worth, it can also go the other way.  In other words, “if I am so awful”, goes this scenario, “then what have I got to lose by behaving badly?”  School performance goes down as does behavior towards adults in power, like teachers and principals.  For a teen, the thinking is,”If I’m not wanted at home, I’ll find someone who does appreciate me.”   Now, there are real worries in store.  This is often the way joining “a bad crowd” begins, not to mention alcohol and drug use.  It may seem like quite a jump from what I witnessed to alcohol use and leaving home, but not if it represents the thoughtless way parents speak to a child on a regular basis. And especially not if it is to a teen. Today’s youth have many more options for friendship and escape than the generations which proceed them. And some of them are dreadful.

I do not know this family and I have not seen them since, but I often wonder what has become of the six-year-old girl, who is now a young adult.  I hope there was someone in her life who made her understand that even when she did not behave, she deserved to be loved.

About the Author
D'vorah Klein is a Child and Family Therapist with a B.A. in PsychologyMasters in Clinical Social Work, an LCSW-C in Child and Family Therapy and over two decades of experience. A Learning Disabilities specialist, she served as a Teacher Trainer and School Advisor for 9 years in the Baltimore City School System and several private schools. She now has a private practice in Bet Shemesh.