Among child welfare professionals, there’s a saying, “Neglect is harder to treat than abuse.” I’ve found those words as true as they are sad. When maltreatment takes the form of something bad that happens to a kid, we can tell that child, “This is wrong, it should NOT have happened. You were betrayed…”
But when the child was left home alone for too long, never made to feel safe, never provided regular meals, the result is… a mess. These kids are not sure what a grown up is for, because they have no frame of reference that says adults provide supervision and safety. Often, a badly neglected child can’t tell you she’s tired–she might be exhausted, but she’s never learned to hear or monitor the internal signals that say, “My body needs rest.”
In the same sense, such a kid might not be able to register “I’m hungry,” or even, “I’m full.” They’ll eat whatever’s on hand, and not stop until they’ve made themselves sick.
The good news is that most children can learn to listen to their body’s signals, to heed signs of fatigue, hunger, and satiety. They can gradually accept authority, provided that authority also provides safety, reasonable routine, and age-appropriate information. Better still, they can build on those skills to learn to accurately label the emotions they’re feeling, which is a skill many of us fail to master even as adults.
I usually think of myself as having little in common with child welfare clients–my childhood would be the envy of many–but I recall clearly when a friend said to me, “Nobody explained much to you as a kid, did they?” She asked me this, because I’m very much a doubting Thomasina. I will not take you word for much, unless I’ve established that I can trust you, and that you’re competent, knowledgeable and have good intentions toward me. I figure stuff out for myself, thank you very much.
And my friend was right. I am the sixth out of seven children, and neither of my parents had time to explain to me why the alphabet has 26 letters, why some are vowels and some consonants. Why do we call it small talk? Just exactly how does one tie a shoe?
Like those foster kids, I had no clue there were parents who regarded it as part of their job to ‘splain things. Never occurred to me such parents might exist, and that’s not entirely bad. I have learned much because I don’t take other people’s knowledge at face value.
But it’s not entirely good, either. Explaining life to a child is part of a parent’s job description, and unless I twigged to the deficit in my own upbringing, I was at risk for perpetuating the deficit in my daughter. I’m glad my friend was perceptive about my upbringing.
These gaps in our interpersonal vocabulary are hard to spot, but once you realize you’re on the receiving end of a cause-and-effect that wasn’t ideal (like my parents being too busy to explain things), repairing the damage is a form of coming home. I use this dynamic in my books a lot–the hero is often the first person to put together for the heroine why she functions (over functions) or hurts or is afraid in a particular way. She does the same for him, and more important, each does it for the other in a way that can be heard.
“Why” you are the way you are can lead to coming home to yourself. Who helped you find a path home?
I won’t be able to respond much to comments until later today, but I will respond–promise. To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of Lady’s Jenny’s Christmas Portrait. (Already!)
Two Roads Diverged In a Yellow Wood…
I’VE SEEN SO MUCH OF THIS, GRACE, WHEN WORKING FOR TACOMA SCHOOL DISTRICT, THESE CHILDREN CRAVED LOVE, NOT KNOWING THE TO CALL IT LOVE…A WANTING OF…AS YOU SAY, ‘reasonable routine’…AND WITH RULES/REGULATIONS, IT WAS DIFFICULT TO JUST GIVE A HUG…THESE CHILDREN WOULD WATCH AND ABSORB AS MUCH AS THEY COULD, UNDERSTANDING WHEN EXPLAINED…I TOO, GREW UP IN A FAMILY STRUCTURE OF PARENTS BEING PASSED AROUND WHEN YOUNG, THEY DIDN’T KNOW MUCH WHEN THEY MARRIED, MORE SELF-TAUGHT BY READING AND HELPING EACH OTHER, WHEN WE CHIDREN CAME ALONG, SO DID THE BASICS…FOOD, CLOTHING AND SHELTER…BOOKS CAME ALONG ONLY BECAUSE OF PARENTS’ OWN INTEREST…MONEY AND WORK CAME FIRST…EVEN THE SUGGESTION OF COLLEGE WAS NEVER THERE…I WILL ALWAY BELIEVE THAT MY MANNERS AND HOW TO TREAT OTHERS CAME FROM WATCHING TV SHOWS.
We could probably make a list of television shows that helped fill in gaps for us: Leave It To Beaver; The Waltons; Andy of Mayberry; Sesame Street… My parents did the best they could, but even knowing there were options out there helped me make sense of the world.
The thing that shaped me most, I think, was the fact that my dad was a civil engineer, and that meant the family moved to follow the work. This was in the 50s, when roads and bridges were going up all over. My mom was really good at making each new place home, but each school year was a new beginning, because we were usually only in each locality a year. I learned to make friends quickly once the school year started, knowing we would be moving on before long. And I learned to love reading, because those friends were always available, and could last a lifetime.
Polly, was there a pattern in your adult life/relationships, of getting itchy feet after about a year? Or were you bound and determined never to uproot your kids? My grandfather was an engineer, and my mom’s upbringing was a lot like yours. She picked an academic sorta husband, hoping he wouldn’t move around much, and in that, she chose well.
My parents divorced when I was in Jr. High & there was a lot of fighting in the years before. I had to move & switch school districts. Luckily, I loved school & did well. I have great memories of some of my high school teachers & how they made subjects more interesting, particularly my English & music classes.There were a few after school clubs that added to the enjoyment.
School can certainly be a haven, if you’re lucky. I’m sorry your parents put you through that. If ever there’s a time when we need Mom and Dad to keep it adult, it’s when we’re coping with adolescence. ARGH.
My parents divorced when I was 4 making my mom a single parent in an era when society felt she took jobs from the family bread winner. We had little at home. I realize now I fit the perfect model today for a social worker stepping in & removing both my sister & I as we both had signs of being underfed though we were on the school lunch program & in those days they served us breakfast. Neglect, heck all kids suffered because in St. Mary’s County MD we were in poverty central where no money existed & nobody knew how to parent. They struggled & got by & if nobody ended up in jail then the kids turned out well. Today, I know she did the best she could with what she had at that time & moved out when she could… I now have both my B.S & my M.S. & hold my head high taking the road less diverged… My favorite poem by the way!
Ann, before they remove ANYBODY, they’re supposed to try to make the home situation safe. If you were up to date on your shots, your pediatrician wasn’t worried, you were otherwise developing on track in terms of gross and fine motor skills, speech, and cognition, they probably would have handed your mother a bunch of useless phone numbers and gone back to their steady jobs with benefits for the state.
Good on you, though, for giving Mom credit for doing her best, and letting a tough start inspire you to greater achievement.
I was lucky that I had two parents at home while I was growing up. My dad was gone a lot, but my mom stayed at home and didn’t work. Times were hard and I learned to do without a lot of things. I had many friends that were single parent homes and I don’t know how they did it. I can honestly say that I grew as a person having both parents home with me growing up. I learned from them and their marriage and I am happy to say that they are still married after 40 years and they are what I strive to be to my husband and son.
Sheryl, when I leave court on Thursday, I’m sometimes steamed up about a case, usually tired, often frustrated or bewildered, occasionally relieved… but I am ALWAYS grateful that my parents loved me, and loved each other. They’re up to 68 years together, still living in their own home, and still very much a team.
I think I learned most of what I know about life and relationships from books – they were my refuge as I grew up in a “broken home.” Father was a long distance truck driver who left for good when I was in 7th grade. I married young and ended up a single mother who tried to give my son structure. I needed help from my mother to raise him since I worked and went to school for a number of years while he was growing up. Mother and I did our best with what we had and I think both my son and I turned out well, we live productive, caring lives with no major vices or problems. 😀
One thing I learned from emotionally absent parents: Pay attention to the kid. Sounds like you learned the same thing from Dad, and from a Mom who stuck with you.
Funny, I was just talking about something like this last week. What I got a lot of back in the 50’s when I was growing up was How lucky you are. I was an only in a sea of families with many sibs. They thought it was so cool that I had no one to compete with. But a friend said one time, you know I don’t ever remember seeing your mom or dad… It was all too true, I was a true latch key kid. Also, I was the one who had dinner on the table at 5PM every night and the clean up after. I can’t even remember how old I was when I started that, but very young. Dad passed when I was 15 and Mom had had a nervous break down when I was 12 and was never the same again. I guess I was lucky I really did not get into a lot of trouble with no supervision, but there was always the fear of “the belt”. I had a dream however and when I graduated HS, I left home. Lots of things have shaped me and lots of folks have mentored me, I did not turn out that bad 🙂 I am most proud of the children I raised in a loving nurturing environment.
Georgie, the social workers would no doubt call you, “parentified.” You were the only adult in the house most days, and that’s hard on a kid. Learning how to play can be the happy aim of your happy adulthood.
Mom was the one. I grew up in a stable home with both parents and two siblings. I was the youngest and I was always curious. For most of my early childhood, Mom was a stay-at-home mother. With my sibs in school, I had her all to myself for a few years. We would go grocery shopping and I’d learn how to select fruit. We’d stay home and iron, and I’d learn how to iron Dad’s handkerchiefs. We’d work in the garden and I’d learn how to plant and weed. And over and over, I’d learn unconditional love and life itself. Thanks, Grace, for another thoughtful column.
What lovely memories, and what great luck, to come at the end of the sibling line, so Mom had the most experience, and you did get her all to yourself for a bit.
I’ve always said you never get over your childhood – good and bad. I guess I do some things the same way because it’s what I’m use to or go to the other extreme and do the opposite. And I guess my children think the same way. I feel I’ve improved things that were bad in my life but children seem to dwell on what you’ve not done. At least I hope their list is shorter than mine lol.
All God’s children get baggage they have to deal with, or what’s an adulthood for? What I hope for my daughter is that her baggage is hers, not another incarnation of her parents’. That’s not an entirely realistic wish–it’s maternal wish.
Just skimmed the other comments. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised by the number of comments on divorce or absentee parents (due to jobs), but I am. I had both my parents all the time and still do. Talked to my daddy yesterday. Went to church with them last week.
However, my sister and I have had a discussion similar to this before. What exactly did our parents do to get three adult children who are so awesome? (Because we are.) We’ve made mistakes but we’re all sober and gainfully employed. We form our own opinions that aren’t necessarily those of our parents or one another. We seek our parents advice, but we ultimately make decisions that will move our lives forward.
If someone could tell me why I am like I am it would probably be eye opening for me. 🙂
I think we’re lucky, Sabrina. My parents pulled off the same trick seven times over–we’re all contributing members of society, “settled” in the sense of having a fixed address and profession. They were not an equally good match as parents for all seven of us, and yet, something in the water must have been good for us.
I attribute my circumstances to good luck, grace, happy fortune, and I’m never more grateful than when I walk out of the courthouse every Thursday.
I’ve mentioned here before that my father was both emotionally and physically abusive to my siblings and I. He was a highly regarded educator in the town next to where we lived. We frequently had his former students stopping by to see him and I was always amazed when they’d express how he was their favorite/most influential teacher. It just boggled my mind. But we also knew that he absolutely loved our mother.
As others have said, this was in a time when kids weren’t encouraged to speak out…or even know they could or should.
I make sure to tell my two teen boys that I love them every day (whether they want to hear it or not – LOL). I totally agree that “Neglect is harder to treat than abuse.” Any physically wounds I had are long healed, but the emotional wounds will always be there, no matter how deep I hide them.
Love the poem, Grace. 🙂
Marcy, one of the starting places for treating abusers is to show them, “You say she just pushes your buttons, and you can’t help but react. Look at all the OTHER people who push your buttons–coworkers, neighbors, bosses, church ladies, crossing guards–and you never ONCE over-react with them. You can keep it together if you want to badly enough…”
The pattern of abuse limited to the most powerless people in a person’s life is common–an awful. I’m often surprised in my adult guardianship cases to learn that these sweet little old people whom nobody will look after were terrors thirty years ago. They pay for that in old age, because the people they need most–immediate family–have learned to keep their distance.
Grace this was a very thought provoking blog and I enjoyed reading both it and the comments.
I can’t say my parents taught me a whole lot but it was enough to get along once I was out on my own. My mother did give me my love of reading, though not deliberately but because I wasn’t doing all that good in school. She handed me a first edition, autographed copy of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, told me to read it, then had me do a book report on it for her. I’ve loved to read ever since. In fact I got so engrossed in a book back in the summer of ’76 that I actually read through an earthquake. I admit I was hesitant when Mother came in my room and told me we’d just had an earthquake, at the time we lived in Birmingham, Alabama, but I also knew that she had lived in San Francisco in the late ’40’s so she’d been in several minor ones. The next morning the paper had a headline that read EARTHQUAKE! In big black letters about two inches high. lol
I left home between my junior and senior high school years and worked very hard to make sure I got that diploma. I later went on to get an associate’s degree from one of the local community colleges but never did paid work in the field.
I too was a single mother and one thing I did was stay in San Antonio the whole time my daughter was growing up as I had moved a lot as a child, I attended 15 schools in six different states before I finished high school.
Because of my up bringing I try to help my daughter and her husband whenever I can though most of the time they won’t ask so I’ll just offer.
My mom has sad memories, particularly during the Depression, of moving around and around, wherever her dad could get work. That’s hard on a kid. If you can only give your child one form of stability, a fixed address is a good place to start, Molly. Hats off to you!
You certainly nailed it with this post. Neglect is hard to self-diagnose. And I have struggled with poor eating and sleeping habits.
In our house, everything was great on paper. Mom at home, Dad at work, siblings, living in the country, meals on the table. But yet, if was a house of benign neglect. ‘Don’t bother me’ was the message you got. I ended up poorly socialized, and it has affected all my relationships.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I realized that what I considered ‘normal parent behaviour’ was not normal.
Trying to explain benign neglect always make me feel like a whiner, when I know there is much worse. But it has made me a firm believer that people should ask themselves, before they have kids, WHY do you want kid?
Sing it, sista! I grew up with “Get out of my kitchen!” and “If you don’t have anything to do, I’ll give you something to do!” These were in part the only defenses available to a woman trying to keep seven children safe and out of trouble, but they were also the coping strategies of somebody who dealt with every stress by getting up and moving, while I deal with stress by sitting down and thinking.
But thank goodness for insight and for time, because once we see the mis-matches in our families, the low cards, we can both forgive our parents, and deal ourselves a new, better hand.
PS: I’m poorly socialized too, but maybe that’s where all my imaginary friends come from?
I know now another reason why your books resonate with me. You think like I do in many ways. I am forever trying to figure out what makes a person “tick”. Sometimes it drives my husband nuts, lol. I explained the “whys” a lot to my kids but I also encouraged them to figure it out for themselves. They’ve grown up questioning and coming to conclusions on their own. My favorite game as a child was “how come?”. I played it endlessly with my Grandpa in his lap. Both my children are remarkable problem solvers. My son will be a fantastic engineer when he get’s done with school because of his physic’s instincts nurtured by me, my husband and my parents. My influence-rs were my Mother, my Daddy and the fact that I was so alone/friendless as a child. I filled my alone hours with homework, an A student from endless hours of doing homework not from “smarts”, and reading. Momma and I did everything together. Thanks for filling my reading hours with joy.
G2, I read for hours and hours, then played the piano for hours and hours… maybe I learned to persevere rather than socialize, and that has turned out to be OK. Fortunately, many of us get close to 100 years to figure out all the puts and takes… and when is it a bad idea to be an A student? NEVER.
I know you’ll understand when I say I have both an equine and a human (well actually several but I’ll start with the first major influence) responsible for the path I travel today. My heart horse Ruhe has been in my life almost 19 years and has been such an inspiration of strength and spirit that I feel what courage I so have comes from her and all she has shared with me. On the human side I must must must credit Mr. Michael Hoover for allowing voice to my own opinions and encouraging me to explore the whys, wheres, and whatfors of my feelings and beliefs. An English teacher and drama department head at my high school he was(& is) an adult who acknowledged us as students for what we were willing to put forth of ourselves and always encouraging a wee bit more than we thought we had in us. Because of Mr. Hoover’s faith in the strength of ME, I have “allowed” myself to opt occasionally to take the path less traveled with dome fabulous results 🙂
Dedicated my first book to my junior high English teacher, Kelley. Here’s too all the Mr. and Ms. Hoovers (and Holmans)!
I came from an oddly happy family – not a family without problems, but in spite of alcoholism and bad temper in our early years, the six of us are close, especially the sisters. Given my father’s proclivity to bad boyishness in his younger years, my mother’s family were not fans. Yet, through the years they were confounded that all of us managed to attend college, establish careers and do well for ourselves. On that other side, however, there were drugs, jail time, secrets, lies, estrangement among parents and siblings. Rather sad at this point in our lives. But I think our mother was strong, my dad was a very good person in spite of his drinking, and both of them were very close to their siblings. I don’t believe I am a very strict parent, we didn’t spank or ground, but I could nag! and I made a sincere effort to stay on top of them until they left for college. They love to tell me all the stuff they think they got away with. I recently had breakfast with my younger child who said, ‘mom, you were kind of crazy but somehow we turned out pretty good so…it worked. we just don’t know why.’ Oh, I laughed! I am not sure, either. But I do think I willingly sacrificed a lot for my children, even to my own personal detriment – in other words, when it came to their welfare, I was there. Neither of them ever doubted that they were loved by us, and by their mother, beyond deeply. Sadly, you get to work with children who aren’t cared for by someone who loves them beyond measure – and I’m talking more than boyfriends, girlfriends, drinking, drugs, careers, ‘things’, pleasures etc. and whose parents never sit and have dinner every night. Honestly, I think most kids want a leave it to beaver life, even if they’ve never seen that show. Isn’t it nice to know someone is there, waiting for them, wanting to be with them every day? Someone who cares what they think? I see a lot of privileged children get the short end, too, so it’s not just about money. Grace, thanks for the blessed work you do. xo t
You said a mouthful there: It’s not just about money. Money plays a part, but not even the largest part, I’m convinced. The State will provide necessities for any child in a condition of immediate need, but the State can’t love that child… to me, it’ all about the love, and your kids apparently know that now too.
Excellent post with some great insight. It doesn’t take much thinking that like most of your heros, my husband has helped me find my way around my issues from childhood. 🙂
And you have no doubt done the same for him. Better still, that exercise, of passing an insight in a way somebody can absorb it, does great things for the relationship, and for the respect the partners have for each other.
You chose well, Glenda!
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