What you need to know:
- ‘My mum changed after my dad passed away. She was simply not there for me emotionally.’ Anthony
- ‘My parents started telling me their marital problems and I was forced to stay neutral.’ Loiza
For many people, memories of childhood conjure up images of games, friendships, and fun. We think of chapati days for special occasions, running to school in the morning, rushing back home in the evening in dirty clothes as proof of just how much we enjoyed ourselves.
Yet, some will remember teachers targeting them for punishment and telling them that they will never be successful, or parents, in bouts of anger, saying they should have given birth to a mango that could be eaten instead of a bad child. They remember violence meted out on them for mistakes that would be acceptable for a child to make.
There are many cases of children abused so much they fled home, finding the open streets as a safer option than the same roof with their parents. Mainstream media has carried stories of children molested by their parents, burnt for stealing a coin or coming back home late.
The World Health Organisation defines childhood trauma and adversity as all forms of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, or exploitation that result in actual or potential harm to a child.
Childhood trauma can manifest in several ways, like beatings, rejection, physical and emotional neglect, sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, being bullied, and so much more.
Children are especially vulnerable because they can’t process these negative experiences like adults do. They end up blaming themselves, feeling guilty, ashamed, and disconnected, and developing harmful coping mechanisms that often show in adulthood. Some will have difficulty managing emotions, become rebellious, develop anxiety, and become quick to anger.
Research by the World Health Organisation on the impact of adverse childhood experiences shows that in the absence of childhood adversity there would be a 22.9 percent reduction in mood difficulties, 31 percent reduction of anxiety, 41.6 percent reduction of behavioural difficulties, 27.5 percent reduction of substance-related difficulties.
Anthony Mwangi, 42, says he was emotionally neglected as a child, and now he is unable to fully connect with others and be vulnerable.
“It was as if I did not exist. My father died when I was quite young, and my mother changed. Maybe she was dealing with loss, but she was never interested in anything I did. To her, provision was parenting. No matter how good I tried to be, she was just not there for me emotionally. She only acknowledged my presence whenever something had gone wrong and someone had to be blamed.”
Anthony’s coping mechanism was to become hyper-independent. He stopped seeking connection and affirmation from other people, feeling that it always led to disappointment.
“I felt that something was wrong with me. I became angry at the world, and I started taking alcohol out of rebellion. I mean, what business would anyone have telling me to stop when they were not interested in who I was? And to be honest, I don’t know how my wife accepted me, because I still don’t feel like I am fully vulnerable with her.”
Anthony said that he is not close to his children, and just sees them as little humans running around. His children do not hang around him when he is present because of the lack of connection.
Dysfunctional marriage and parenting also affects children. Patricia Onyango told DN Parenting that childhood trauma informed her decision to neither get married nor have children.
“As a firstborn, having a front-row seat to all the dysfunction that was my parent’s marriage simply because of miscommunication, delusional adherence to tradition, and failed dreams had me question whether the institution and procreation were things I wanted to subject myself to,” Patricia says.
The lack of parental support affected others that DN Parenting spoke to. Peris Abuga, despite having both parents alive, was forced to parent her brother even before she completed high school.
Peris says that she was parentified so much that she is afraid if she has children, she will do the same to them. Parentification refers to the roles of a child and parent being switched. The child becomes the one that provides emotional and practical support, including raising siblings, being the parent’s confidant and counsel, mediating conflict, and being the source of comfort.
While this might seem as though the child is being entrusted with the responsibility that will help them navigate independence in the future, it can exceed the child’s abilities and resources.
“Immediately after high school, I was taking my brother to school, attending visiting days, and attending PTA meetings on my own. My father worked in a nearby town, and my mother was always busy at work. If they had wanted to handle these things, they would have but they left it to me. When my grandfather died, my father took me out of school to accompany him to my brother’s school.”
It didn’t hit Peris what her father’s intention was until he asked Peris, still a teenager, to break the news to her brother.
“Why couldn’t he handle that responsibility?” Peris asks. “At his age, he had seen more death. Why would he leave that task to me?”
Loiza Paul was in Class 6 when things became financially difficult for their parents and she and her siblings had to go live with their grandparents.
“In the same year, I knew I had to protect my siblings from my paternal grandmother. That woman is something else. She didn’t, and has never, hidden the fact that we are not her favourite grandchildren.”
Loiza says that her father is a ‘mama’s boy’ and can see no evil in his mother, so Loiza learned to protect her siblings and mother.
“In high school, things were so bad that during the holidays I’d go eat at my friend’s house under the pretext of studying so that I was one less mouth to feed. Whatever my mum got, she could feed my siblings.”
Loiza, just like Anthony, became hyper-independent. In college, she asked her father to only look for school fees, saying she would raise the pocket money.
“I used to stay up for 48 hours picking extra shifts at work for my upkeep. I did not want to be a burden to anyone. I also took over paying either part of school fees for my siblings or sending them pocket money. My parents started telling me their marital problems and I was forced to stay neutral and not take sides. It made me a parent to my parents. When I started working, my sister became my child. The teachers knew me more than they knew my parents. I call her my firstborn.”
Loiza says that sacrificing her happiness and personal development has made her crave freedom. Even though she loves her siblings, she feels that her brother still treats her like his parent, so the relationship is not as close as it could be.
“I hate PTA meetings because I’ve done them with my siblings, and I hate being the one to discipline them. I was a parent before giving birth, and I don’t like it. I don’t want to be responsible for another human. I just want to be responsible for myself and have a quality life, and I don’t think children are the quality life for me.”
A study presented at the European Congress of Psychiatry found that individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety and have had traumatic childhood experiences are more likely to become angry adults.
The lead researcher, Nienke De Bles from Leiden University in the Netherlands, said "We found that children who suffered emotional neglect had an increased tendency to grow into adults who were irritable or easily angered, whereas those who had been physically abused had a greater tendency towards anger attacks or antisocial personality traits.”
She added that easily angered individuals might have more difficulty with personal interactions.
“I have a bad temper,” Anthony Mwangi says. “I was once fired because of insubordination. During marriage counselling, the pastor recommended I seek professional help, and it was there that I learned why I was the way I was.
The fact that I was so underappreciated and neglected as a child, coupled with my hyper-independence, made me crave acceptance. So being given directions, or being reprimanded by my bosses, brought up those feelings of not being enough. I am constantly trying to work on it, and I thank God I have a supportive wife. It is my children that I now have to prove to that they should not be afraid of me.”
Even though Patricia Onyango did not receive professional help, introspection made her realise that she has the same personality as her father.
“I'm afraid that the possibility of me reliving their marriage is very high,” Patricia says. “Also, there are times I get frustrated or angry with children around me and I think "that's what my mother must have been feeling." and I can't bear the thought of transferring aggression like that.”
Peris Abuga says that she is not sure she wants to have children because she is scared of being her children’s first bully.
“I am scared of tearing them down or giving them complexes. I am scared I will make them feel like they're not good enough. I'm scared my children won't be able to talk to me because it might trigger me to compete in the Victim Olympics like my father. If I say I am tired, he says he is more tired. I should not express my feelings.”
Peris got professional help to deal with her trauma. She has a psychiatrist for when medication is needed, and a therapist to talk through things. She is now able to set and enforce boundaries without feeling guilty.
“My psychiatrist tells me we need therapy the same way we take a car to service. His analogy is, if you were cooking beans and burned them, would you eat them? So why wouldn't you seek help for something so big that it controls what you feel, how you hear, or even function?”
Expert’s take with Priscillah Ndunge Omucheni
Identifying patterns caused by trauma can be done with the help of a therapist, who can assess for trauma using psychological assessment tools.
Nevertheless, an individual can do a self-assessment and see if they exhibit some of the following symptoms: having constant stress, co-dependency for everything, being a slave to your partner and everyone, low self-esteem, substance abuse, fear of making mistakes, loss of speech or paralysis whenever the memories are triggered, hostility towards a spouse and children or in some cases impotency.
In order to break free from childhood trauma, you first need to realise that you have an issue bothering you, then decide to seek help through therapy.
For parents, it is important to ensure that you are not transferring trauma to your children. Audit your own upbringing: how was it? What did you like, or not like? What can you apply in your own parenting, and what can you let go? How best can you make your children’s lives better than theirs without overcompensating what you missed as a child?
The moment parents get in touch with the reality of what they experienced and what they missed in their growing up, they will adjust their parenting styles not to underdo or overdo it.
It is common for first born children to be most affected by childhood trauma. According to Alfred Adler a renowned psychologist, firstborns are dethroned after another sibling is born and immediately sibling rivalry begins as they compete for parental attention.
Yet firstborns are parentified especially in Africa and in Kenya to be precise. They are made to raise their younger siblings, taking all the blame for anything going wrong, being punished for younger siblings' mistakes, and being over-disciplined to be role models to their younger siblings.
They also suffer what we call displacement from their parents -this is when an impulse (usually aggression) is redirected onto a powerless substitute target. For example, parents who are frustrated at work and are not able to confront their boss may come home and displace their frustration with their child especially the firstborn who is “parenting” the siblings.
It is, however, important to note that some character traits are not caused by childhood trauma. They could be inherited, gained as trauma in adulthood, or just due to the personality of an individual. However, it is best to assess to find out when the issue began. If childhood assessment rules out the issue, then other avenues like traumatic events in adulthood, generational patterns, and personality tests would help.
As parents/caregivers, we shape children’s lives and everyday experiences, which has a major impact on their cognitive, academic, and socio-emotional development. Therefore, let us be intentional with our parenting.
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