One of the primary roles of a parent should be preparing their children to be safe, protected, and secure in adulthood, preparation that begins in childhood, encouraging the child’s growth into maturity. When successful, parents prepare children who become adults who are able to care adequately for their own basic needs and are also responsive to the needs of others without compromising their own self-care in the process. In dysfunctional homes, children derive too much of their identity and sense of self from within the family or specifically from another family member. When they enter the world of adults without having adequately shaped their identity, they have much difficulty in relationships when they move on from the family of origin.
How Parents Fail to Provide for Dependency Needs
Many types of abuse result when parents fail to respect their child’s dependency needs and balance those needs with gradual preparation for their child’s independence from the family. Children learn the lessons and skills of self-care in adulthood through the ways in which their parents meet (or fail to meet) their needs, as well as the habits they observe in their own parents who model their own self-care.
Degrees of Neglect
Obviously parents who neglect their children fail to provide for their needs, be they material, psychological, intellectual, emotional or spiritual, but there are other more subtle ways in which a parent can abuse a child’s dependence and limitations.
A parent may have a false idea or expectation that children should not be needy or may become frustrated with the needs that they have. They will meet the child’s physical needs, but they will communicate to the child in some way that their duty to responsibly care for them is a great hardship. They may fail to keep adult matters private and may inappropriately share details about finances or other concerns with the child in a way that is appropriate and understandable. The parent may also directly or indirectly convey an attitude of resentment towards the child because of their responsibilities to provide for them. Children are very perceptive and emotionally aware in most cases because they look to the parent as a mirror for themselves so that they can learn to be like the parent as they grow. In extreme manifestations of parental resentment, the parent may become aggressive or predatory with the child, punishing them for their dependency.
When the parent communicates resentment or fails to adequately shield the child from their adult concerns involved in providing for them, the child absorbs the message as one of shame for having any needs. The literature on addictions refers to this experience as the “shame-existence bind,” a type of Pharisaical type of double bind that creates a no-win situation for the child. The child may also be told that they are selfish for having needs or that their common, basic needs are unusual or unreasonable. The parent may have their own misconceptions about their own needs and wants, viewing the care of their own basic needs as optional, or they may behave as though all of their wants are synonymous with their basic needs. They can only model for and give to the child that which they have themselves, so they may convey their own misguided feelings about guilt over needs to their children who will follow the parent’s example and will tend to adopt their ways of thinking about wants and needs.
In these cases, the child not only learns shame for having basic needs, they also learn that being interdependent with others in a healthy way as they seek to meet their needs is an unsafe and painful process that also produces shame. The parent either fails to realize for themselves or fails to teach their child that individuals must be interdependent and that this interdependence is a healthy, normal, and often pleasurable part of daily life and is necessary for survival.
Though Jim Fay (co-founder of the Love and Logic Institute) identifies these traits as a part of a parenting style, they also describe a manner by which parents show disrespect to the dependency needs of a child. Fay describes this parent as one who “hovers over children and rescues them from the hostile world in which they live” in a set of predictable ways.
The Helicopter Parent [with Blog Host notes added]:
Provides messages of weakness and low personal worth
Makes excuses for the child, but complains about [how the child has] mishandled responsibilities[which sends a confusing and shaming mixed message to the child]
Takes on the responsibility of the child
Protects the child from any possible negative feelings
Makes decisions for the child
Provides no structure, but complains, “After all I’ve done for you…”
Whines and uses guilt: “When are you ever going to learn? I always have to clean up after you.”
Whines and complains about having an irresponsible child who causes “me” much work and responsibility
Uses lots of words and actions that rescue or indicate that the child is not capable or responsible
Protects child from natural consequences, uses guilt [as opposed to consequences] as the teacher
(Here, too, the parent’s resentment for their responsibility to provide for the child’s needs presents as a feature in overprotective parenting, just as it does in patterns of parental neglect.) In essence, this type of over-protective parent cannot moderate their own feelings of fear and anxiety. They end up extraverting and/or projecting their own adult emotions on to their child who pays the bill for their own deficiency. The child absorbs the parent’s feelings, learning not only anxiety and passive-aggressive communication as a standard of what is normal but also that they [as the child] are a great burden that creates intense stress/pain for their parent. Again, the parent projects this experience and shame on to the child which they, in turn, internalize. The child responds by feeling responsible for the parent.
Another failure to appropriately honor the dependency needs of a child occurs when a parent uses a child in some way to meet their own adult needs, needs that are only appropriately met by another adult. In healthy parenting, nurture flows from the mature adult who is rich in resources to the child who only has the resources that the parent provides for them. The child lacks information, experience in relationships, rational thought, boundaries, and a standard of what constitutes good/appropriate behavior. The primary source of all of those things comes from the parent upon whom they depend physically for their survival. The child is not in a position to walk away from the parent and doesn’t have the internal resources or experience to be able to set limits on the parent if they behave inappropriately.
In dysfunctional families, quite often, the parent has relationship difficulties with other adults, but they find in their child an attentive and wonderful little person who lacks all of the typical friction that they encounter in their interaction with adults. Their child has no boundaries and accepts whatever the parent presents to them as trustworthy and good, lacking those friction-creating factors that the parent experiences with adults. Failing to honor the dependency needs of their child, they can reverse the flow of nurture when they begin to use the child as a source of friendship or as a resource to use in order to meet their adult needs. (This differs from assigning age-appropriate duties to a child which help teach them how to appropriately care for their own needs and to function interdependently within the family.)
The child merges with the parent and becomes dependent on them for their sense of identity and worth. The child internalizes the needs and reality of the parent and identifies them as their own instead of learning and growing to develop their independent sense of self and their own, age-appropriate reality. In some respects, the child gains a sense of power and specialness, knowing that they are of such importance and are so intimate emotionally with the parent At the same time, they also realize that they have become responsible for meeting the needs and attending to the welfare of the parent, an overwhelming experience. Their inner life revolves around the parent’s needs and involves a great amount of fear. Instead of developing worth and a sense of accomplishment based on their own experiences, they draw that worth and confidence from the duties that they perform for the parent.
Dependency as a Religious Concept
As mentioned in a recent post, some aberrant Christian groups which overemphasize hierarchy and authoritarianism teach that subordinates must endure any type of treatment from their superiors, and that mistreatment should not be protested but should be viewed as an experience which builds virtue. In some instances, such as in Bill Gothard’s ideology of authority and submission, bearing unjust mistreatment mystically serves as an opportunity to accumulate God’s favor which can be channeled to use as power to accomplish virtuous acts.
Residents at Hephzibah House are taught that their moral status which resulted in their placement at the facility deprived them of status and relegated them to obligatory abuse, a disrespect of their dependency needs as teenagers deprived them of physical sustenance and protection which was reinforced by intense physical and psycholological abuse. In many groups, Complementarian theology supports obligatory servitude based on gender, promoting enmeshment for women as a religious requirement. In Vision Forum’s form of patriarchy which is also taught by the Botkin Family, the theology requires that all family members deny their independence, personal needs, and inner personal experience in favor of their family patriarch’s code of conduct and “vision” for the mission of the family. All of these examples institutionalize dysfunctional behavior, misrepresenting these requirements as the minimum standard taught in the Bible and required by God, carrying eternal, spiritual consequences.
Many religious traditions also teach the need for a spiritual intercessor putting other people in between that person’s access to God and spiritual things. Complementarianism and systems that define women as dependent on a male overseer suggest in various ways that women need men to make spiritual intercession for them. By teaching that a woman is of lesser essence in some way (such as Complementarian teaching that women are made indirectly in or are the derivative image of God) and that women are created solely and primarily for the purpose of ministry to men, these ideologies foster and facilitate dependency and dysfunction. In other traditions such as those followed in the Shepherding/Discipleship Movement or in systems of ecclesiocentricty (the church and pastor as the central element of and authority in a Christian’s life), such systems foster dysfunctional paternalistic dependency as opposed to healthy interdependence.
Consequences and Outcomes Experienced by the Adult
For the adult who was neglected in childhood wherein the parent failed to provide for their needs, the adult carries over their childhood coping mechanism into their adult life which manifests as lack of self-care, still affected by the shame-existence bind they learned in childhood. They’ve learned to ignore their needs and have never learned to be aware of them which usually presents through neglect of self through poor or absent self-care in different areas of their life.
Though this individual may have a collapsed social life wherein they fail to attend to their own emotional care, they may also demonstrate a type of demonstrative craving for love and affection producing “love addiction.” Developmental deficits tend to be overcome through learning and counsel, but love addiction becomes a basic compulsion which revolves around fear of abandonment and is more intense than a simple failure to provide for self-care. Those who develop love addiction seek enmeshment with others in their adult relationships as an addictive way of dealing with their internal feelings of emptiness.
Read more about the dynamics of Love Addiction and Love Avoidance that develop from the abuse of dependency needs in these posts at the Overcoming Botkin Syndrome blog. In contrast to the love addicted, those who develop love avoidance find their self-worth in caretaking as a consequence of enmeshment, and intimacy in relationship is replaced by duty and deadness. The drama created by the dysfunctional dynamics becomes mistaken for passion, intimacy and love.
Adults who learned that basic needs were shameful tend to be aware of their basic needs but often fail to seek to meet them. They’ve learned that interdependence results in shame and can involve punishment of some kind, so they avoid their needs to avoid discomfort. The experience of unmet physical needs in childhood creates emotional consequences in adulthood, interfering with the adult’s ability to trust. Dependency plays on their sense of trust and vulnerability, so the building of emotional walls tends to go hand in hand with this type of denial of needs.
Alternately, an adult can also extravert their frustration and can become aggressive, particularly if they never learned the distinction between wants and needs. They may misinterpret all of their wants and desires as needs, and they will go to any lengths to meet their desires. This may lead to self-destructive poor self management and planning. Such problems often result in financial problems as well as boundary issues in relationships with other adults.
The child of the over-protective parent fails to develop effective and appropriate self-care traits and behaviors which can result in self-care deficits. They were not encouraged to problem solve or anticipate their needs, so they fail to attend to them, though they are generally well aware of them. In relationships, these adults tend to be very needy and helpless and usually resort to manipulative behavior to get others to meet the needs that the parent once met for them. These individuals become prime targets for manipulation by those with poor external boundaries, religious con men, and other types of exploitation when a manipulator promises to meet their needs.
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.