A tragic number of children have been raised to practice self-sacrifice and self-erasure in order to meet the needs of others, mainly their primary caregivers. This is often the main function that the child serves in the parent-child dynamic. This is wrong because it’s the parent’s responsibility to take care of the child, not vice versa.
However, what often happens is that people have children when they are not ready to do so. Not so much in a material sense, although sometimes this is true too, but rather in a psychological and emotional regard. Many people who have children haven’t resolved their own past issues. As a result, they end up having children for the wrong reasons and end up replicating the trauma or its symptoms that they suffered in the past.
In some instances, the parent is actually well meaning and actually tries not to traumatize the child by seeking professional help and doing a lot of self-work. But in most cases, the parent says that they want what’s best for the child but in actuality they don’t really want to try because it’s too inconvenient and too much hard work. Or worse, their hate for the child is explicit.
Wittingly or unwittingly, the result of this kind of parenting—that, again, stems from previous lacking parenting—is that a child is raised in a way to be subservient to others often to the degree that they become people-pleasers, have poor boundaries, self-sacrifice, or even act in a severely self-destructive manner.
Here are five common ways a child is raised to take care of others at the expense of their own healthy well-being.
1. Lack of love and care
This includes obvious cases of overt psychical, sexual, and verbal abuse. It also involves covert or passive abuse, like neglect, abandonment, emotional unavailability, vicarious abuse where the child is put in harmful environments, gaslighting, or “nice” manipulations and lies.
Here, the child learns that they are unlovable, bad, defective, not good enough, unimportant, invisible, and in constant threat of danger. The effects of this kind of behavior haunt a person well into their adulthood and often last a lifetime.
2. False teachings regarding others
Parents and other authority figures teach a child many false beliefs, either by telling the child explicitly, or implicitly by the way they treat them.
A few examples of the messages the child receives can be the following: “Parents are always right.” “Blood is thicker than water.” “I’m your father/mother/teacher, so I know better.” “Family is everything.” “You’re just a child.” “Don’t be selfish (meaning, you are not important; your duty is to meet my needs).”
Here, the child learns that whoever is stronger is in charge. They also learn that you can’t question authority. And that you are always subservient to the parent. And that authority is always right.
3. Skewed self-worth and self-esteem
In toxic childhood environments, a child is taught many harmful beliefs about themselves, most of which they later internalize and it becomes their self-perception.
For instance, the child learns that that they are worthless, that they are responsible for everything that goes wrong, that they are overly incompetent (learned helplessness), that they can’t trust anyone and have to do everything themselves, and that their self-esteem depends purely on other people’s perception (e.g., if people like me then everything is good, if they don’t then everything is bad).
4. Unreasonable expectations and doomed-to-fail scenarios
A lot of children are raised in a way where they are expected to be perfect. Their caregivers set unrealistic standards where no matter what the child does they are punished for “failing.”
In reality, making mistakes is normal and even necessary in order to learn and grow. However, many children are forbidden to make mistakes and receive severe consequences, be it overt punishments or rejection and withdrawal of love and care.
As a result they become neurotic and overly anxious, or perfectionistic, or unmotivated and unproductive, or even unwilling to do anything.
5. True thoughts and emotions are forbidden
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults:
“A person’s feelings communicate important information about their environment and well-being, and their thoughts reflect their perception of reality and help them more accurately conceptualize and codify this reality and the information within it. … It is a cruel crime against children to restrict them from being in touch with their feelings and thoughts and from expressing them authentically.”
To adjust to and survive in a toxic and potentially dangerous environment, a child learns to repress their true feelings and thoughts because to do otherwise means to risk losing the caregiver-child bond. And so the child learns to comply and self-erase. Such an adult may be clueless of who they truly are and how they truly feel because they were forced very early on to repress their true self.
Often a significant portion of one’s true self—one’s true identity—is lost forever. That’s why proper childrearing is so important. It’s easier to raise a child well than fix a wounded adult.
But, to leave you on a more positive and hopeful note, in many cases a person is able to re-discover their self and heal the damage through self-work and with the help of a caring and empathetic expert.
Did you recognize any of this in your own upbringing? How did it affect you? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.