Harmful parenting: The roots of domestic abuse

Even small acts of mistreatment register in children’s impressionable, still-developing brains. While psychologists reassure us that children are adaptable and that parenting need only be “good-enough,” a pattern of mistreatment of a child can lead to an adult who believes it is acceptable to harm children “for their own good.” It can also lead to an adult who uses the Qur’an to justify abusing a spouse, or accepting abuse.
I would like to begin by sharing a poem that I find moving, and a wonderful example of a fiercely honest mother with gifts of both self-awareness and word-craft.

She was four, he was one, it was raining, we had colds,
we had been in the apartment two weeks straight,
I grabbed her to keep her from shoving him over on his
face, again, and when I had her wrist
in my grasp I compressed it, fiercely, for a couple
of seconds, to make an impression on her,
to hurt her, our beloved firstborn, I even almost
savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing,
the expression, into her, of my anger,
“Never, never, again,” the righteous
chant accompanying the clasp. It happened very
fast-grab, crush, crush,
crush, release-and at the first extra
force, she swung her head, as if checking
who this was, and looked at me,
and saw me-yes, this was her mom,
her mom was doing this. Her dark,
deeply open eyes took me
in, she knew me, in the shock of the moment
she learned me. This was her mother, one of the
two whom she most loved, the two
who loved her most, near the source of love
was this.

The Clasp, Sharon Olds

How do you feel after reading the poem? I chose this poem because it captures such a fleeting moment, a tiny burst of anger so common to us all. These words capture a parental behavior that many of us see as a reasonable means of discipline. Yet our beloved Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, commanded us, “Do not become angry.”

The scholar of usul al-fiqh (fundamentals of Islamic jurisprudence), ‘Abd al-Wahhab Khallaf (d. 1956) comments on the Prophet’s, may Allah bless him, cautionary advice,

This command outwardly is an order to refrain from something natural and unacquired, namely anger, when motives for it exist…But the real meaning is ‘Control yourself when angry and restrain yourself from its bad consequences.’

The mother in the above poem intentionally hurts a child of four who is misbehaving. The mother’s flash of anger is an understandable human response. However, the expression of her anger, clasping and squeezing the daughter’s wrist, may leave the little girl with the impression that her mother will not hesitate to inflict physical pain upon her.

The lesson the child takes away from the incident depends on the larger context of her life with her mother. As an isolated incident, the probability of significant psychological damage is likely to have been small. If the child’s emotional and physical needs are usually satisfied, psychologists hold that the child can adapt in a generally healthy way. A certain level of frustration for the child is even seen as beneficial:

The key here is to determine what amount of frustration is overwhelming and will result in a breakdown of a healthy sense of self for the child, and what is benign or even advantageous to work through with appropriate emotional support. This balance creates the essence of the “good enough parent.”

So if most of the time, we as parents are good enough, the psychologists tell us the child will be okay. We’re off the hook, right?

“But We shall set up just balance-scales on Resurrection Day, and no human being shall be wronged in the least: for though there be [in him but] the weight of a mustard-seed [of good or evil], We shall bring it forth; and none can take count as We do!” (Qur’an 21:47 – Asad)

The Qur’an makes clear that Allah will take the smallest of actions into account when determining one’s place in the next life. Will not a mother grasping her daughter’s wrist and squeezing until the child felt a stinging pain carry the weight of a mustard-seed of evil?

The child may walk away from the incident thinking that it is okay for a parent to hurt a child. This may produce an adult who believes it is acceptable to intentionally harm a child, or possibly, anyone who is weaker. This lesson will likely propagate down through the generations, and the expression of this lesson will be harsher for some than for others.

Many readers may dismiss this discussion, arguing that the issue does not merit such concern. Reflect on what Alice Miller, a world-renowned psychoanalyst, says about it in her book, The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting:

In my reading of the notes sent in to the ‘Our Childhood’ [on her website] forums over the past few years, one thing has struck me repeatedly. Most newcomers write that… they themselves never really experienced abuse in childhood…although they were occasionally beaten and exposed to contempt or other forms of humiliation, they never had to suffer anything remotely like the cruelties inflicted on many of the forum participants. In the course of time, however, these newcomers also start reporting on shocking behavior on the part of their parents, behavior that can be unreservedly classified as abuse…

Might it not be the case that the poem moves us because it strokes within us a chord of recognition? Actually, it is far more likely that we will identify with the mother, and excuse her, than with the child. To identify with the child runs the risk of allowing into our consciousness hurt done to us as children. Miller goes on:

Such behavior [child abuse] is at best regarded as an involuntary “lapse from grace,” committed by parents who, though they have the best intentions, are simply overtaxed… From this perspective, it is of course impossible to perceive the sufferings of children for what they are…

Sit with this for a moment. To what degree have we hardened ourselves to the suffering of children? Not the poor children of Gaza, or Somalia, but our own. What about the suffering of the child we once were?

Miller goes on to explain the consequences of abuse towards children, the very same consequences Abd al-Wahhab Khallaf believed sat at the heart of the Prophet’s, peace be upon him, command to refrain from succumbing to anger. Millar explains that abuse may turn the child into a perpetrator of abuse, or the rage may be turned inward and lead to poor physical health.

When the pattern of mistreatment is severe enough, it can produce a man who beats his wife, and uses the Qur’an as a justification, or a woman who acquiesces to abuse. How severe the mistreatment must be in order to produce this effect is a complicated accounting. And none can count as He does.

(Photo: S Fujiwara)
Anas Coburn is a mental health clinician in Vermont. An unedited version of this article was previously published at IslamAmerica.

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