I will start with a trigger warning. This column includes details of a child being emotionally abused and neglected by her parents. It also contains advice about what can and cannot be done to help her.
More than what the child is enduring, the advice might trigger some people.
“Hi,” Ms M wrote to me last week. “Our neighbour’s daughter is a lovable four-year-old. She is bright, happy and active but her mother hits, pinches, harms and scolds her. The parents get irritated just because the child is being a child. They simply don’t understand how a toddler thinks and behaves, and try to discipline her and make her obey whatever they say. Their behaviour is unnecessarily harsh, and their expectations of compliance from their child are unrealistic.
“The child is slowly becoming a little dull and confused. She leans on my husband and me for emotional support which we always try to provide. The child is constantly craving to be with us, and keeps insisting on coming to our house. She doesn’t want to leave when she is here. This irritates her mother and she behaves even more harshly.
“The parents are highly educated with full-time jobs and they are not really open to advice. The mother has begun to resent me and thinks that I am taking her child away from her. To top it all, they have this rage. They think that shouting, hitting and taming her into submission is disciplining her and that this needs to be done at this age. They don’t express love and have little patience or ideas for a curious, bright, naughty and energetic child.
“I am more interested in a solution and listening to another viewpoint rather than bad-mouthing the parents. I don’t know what to do and how to save the child from her mother’s torture. Please advise!”
I had multiple replies for M and I asked for her permission to publish her email as well as my responses here.
Dear M, the most direct way in which you can help the child is an indirect way. Find a way to connect with her parents, especially her mother.
I hear you when you say that your neighbour comes across as an angry, resentful person with no softness to express towards her child. It is very likely that she herself has not experienced the kind of joyous, nurturing, supportive love that we expect from her as a parent.
She is wound up and nervous and she hopes to hide her fear and emotional isolation behind her anger. She longs to connect with her child emotionally but she feels inadequate, guilty or just plain uncomfortable in this role. Perhaps the parents feel judged by your husband and you. This has very little to do with you and everything to do with their own emotional baggage.
There is no way you can save the child from her parents without being able to create a relationship of trust with them first.
Dear M, disrupt with your love. Next time you get a chance, seek out the parents rather than the child first. Find something to praise or appreciate about them. Ask about their work. Empathize with their concerns.
I do not expect the conversation will be scintillating. The same insecurities that make them controlling and violent towards the child also make it hard for them to receive help with grace.
You are aiming for sustainable long-term gains for the family, not just for a few evenings of short-lived playtime for the child. The child’s healing lies not in getting further estranged from her mother, but in being able to connect with her parents.
Dear M, you are an inspired warrior and I want to acknowledge that. So many of us grow up with the family and social injunction to “say nothing and do nothing”. Often, when we are agitated about injustice in our immediate environment, we find ourselves confronted by this unspoken social directive—“this is none of your business. Nothing is as bad as you are making it out to be. Don’t be oversensitive. Be passive.”
You have broken through this injunction. I am sure this is not the first time. It won’t be the last. Something in your own life story has given you this energy and empathy. You are paying it forward. It will come full circle and embrace you again.
Dear M, our relationship with our family, community and society is always somewhat at loggerheads with our relationship with our self. We long to be agents of change and healing and are routinely frustrated in our efforts. It exhausts us but eventually it also demands sublimation. This is a useful frustration. Let it stay.
Dear M, even as the time you can spend with the child gets reduced, remember that positive authority can become more powerful than negative authority. There is power in your permissions and the child absorbs that from you.
Despite their obvious vulnerability, children are resilient. They are survivors. Their defence mechanisms protect them in various ways. This child’s dullness and confusion is also a refuge that protects her from getting into situations that trigger her parents.
Life will offer her many more chances to heal. She will crawl out from her safe place and spread out her palms in the rain. You will always be the person who gave her love. It will stay with her.
Dear M, sometimes we need to acknowledge, albeit temporarily, that we are powerless. When the fog lifts, we find that accepting defeat reveals many new routes. Surrender shows us the way.
Dear M, let us, you and I, also have a good cry over this situation. I know I need to cry. Tears are a temporary shelter that protect me from becoming numb and apathetic. They validate my feelings.
Dear M, you have done well by asking for help. Protect your boundaries. Be kind to yourself. Let your positivity be the guiding force. Be patient, take time off and recover your energies. I send you a hug.
As I do this, I also hope to hear from readers who know better than M and me put together. Share your stories, your insights, your hopes with us. Reach out to strangers, create families.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.
Also read: Natasha’s Mint Lounge columns.