Respecting our parents is ever drilled into our psyches. After all, our parents provide for us, take care of us and even shape and mold us; the bond between a parent and a child is of essence. The maternal bond, particularly, is one of the closest bonds between living beings. The umbilical cord signifies a symbolic attachment that neither time nor experience, whether good or bad, can dissolve. Societies revere parents, and filial piety is an integral aspect of our upbringing.
But what of toxic parents? How can we respect and honor parents who hurt us psychologically and physically? How can we put an end to verbal and physical abuse? Why is it that in our region of the world child abuse is still not discussed openly? And how come the onus is on a child to transcend his or her trauma? Where is the accountability of abusive parents?
When our children grow up in an unhealthy environment, they are deprived of the will to live, the exuberance of a harmonious community, and the right to safety and security. They are deprived of joy and peace and love. Their trauma is discounted because parents are expected to discipline their children, even in a brutal manner. Nobody in our society warns parents that verbal and physical abuse can severely impact the well-being of their children. Children and adults are taught to be secretive about what happens in their homes.
When we vent about our parents, we are told: "No matter what, they are your parents." In addition, we are considered ungrateful and disrespectful if we expose them to others, even if only to release pent up emotions. We are taught to live in silence with parents who beat us into submission and call us stupid, lazy, and naughty. We only realize later that there is never an excuse for abuse. Ever. Sadly, by the time we reach adulthood and grasp the effects of abuse, we are too worn out to transcend our pain. We understand, a little too late, that our depression, our anxiety, our sense of shame is perpetuated by a cycle that is considered normal. After all, our parents want the best for us, right? Our scars, physical and emotional, were (and are), according to their misguided philosophy, for our own good. They "love" us, they are only doing what their parents did to them, they insist when we confront them. And they emphasize that they continued to love their parents, so why are we making a big deal out of "nothing"?
Our society must learn that times have changed. We now know that even a light spanking is wholly unnecessary and can have a detrimental effect on a child. A child should never be touched. A child should not be yelled at. A child should never be afraid of his or her parents. And we are all responsible for the pain faced by a child who grows up in shame and fear, because it is our tacit approval of our parents' abuse and these outdated disciplinary methods that create a weak and sick society. There are too many stories of abuse, so many in fact, that it is normalized in our country. We don't even call it abuse in our society. It is considered discipline. Parents are supposed to hit their children, we think. They have the right to scream at us and call us names. But deep down inside we know it is wrong, because we never speak about it in public.
One particular story which became public, however, is the story of a young Kuwaiti lady, now in her early twenties, who was sexually abused by her father. When she informed her mother—a mother who was supposed to protect her—her mother told her she should have locked the bathroom door. How unfathomable is that? Instead of leaving her husband, she abandoned her role as a mother, she abandoned her child, and she betrayed the duty of maternal protection. And with no laws in place to protect our youth from abusive parents, this young lady had no choice but to leave home and seek asylum in the United Kingdom. Even at a safe distance, her parents threatened her, denigrated her, and continued to emotionally abuse her. Although she has now turned her life around as an activist who helps victims of a system which tends to defend abusers and shame those who suffer at the hands of them, she carries the burden of a horrendous trauma which she must resolve on her own. Yes, she has support from her friends and those who follow her work; but the people she trusted the most in her life have let her down. Her story has inspired a couple of others to leave their toxic families, but the reality of the situation is that the majority of children and young adults in our community remain in the clutches of abuse.
Of course, child abuse is a global phenomenon, but in other countries a child has rights. Children are protected by a foster system, parents are taken to court, and there have even been instances when children divorce their parents. It is not disrespectful to our parents when we maintain a safe distance from them. We are actually showing them that love should not hurt. We are putting an end to generational trauma and respecting ourselves. If our lives are in danger, if our emotional welfare is at stake, we owe it to ourselves to cut off ties with those who hurt us. If a parent shows remorse, then we can forgive them; but forgiveness does not mean we have to stay in an unhealthy and toxic environment if it affects our mental health or our physical well-being. Forgiveness does not mean we return to the dynamics we escaped from; it means we understand that some people do not know what it means to be a parent; some people do not understand that a child is a divine gift, a blessing. Only we can know if it is safe to maintain a relationship with a parent or parents or stay far away from them.
Sadly, in Kuwait, most children and adults continue to live with abusive parents, because they either have nowhere else to go, have no financial independence, or they know that if they leave, they will be shunned by other relatives and members of society. And another factor is guilt. We feel guilty being estranged from a family member. When we are raised, when we are conditioned to believe that our role is to remain devoted to our parents regardless, our chances of taking care of ourselves and leaving an abusive environment are limited. But with a legal system that protects us, we can find a way to leave without further turmoil, inner or outer.
As such, we need a legal system which provides a haven for children who have chosen to live a life free of abuse. We need to ensure that kids are protected. We need to give adults who grew up in abusive households more support. We need laws in place to protect those who have been beaten, subjugated, treated with contempt, and sexually abused. Otherwise, we will continue to witness a rise in suicides, an increase in those who seek asylum, an increase in anxiety and depression. And we will continue to witness members of society who walk amongst us scarred and scared. And even worse, those abused may continue the cycle of abuse because it is considered tradition or they know no other way to bring up their children.
The only way to raise a child is with love. Love is the only form of discipline a parent should ever use. In a world of turbulence, our homes should be realms of refuge. Hopefully, one day parents will require a license to raise a child. After all, it is a sacred responsibility to take care of our little ones and to make sure that they are protected, cherished, and treated with respect and care. May love reign in our families. Until then, here's to more people in power who care about our children and who build a vision of a community in which all are protected.
This article appeared in Kuwait Times.