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Do you resort to symbolic punishment as a parent?

Symbolic punishment is far more damaging than other forms of punishment.

This incident happened about five years back when my daughter was in college. I visited her and got lucky to stay in the boarding house with the girls. As expected, there was chaos in the three-bedroom house where ‘officially’ eight girls lived. You can imagine how it might have been. It was great fun to be with the girls and become an accepted member of their tribe. The girls soon opened their hearts to me. They were excited to share all their adventures. They took me to all the places they went to hang out. It was fun.

One particular girl with colored hair was most endearing. Very pure at heart, we made an instant connection. It was almost like she was missing her mother. The trip went well. They called me the fairy godmother because I helped them sort out the mess and brought a little order back for a while. I guess they liked that I never judged or questioned their choices. After I left, a few girls used to call me whenever they wanted to talk about something. I loved that they trusted me and felt grateful to be a part of their personal life.

Once I got a frantic call from the colored hair girl. She was in trouble, this time for staying outside the hostel beyond the curfew hours. The authorities had sent a mail to her parents, and she wanted me to lie to her parents that she was with me. I was not in favor of telling a lie to any parent. However, soon, I got a call from her mother that if I did not say that the girl was with me, her father would discontinue her education. Now that was a serious matter, and I had to make some tough decisions. I got on a call with the parents later. When the father asked if the girl was with me, I decided to use the opportunity to compassionately educate the parents about building trust with their child and how it is so critical for the child to be able to share things with them. That was five years ago, and the girls have moved on in their life. They are flourishing, though some are still figuring out their way, and some are yet to start their journey on a meaningful career path.

Deeply embedded in the experience described above lies symbolic punishment. Parents resort to symbolic punishment when they label or stigmatize certain activities or traits as antisocial, deviant, or undesirable.

The Context

Most of us do not think twice before eavesdropping when teenagers talk to their friends or check everything from their phones to books to find out what is going on in their lives. We have normalized the invasion of teenager privacy in the guise of keeping them safe. As a result, most teenagers end up living a double life. An absolute lack of trust permeates the parent-teenager relationships across India, and often we do not notice it.

With such deep infringements of boundaries, children find it difficult, for example, to write their diaries and explore their thoughts in privacy because of the fear of their parents reading them. It also means that children constantly look over their shoulders and live a life where they never share their real identities. It results in a parental need to push past the boundaries further, and the noose keeps getting tighter for the children.

Trauma like this makes it very difficult for teenagers to get past and heal. They never learn to live an authentic life or stand up for themselves. It further causes trust issues and unfounded fears in their adult relationships and friendships later on in life. Thus, the saga of mistrust continues across generations. We get stuck in a vicious cycle of putting on a front that is so very tiring. We end up living a less satisfying life.

The Cause

Sanjana Shah and Preeti Nakhat note in a paper published in the International Journal of Indian Psychology in 2018 that though children and parents perceive their relationship as cordial at a surface level, a deeper analysis of their answers reveals elements of mistrust detrimental to their relationships. They note that those factors prevent children from acquiring life skills. Most of the time, these deeply embedded patterns of mistrust force the parents and children believed that it is for the larger good. They further suggest that symbolic punishment works as a means to reinforce the pattern of mistrust.

As Sanjana and Preeti note in their paper, even the 129 teenagers who rated their parents high on relationship cordiality had real difficulty connecting with their parents at a deeper level. The 79 of them had very demanding parents. The 46 of them felt they face symbolic punishment at home.

There is research evidence that parents resort to symbolic punishment to foster dependence. They do not allow their teenage children to have privacy and disapprove of their decisions. This behavior seems to stem from an intrinsic need to appear as parents of seemingly successful children. The inability to be selfless and help children develop life skills probably originates from their lack of self-confidence and a deep-seated fear about their material and emotional well-being beyond their productive years.

The Impact

Symbolic punishment as a psychological punishment plays out by ignoring, neglecting, or making the child feel unwanted. Thus symbolic punishment has a long-lasting impact on the child, leaving the child susceptible to feeling guilty about almost everything in life. The aroused limbic system leaves a child in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, thereby depleting a child’s internal capacity to reason or make decisions. Growing up in a state of perpetual alertness to avoid punishment teaches your teenager to become an effective manipulator.

These states in which the child grows up not only affect the child’s intelligence but also build a constant state of feeling unsafe and insecure. Growing up to feel constantly guilty and embarrassed leaves the child unsatisfied with life even as they grow up into adulthood. Children who face extreme versions of symbolic punishment grow up feeling abandoned and lonely. These underlying patterns go on to impact all their future relationships.

We expect children to fulfill the rigid expectations of their parents. When children fail to meet our expectations, they face serious consequences. Children feel constricted and go berserk with every small window of freedom. Their energy and focus get distracted by the single need to rebel.

Children want to be heard, believed and accepted growing up, to blossom into beautiful personalities. To grow up believing they are enough and they are loved, they need a support structure. Children love it when parents are involved in their day-to-day lives. When parents ask questions about their day at school and participate in their activities enthusiastically, children feel connected and share their fears and distress seeking help. When parents judge their kids and compare them with others, they feel disconnected and unsafe. Providing that safe space is the single most important function of a parent.

About the Author

Rosama Francis

Rosama Francis started her career as a teacher and soon found herself motivated to help students find their potential. She went on to head schools soon after and found all her work centered around finding people's strengths. It was an intuitive understanding that everyone has their unique potential and only by focusing on that, will that individual find success. She soon gravitated towards her career as a coach and still wake up to a life that she loves. Rosama Francis is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about her work here.


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