Therapy, Confronting Parents, Cutting Ties: Coping With Scars of Childhood
How a podcast triggered a chat on corporal punishment inflicted on children by parents, and its impact years later.
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(Trigger warning: Description of emotional and physical violence. Reader’s discretion is advised. Some identities are withheld to protect people’s privacy and to an * has been added to indicate name change.)
“Even though I am a 28-year-old successful chartered accountant, I still fear my mother. As a child, I remember running around our house in Chennai looking for places to hide from her,” recalled Canada-based Malini*.
This conversation happened on the heels of a chat between veteran actor Jaya Bachchan, her daughter Shweta Bachchan-Nanda, and her granddaughter, Navya Naveli Nanda about desi parenting ways on a podcast titled, 'What The Hell Navya?' which aired on 4 October.
In the conversation, Shweta had said, "She (mother) was very free with her slaps, I got slapped a lot. The ruler got broken on me once. She used to beat me a lot.”
The three spoke about how this way of parenting comprises both emotional and physical aggression. Many people took to Twitter and other social media platforms to recount instances of being at the receiving end of such aggression at home when they were growing up.
The Quint spoke to some such people, mental health experts, and children’s welfare organisations about the scars left behind, and how to tackle them.
'Started Distancing From Parents When I Grew Up'
Gauri*, 25, a Wales-based healthcare professional, recalled an “unforgettable” incident from her childhood – one that changed the dynamics of her relationship with her parents. “At a family gathering at home, I dropped a plate of food by mistake. Instead of helping me, my parents told me to pick up the food from the floor, put it back on the plate, and eat it,” she told The Quint.
Years later, Gauri still remembers her parents’ reasoning – “too many people to feed at home, and this is the only plate for you” – and the meal. “It was aamras (mango pulp), curry and rice,” she said. Since then, Gauri has not eaten aamras.
“Other relatives saw my plight and offered to help but I was too scared that my parents would scream if they saw that. I have been too scared to make a mistake since then,” she said.
Gauri claimed that her relationship with her parents has been strained ever since, and shrouded in fear. Once she grew up, she started distancing herself from them.
“I called them out when I realised that the same pattern was not repeated with my sibling. My parents feigned innocence. They didn’t apologise. All I know is that I wouldn’t repeat this behaviour with my children ever,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mumbai-based psychologist Suman Khanna said that “around 40 percent” of her patients share that they were beaten up by their parents while growing up and that has impacted their interpersonal relationships.
Rise in Child Abuse Cases During Lockdown
It is pertinent to note that abuse of children at home by parents continues. In fact, studies indicate that it got worse in the pandemic. “This happened because families were confined in tight spaces,” said Dr Dhaarna Bhardwaj, a counselling psychologist in Rajasthan's Jaipur.
She told The Quint that there was a marked rise in SOS calls received by helplines set up by children’s welfare groups in the pandemic.
A study titled “Psycho-social impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Children in India: The Reality” – by Dr Hitanshu Dave, a pediatrician at Bharati Vidyapeeth Medical College and Hospital, Pune, and Dr Priyank Yagnik, a pediatrician at the KU School of Paediatrics, Wichita, USA – published in the journal for International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, laid out a stressful picture.
Quoting statistics presented by Childline India (1098), which is a direct helpline devised for children in India, the study said, “With adult population ending up at home with increased financial implications, uncertain situations led to increased number of abuse cases reported on the helpline number."
"Childline reported that 11 percent calls were related to physical health, 8 percent calls were on child labour and an additional 8 percent were on missing children. The impact can be analysed just by the sheer number of help calls received on various helplines," the study added.
Dr Bhardwaj, who has volunteered for one of these helplines as well, said that there has been a dip in the number of calls received since the lockdown ended.
She said, “Children need to confide in trusted adults and so they should make a list of adults they can talk to – a counsellor, principal or a teacher."
A fellow at Teach For India, which is a non-profit organisation working with schools in low-income areas, explained the need for child protection committees.
“In case a child reports abuse from our staffers or on our grounds, we have laws in place which guide us in these situations to register formal complaints with the authorities. If the abuse happens outside or at home, and the child informs us about it, then we have external officers in place who can file a complaint with the police on the child's behalf. In such cases, parental consent can be overlooked before initiating any action,” she said.
Coping With it, Years Later
From seeking therapy and moving cities to cutting ties with family members and confronting them, many adults have adapted different coping mechanisms.
A 35-year-old journalist, on condition of anonymity, told The Quint how she confronted her parents multiple times about the violence she faced. “It was not a one-time conversation that I had with my parents about the physical violence they inflicted on me and my sister. When I confronted my father about it years later, he said that this wasn’t ‘the West and that it’s okay to hit your children here',” she said.
While many in India consider hitting a child "acceptable" as a form of discipline, Khanna added, “This is not just an Asian problem. Your education, qualification or class doesn’t matter here either. Basic communication skills are not taught at all."
The journalist said that she grew up to “despise” her mother, who beat her up more than her father. “There was this rage inside me which I have since overcome with meditation and therapy. Now, when we talk about it, my mother says that she was immature at the time and had no experience with motherhood,” she said.
Malini, meanwhile, recalled how her mother once "burnt her leg" over a school homework related issue. “It left a deep wound which got infected and then turned to pus. There is a huge red mark on my leg. I remember being scared of her for the rest of my childhood,” she said.
The "fear" of her mother is where her "anxiety stems from," she added.
Meanwhile, Riddhi Doshi Patel, a child psychologist and parenting counsellor from Mumbai, opined that “often those who resort to aggressive parenting are often victims of such parenting themselves.”
She said, “Adults who have gone through this type of upbringing or can recognise it now should definitely take professional help to learn how to process it and heal.”
Contrary to popular opinion, Patel said that parents don’t always know what’s best for children. “Sometimes, children can show the way.” She said that “seeking therapy to get over these issues ascertains that this behaviour doesn’t carry forward.”
Priyadarshini Desai, a 37-year-old mother of two who lives in the US and is currently visiting India, said that she draws a lot of flak for not hitting her children after they make a mistake.
"My family members say that all this doesn’t work in India, it might work in the US. They say that not hitting means I won't have any control over them but I don’t want to control my children,” she said.
Desai said that her family members were appalled at how ‘free’ her children were at a family gathering. “I was shamed by senior members for not hitting my toddlers. One of them supposedly spoke rudely with a family member and I gently rebuked her and asked her to repeat the same request gently and kindly. I told her that we should be respectful while talking to anyone around us. She immediately changed her tone and rectified her mistake, but I got an earful,” she added.
She said that she doesn’t want to resort to hitting her children to discipline them as these incidents “form core memories and instill fear.”
What Can You Do To Help A Child In Distress?
A Sanskrit teacher at a popular school in Maharashtra’s Nagpur shared an experience about her students. “A boy in my class gets bullied by his father and that has impacted his performance at school. When I found out about the bullying he faces at home, I immediately booked an appointment with our school’s child psychologist on his behalf,” she said.
A similar incident happened with Khanna, who had conducted a seminar at a school in Mumbai. A 14-year-old girl approached her afterwards and sought therapy. “I could only ask her to visit her school-appointed counsellor as I personally could not do anything to help that child unless a consenting adult was present on her behalf. This is where our country lacks when it comes to focussing on its young population. There are no safe ways mapped for children to seek help,” lamented Khanna.
Dr Neha Bhave, a clinical psychiatrist from Nagpur, said, "Mental health and awareness has fallen out of the ambit of protection of children. If children in countries such as the US, UK or Ireland even remotely disclose that they were hit by their parents, the authorities clamp down on them. Here, it takes a lot of time for anyone to even notice, let alone speak up. Lack of awareness on basic child rights is staggering."
She added, "While the directions in cases of sexual abuse are clearer, in case of mental or emotional harassment, to establish the first point of contact can still seem unsafe to many."
Only in extreme cases are the authorities, which are often only the police, involved. “Around 30 percent of my adult patients come exclusively to me for help in recovering from issues related to their parents,” she added.
While that is still a high number, the change can be seen. Dr Bhardwaj added, “At least the emotional vocabulary of the generation is changing. They are more aware and have better access to resources.”
For instance, reading books on parenting helped Desai form a better relationship with her children, she said. "I picked up on how other immigrant or native people spoke with their children in the US. This helped a great deal,” she added.
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