Parenting Fail: The Shadow & Abuse

I imagine that some persons may wonder why I'm spending so much time talking about the inner child and our families of origin in a parenting series, especially since so many parenting books are primarily about how to get a child to be compliant or to perform. The issue at the heart of this series is that our parenting is only as healthy as the relationship we have with ourselves. This requires self-awareness and at least a modicum of appreciation for one's shadow. The shadow is what Jung called that part of us that we most often want to disown, to act as if we do not participate in what is universal. The shadow is related to those parts of our personality that we usually have either some shame about or to which we are completely asleep. It is what is instinctual: anger, selfishness, envy, sexual lust, greed, an obsession with winning, etc. Due to the fact that it is unconscious, we are likely to project these more complicated parts of ourselves onto others, and by our inability to deal with it consciously it surfaces outside of our awareness. The religious tradition within which I was raised taught that these shadow impulses were evidence of the fall, leading to a split between the "flesh" and the Spirit. The result for me—and I trust for many of you—was a focus on purity that encouraged persons to focus on the "fruits of the Spirit" and admonished any embodiment of the negative virtues of the shadow. Over time, one's sense of self becomes subsumed by trying to embody a level of perfection unlikely to be achieved within this lifetime, and those shadowy parts of us that we either deny or project end up flaring up--even controlling us--at the most inopportune times. The place where the shadow shows up most formatively is in our parenting. Otherwise well meaning parents lash out at their children in anger when stressed, they transfer a difficult personal history as a child in school to their own kids and become controlling or overprotective, or they obsess about their children's image because that is what is most important to them personally. The following are the primary ways the shadow shows up in parenting:

Physical Abuse: Having spent six years working a pediatric chaplain, I have seen some heinous forms of physical abuse. Many of those actions led to the child's death. I found myself in family rooms with those who perpetrated these acts trying to offer spiritual and emotional support to men and women who clearly did not have sufficient coping resources to deal with the challenges children can present at times. These forms of physical abuse are extreme, but physical abuse is any form of assault under the guise of discipline. This includes striking, punching, slapping, shaking, hair pulling, and even tickling beyond a child's tolerance. It includes a failure to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter. It can also include a lack of physical nurture through neglect—usually by not hugging or offering positive touch to children—or by smothering the child with too much physical contact.

Sexual Abuse: This includes physical-sexual abuse, including sexual intercourse, and other forms of inappropriate sexual behavior with children, including oral sex, anal sex, masturbation of a child or a child's masturbation of an adult, sexual touching of any kind, and sexual kissing or hugging. It surfaces as overt-explicit sexual abuse that is not physical through voyeurism, exhibitionism, and verbal sexual abuse. Covert-sexual abuse impacts children when a caregiver or parent fails to maintain appropriate sexual boundaries and when a child witnesses sexual abuse. Finally, emotional-sexual abuse harms children by conscripting a child into an inappropriate role marked by enmeshment with the caregiver or parent. This is often called emotional incest, and it includes the phenomenon where the child is used to meet a parent's needs (i.e., the child serves a surrogate spouse and is treated as a peer or confidant).

Intellectual Abuse: This occurs when a parent or caregiver attacks a child's thinking process, exhibits an over-control of expression of a child's thoughts. Children are either ridiculed for being smart or not smart enough. Parents may fail to provide sufficient education to their children or fail to teach logical thinking and problem solving.

Emotional Abuse: This occurs when parents refuse to allow a child to express emotions, shames them for their emotions, or demonstrates improper expression of his/her emotions in front of the child. Emotional abuse includes not being taught moderation and containment. Emotional abuse may also look like ignoring, neglecting, or abandoning a child emotionally. Especially toxic emotional abuse includes gaslighting children where they are given mixed messages or where parents embody a rigidity that attempts to remove choice from a child. On the other side, emotional abuse may also look like overindulgence, overprotection, no accountability, false empowerment, and not being taught humility (what relationship with one's shadow offers us) which leads to arrogance and shameless behaviors.

Spiritual Abuse: This occurs when a parent of caregiver is disrespectful of a child's reality. "You didn't see a ghost, sweetie." "Stop talking to your imaginary friend, Claire! They're not real!" These behaviors demand that the parent be the child's Higher Power, often demanding perfection, over-controlling, ignoring, neglecting, abandoning, or indulging a child. Some parents may be religious addicts and may force their children to imbibe those toxic religious beliefs. Some children may be abused by a religious leader. Parents may hypocritically require their children to embody certain values while not holding themselves to those same standards in their own lives. Children may not be allowed to question or explore or challenge spiritual or religious beliefs. Some parents attempt to instill spiritual or religious fear in their children to prevent them from "leaving the fold" or to keep them in line. False empowerment is also a form of spiritual abuse as it makes the child the Higher Power.

While there are likely other forms of abuse that parents visit upon their children, these are the most prevalent. Depending on your relationship with your shadow, you are either thinking to yourself, "Phew, thank goodness I've never done any of those," or "Oh my goodness, I had no idea that was abusive."

I'd like to invite you to take one step back.

Look over the list and think of your own childhood.

Did you ever experience any of those things? Which ones stand out? More often than not, the things we experienced as children are more likely to show up in our own parenting unless we do the necessary work to face these traumas head on. It doesn't matter if it's what we would consider to be a Big T Trauma or a little t trauma, both impact the child similarly. Big T Traumas (severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, or profound emotional abuse) serve as flash points that we either relive over and over as PTSD or that we repress, suppress, or dissociate. Little t traumas (including constant criticism, myriad guilt trips, or a history of emotional neglect) add up cumulatively. Both lodge in the body and create significant problems for children as they grow up and have their own children. The sins of the parents most certainly get passed from one generation to the next unless we find a way to interrupt the transmission.

I believe that each of us experienced myriad ways our parents' lack of shadow integration resulted in behaviors that were less than nurturing. That lack of relationship with shadow is passed down to children through a variety of processes, all of which lead to the development of carried emotion in the child who not only carries his or her own emotional processes but who is also forced to carry that of his or her parent(s). Carried emotion results in behaviors that feel unmanageable and leads to the expression of emotion that is marked by dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation simply means any expression of feeling that is out of proportion to the stimulus. We know that we are acting out of carried emotion when it becomes unmanageable and out of control. We know that we are acting out of our own emotions when it's manageable and under control.  

If we want our children to embody appropriate behaviors and emotions, if we want them to have a real sense of their sacred worth, we have to get our shit together first. That means we need to do the difficult but necessary work of excavating our own childhoods, grieving what we experienced or didn't experience that was abusive and traumatic, and finding ways to invite that inner child to take refuge in our care so that by reparenting the child within we might become the healthy parents we need to become for the sake of our own valuable, vulnerable, perfectly imperfect, dependent, spontaneous children. In so doing, we begin to learn what it means to become like children and grow closer to a spirituality that will infuse life with wholeness, where the Lion and Lamb lay down together, where shadow and light unite to create a depth capable of preparing our children for life in all of its terrible beauty.