One morning this week, after dropping my kids off to school, I stopped by the first Starbucks that opened in our small town area. As I got out of the car, I heard a woman yelling loudly. I looked over and saw a mother aggressively pointing a finger and hovering over a boy, probably about 9 or 10 years old, clearly her son.
I walked slower as I approached, and overheard her saying, “You are irresponsible, selfish and mean, you little piece of sh*t!” and kept yelling. Standing at her back was who was probably her daughter, about 7 years old. Both kids had utter fear in their eyes. They looked helpless and scared. The boy was trapped as he stood leaning against the wall listening to his mother yell at him, the girl paralyzed with fear. His eyes were filled with tears as he must have felt embarrassed as many passersby were watching this scene unfold. I walked into the Starbucks and ordered my drink but was shaken by what I had seen and unsure if I should say something. A short while later, the mother came in with the kids trailing behind her, both with sunken shoulders and dragging their feet. They looked like they did not want to be there with their mom; the boy kept wiping away tears and avoided eye contact with everyone. He probably wanted to run and hide, yet where exactly would he go? Cleary, for the next 10 years, the boy and girl must still live with their mom.
She may have been having a bad day, or maybe the boy at that moment needed discipline. But it could also be true that this may be how she always treats her kids. Let’s be real, bad parenting is an epidemic. It is estimated that in the United States alone, “one in seven kids between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away at some point” and it is estimated that there could be up to 3 million runaway and homeless kids. While some of these cases may be of kids running away because of issues unrelated to the parents, it is also just as true that a lot of them run away because of a lack of understanding between parent and child or the parents’ treatment of the kids. The state can also kick in when certain situations exist when it comes to bad parenting. The United States alone has a little less than half a million kids in the foster care system after the state declares the parents unfit for parenting. We have been inundated lately with viral posts of an extreme case of this, such as in Ohio where a 4-year-old boy was found in the backseat of a car while his mother had overdosed on heroine. Even kids’ brains develop in rapidly different ways when neglected, according to this report showing the growth of a happy, loved child and that of a neglected one.
But not everything is that dramatic, bad parenting can also be related to a lack of emotional connection, causing children to feel alone, alienated and helpless. There may be no physical abuse, there may be no heroine overdose. But there most definitely is this silent abuse in emotional neglect, considered in some studies to be the “most common type of child maltreatment.” Even the American Psychological Association stated that “children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused.”
I have my own first-hand experience of bad parenting, but was lucky enough to not only survive it but also to push through in a positive way. I am a good mom to my kids because I set out to be the total reverse of my mother. I am loving and embrace their emotions, I listen and try to always understand. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my fair share of a good 20 years of feeling neglected, unloved, stupid, worthless and more when I was living in her household. I just grew to love myself and was lucky enough to be born an empath — a big-hearted person who learned to soothe myself and others around me. Despite my luck and resilience, not everyone survives and gets away unscathed, I sought therapy for quite a while to push through some of those issues and resolve them, but my siblings are emotionally scarred individuals. They have a hard time connecting to other people and seem to lack self-awareness. They refuse to seek counseling and sweep their feelings under the rug rather than learning to confront them and move on. They take aggression out in weird ways and don’t seem to have the ability to connect meaningfully to individuals; rather they are always guarded. They also seem to pick fights for no reason at all. To me this is a clear product of not being loved, or hugged growing up. It is a clear product of really bad parenting. The unfortunate reality is bad parenting creates broken people.
That boy, for example, had to follow his mom into the Starbucks with tears in his eyes when all he wanted to do was just hide in a pillow and cry his eyes out. He will likely grow to feel unloved and has yet another decade before he can get away from under the grips of that horrible, mean mother and learn to lead a separate life. He may very well grow up to be like the majority of people whose childhoods were spent living in emotionally or physically abusive households: He may have a hard time finding love, keeping and maintaining a meaningful relationship and knowing how to connect.
For a little boy who has no choice but to live in this household, it can have a strong negative impact. To survive, the child may end up shutting off, tuning out, not crying, and becoming numb. Years of dealing with an emotionally unavailable mother will likely train him that “emotions are no good, feeling things is no good.”
Bad parenting churns out humans who could become emotionally disconnected individuals, damaging their ability to connect meaningfully with people on a day-to-day level, including marriage.
As that little boy stood in line with his mother in Starbucks, he had to hear her continue to utter under her breathe that he is “stupid, selfish, a pain in the ass” and then being told to “stop crying you cry baby, you are making a scene.” Chances are he may grow up to be a man who can’t emotionally connect in the way he or any human should.
When the mother was not looking, I went to the boy and hugged him, and whispered, “It is going to be okay.”
The truth is, it probably won’t.
Bad parenting has always existed and always will. Not every parent can undertake a “Gottman-esque” approach toward emotional-coaching. I left Starbucks shaken and sad for the boy. If I had a magic wand, one of the first things I would do is eliminate bad parents. Every child deserves good parenting, but more importantly, our society needs parents to parent better and create emotionally connected people.