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“I don’t want to go back!”
“Let me stay here forever please!”
These were the only two sentences his quivering lips and breaking voice managed to repeat over and over.
Taking refuge behind my living room couch, rivers of tears flowed out of his red eyes. Scrawny, wounded arms held his bruised knees to his chest. He would not move. My sister and I looked at each other, helpless. We both knew that we couldn’t promise that life would suddenly change for the better when he returned home. After an hour of screaming and crying, he submitted to the inevitable. He wiped his tears, gave me and my sister a tight hug, and allowed my father to carry him to the car. When my father returned from sending the brokenhearted boy and his sister home, we sat on the floor where the young child’s tears fell, held hands, and said a prayer.
Last year, my family took care of two of my younger cousins over the March holidays. The older sister we’ll call Audrey, and the younger brother we’ll call Sam. They are both under the age of 9 and come from a single-parent household with an abusive father. The scene I described above was what happened on the last night of their stay.
They came into our care after a police report was made against their father, and the kids had to be temporarily removed from his care.
With my parents at work for most of the day, the main responsibility of taking care of Audrey and Sam fell upon my sister and me. Imagine two teenagers who could barely figure out the washing machine suddenly having to play ‘parents’ to two young children. Nothing could have prepared either of us for it.
These are my main takeaways from those 7 days:
Never underestimate the weight of our words on a child
We are all aware of the notion that our tongues are a double-edged sword. However, we need to understand how our words have an exponentially greater impact when it comes to children. The words we speak are tools that have immense power (and therefore responsibility) to build up or tear down a child.
As humans grow older, we are increasingly able to discern for ourselves what we should or should not believe. Young children, however, are unable to. The human brain is extremely sensitive to its environment during the early stages of life. This means that our brains start perceiving positive and negative impacts of what happens around us before we are even capable of speaking. These stay with us and shape our development.
My cousins are two very different people. I credit this to the stark contrast in the way they are treated at home. Audrey was highly favoured in her father’s eyes as he believed that she brought him luck. Sam, on the other hand, was not.
On many occasions, I would catch Sam punching his head whenever he failed at an activity whilst repeating a sentence no one – especially a child – should ever say.
“I’m so stupid!”
It was painful to watch. My sister would rush over to calm him down and slowly help him process his emotions. There is no way that a child could learn this by himself. It has to be taught. This tendency came from years of verbal and physical abuse from his father, where he was constantly told that he was stupid or dumb.
He was not. If only he knew that he was the most perceptive and intuitive child I’ve met. While other kids his age would be more interested in cartoons, he would always ask us to switch on the news for him to watch. Sam loved to inform me and my family of the day’s headlines, and often did mental sums (in the hundreds) to tell us the number of COVID-19 cases for the day and week. Yet, a few words could destroy any concept of worth and value in him.
Parents often allow anger to cloud their judgment when a child fails to meet their expectations, and say things they do not mean. In the long run, however, these words are fully capable of hammering a permanent dent into a child’s self-worth.
Conversely, the positive impact of affirming words could be seen in Audrey. While she has also suffered under her father’s hand, her younger years were largely comprised of praises and attention. The result? A girl who has a positive view of herself, and has confidence in her ability to do well academically, in her friendships, and her control over her own emotions.
The way we discipline children matters more than we think
While Audrey and Sam were very close, they argued about 50 times a day. Generally, my sister and I would let them work it out on their own, stepping in only if the situation got out of hand. Whenever we did intervene, we always took 1 child each, bringing them to a separate room to talk to them. By no means am I saying that this is the perfect way to discipline a child, but I am a strong believer in the importance of correction in private.
To my knowledge, Audrey and Sam had always been disciplined together. Their father would call both of them to stand in front of him to explain themselves. Following this, one of them would be judged as the sole guilty criminal who had to take all the blame (and beatings). Guess who always had their father’s favour and who didn’t.
Talking to the kids separately meant that there was room for them to fully process their thoughts and emotions without interruption from the other. This way, they were allowed to have their side of the story heard. My sister and I would take this time to ask them why they acted in that manner, and if they thought it was the right way to react.
They always knew it wasn’t.
We always think children simply do not know any better, but they do. What they lack is the space to properly think through and navigate their emotions, and the experience to know what to do with them. Yelling at them about how they’re wrong and how you’re right without any explanation does absolutely nothing to help them learn.
Once the two of them had calmed down and understood that they had both made mistakes, we would bring them back together and let them talk it out. Apologies would be made and forgiveness would be given. It would all end with a big hug between them and peace in the house again.
The purpose of discipline is to help a child learn how to better manage themselves by discerning between right and wrong, not to tell them they’re wrong without telling them how to make it right.
A safe home is a basic need
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a person has to take care of their needs in a certain order: physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization. A person cannot move on to the next need without first fulfilling the one preceding it. Having a home that one feels safe in is a primary requirement that everyone deserves.
I would consider my own family to be the best one I know of. We all have good relationships with one another and have cultivated a culture of conversation instead of cold shoulders.
Whatever happens in life, I have confidence that I can go home to a family who will support me and give me room to grow. Not everyone has that.
It was during that week that I realized how incredibly lucky I am to have parents who know that they cannot just hit and shout at me until I stop crying. My father has always made sure that he explained why what I was doing was wrong, and reminded me that loving me meant that he needed to correct me.
I cannot imagine how exhausting life would be if I had to go out and face the world without having a refuge to return to. Unfortunately, that is the reality of many others. Having a positive home environment has allowed me to boldly step out of my comfort zone, as I always know that I have people to fall back on. It is a privilege that
I often take for granted.
Renowned psychotherapist Virginia Satir once said, “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”
No one receives an instruction manual when they first receive their baby from the hospital nurses. My uncle has been hopping from job to job for years and has been trapped in a cycle of debt. While there is no justifying his actions, I can only begin to imagine the stress he must be facing.
If you are a victim of childhood abuse, please know that you are worth more than you’re told. Do not be afraid to seek help and speak to a trusted adult. If you know someone who is being abused, or is an abuser, reach out to them. Encourage them to seek help.
You never know the impact you might be having on someone’s life.