The black widow is a spider that is well-known for sexual cannibalism. She would sometimes eat her male counterpart after being impregnated. While the idea of devouring your mate may seem terrifying, the idea of eating your own offspring may sound unthinkable, but it has been observed with a number of animal species. Female wolf spiders frequently practice filial cannibalism. Zoologists are assuming they get an energy benefit from this unnatural practice and they might be using it as a source of food when other sources are scarce. This same behavior is unfortunately much more common than we may think on a psychological level with human beings.
Many of us enter parenthood more for unconscious reasons than conscious ones. For example, our parents had children so we feel it is the right thing to do. At a subconscious level, we may want to heal our own childhood by having children of our own. We may be afraid of being alone or need to make our existence meaningful by having offspring that will survive us. In some culture, there is some expectation that children will take care of us during our old age. On a more positive note, we may aspire to have children to experience unconditional love. While it is painful to separate from a romantic partner, time heals everything and we move on with our life. The same cannot be said with children. Children are the flesh of our flesh, and we are never able to move on completely from the loss of children. Conflict with our children torments our soul. On a psychological level, our children reflect our light and shadow even more than romantic relationships. This is why parental relationships suffer a high level of projection. As such, our children are ultimately our most challenging teachers, and often choose to fulfill many of our unrealized dreams.
The ideal parent is able to see the uniqueness of his children, does not project his own unfilled desires and aspirations into them and encourage his children’s development according to their own abilities and desires. The ideal parent brings unconditional love, presence and support to the child so that he may eventually become autonomous and create a life that feels good on his own terms. Parental love should be about what is best for the child independently of what could be best for the parent. This is why we call unconditional love and the hidden purpose of parenthood is to bring us closer to this state of being.
Unfortunately, many of us have experienced trauma and we are far from being an ideal parent. As a result, we suffer a number of psychological ailments such as fear of loneliness or abandonment, depression, disconnection, low self-esteem, scarcity consciousness and many other insecurities. As long as we are not whole and we have not experienced the fire of self-love into our heart to become a sun of our own, the reality is that we are likely to vampirize our children. When children come to this world, they are pure and radiate unconditional love. They are still connected to Source so they easily fall prey to parents that are not whole and will pass on their own traumas to their children. I have a number of coaching clients that had neglectful or abusive parents. They may be scared to revisit the painful memories but they had no choice but to accept the shadow of their unfit primary caretakers. As such, they can move rapidly through emotional healing as they are not trying to protect the ghosts of their painful past. However, I commonly have clients with parents that exhibit narcissistic love. These are actually harder to work with, as it is so difficult for everyone to let go of the idea that they were not really loved when they were the center of attention of their parents. Wires are crossed in these children. The child (or the grown-up adult) is still convinced that he was loved whereas he was actually used and manipulated for the parent selfish motives. It may be difficult to observe and accept as the parents apparent actions only seem to indicate love & care.
This type of narcissistic parental love may be expressed in many ways. Parental narcissism is actually so prevalent that many people may become angry while reading my examples below as these may be the only times where they felt actually loved and cared for. Narcissism is just a mental state that limits us to see only our own reflection and not the child’s uniqueness when we relate to them. Unconditional love is rare and precious, but once we experience it, it is easier to let go of this form of conditional love.
Too much emphasis on school grades
So-called “good” parents are very identified with their offspring school grades. They make sure homework is done perfectly. They get offended if their child gets less than a perfect grade and do not hesitate to schedule a meeting with the teacher in such case. They punish the child emotionally when they get an unsatisfactory grade. Actually, this parental behavior is unhealthy for many reasons. First, it teaches the children that they are loved only upon achieving specific results, therefore they are not worthy as they are. This is conditional love. Additionally, this attitude does not nurture autonomy in children. They work to get good grades to please their parents and not get in trouble with them rather than for their own good. This is programming them to choose a career in the future to please mum and dad instead of choosing a path that is truly fulfilling. Over focusing on school results is a way for parents to avoid their true role as educators. The smarter parents understand the limits of the school system, and coach their children in other areas that is not covered by standard education. They develop their children emotional intelligence, character, compassion, expand their horizons, teach by example, promote their interest in sports and hobbies. While it is important to coach our children to have good results at school, it is far from being a necessary condition for living a successful and happy life. Many parents with low-esteem will use a child with good grades to compensate for their own insecurities and personal sense of failure. If they have one child with good grades and another one struggling at school, such parents will cause deep psychological damage to the child that is challenged academically. This child will feel even more unlovable, unworthy and is likely to resent his sibling. This is setting up the unhealthy dynamic of the Golden Child and the Scapegoat that is well known by therapists.
When extra curriculum activities are used as projective identification
While it is natural for a parent to initiate their children to activities they are familiar with for their mutual enjoyment, there is a healthy balance to reach. I knew a woman who dropped off musical school when she was 16 as her parents had prepared her to become a concert pianist. She refused to play at home for her family and friends as the memories of the pressure of having to play 6 hours a day had been traumatizing. However, when she had a son, she made a point that he would take piano. She would teach him piano from time to time but every session ended with her son’s tears. She was repeating her own trauma through him by giving him the same harsh treatment that she was once the victim. There are some professional athletes that had to endure a high level of projection from their coach parent. The 8 times grand slam tennis champion Andre Agassi went public about his father who put him through a brutal training as a young child. When young Agassi rebelled, his father just shouted at the top of his lungs “You’re a tennis player! You’re going to be number one in the world! You’re going to make lots of money. That’s the plan and that’s the end of it”. Mary Pierce is one of the best French female tennis players of all times. Jim Pierce, her father, once reportedly screamed “Mary, kill the bitch!” at a tennis tournament his daughter Mary Pierce played in. He verbally and physically abused his daughter. His outbursts at events were so bad that the World Tennis Association banned him from attending all tournaments. Many parents use their children to raise their social status vicariously. They use their children to look good to their family & friends. Sometimes, they have something to do with their children achievements but more often than we think, the children’s accomplishment are reached despite the parents’ unhealthy projections. These children feel excruciating pressure from their parents to perform and this is hindering their ability to truly enjoy their sport or activity. They tend to exhibit a lot of stress and anxiety. Failing in the activity would just reinforce the subconscious belief that they are not lovable.
Using children as weapons of war
Unfortunately, children are often caught in loyalty conflicts. In case of high divorce conflict, the narcissistic parent would turn his own children against the other parent. The children are brain-washed to take the alienating parent’s hatred towards the former spouse as their own. These parents are extremely toxic they are putting the child in a position to hate half of themselves. The psychological damage that these children suffer has been well-documented. Even outside of parental alienation, it is quite common for a parent to project their own resentment toward a friend or family member with their own children. One of my clients used to have a very close relationship with her stepdad. However, when the relationship ended the mother manipulated her daughter to behave very harshly towards the stepdad to get back at him. As a result, this young woman has had very unsatisfactory intimate relationships with men as she is very tormented subconsciously with the guilt of hurting someone she loved. The same process of alienation is not limited to the narcissistic parent’s former partner. Loving connections from uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins and friends can be severed the same way.
My daughter as a Barbie doll
If the girl is good-looking, she may be used as an object of self-glorification and unhealthy pride for the parent, typically the mother. She is made to wear pretty little dresses and apparel to become a way to boost the self-esteem of the parent. The daughter is therefore compensating for the mother’s fear of getting old and losing her attractiveness. There is nothing wrong in the action of making our children look good when we can afford it. It is all about the intent behind the action. We need to examine if we have selfless or on the contrary self-centered motives. Because there are so many parents who think their children are so incredibly pretty, many photography agencies are exploiting this parents’ weakness by promising to submit the photo-shoot to modeling agencies. They charge an outrageous price for the photo-shoot but never submit anything. In such instance, the mother is grooming her daughter with the sole intent of getting attention and this is not coming from a nurturing instinct. In another example, a mother felt some jealousy towards her sister. She went over the top to make her daughter look gorgeous before visiting her aunt. The purpose was not a friendly and caring family visit. Her real agenda was to show that she was better than her sister because she had such a lovely, well-behaved and pretty daughter. Good behavior in this mother’s book is synonymous to anything that her daughter does to make her look good, and bad behavior is the opposite. The child’s best interest is never considered. She is just seen as an extension of the mother and any attempt to escape from her control is severely punished.
Children used as retirement and financial support
This is more prominent in cultures that do not offer a satisfactory retirement plan to their citizens. Parents have children so that they may support them financially and even physically during their old age. Parents see children as an investment, and if the child deviates from the plan that the parents have set-up, they are condemned as ungrateful, selfish and unworthy. This is the opposite of unconditional love. Children are geared towards careers that bring more money such as doctors or lawyers instead of following their passion. This way, they will not be a financial burden on the parent but on contrary could contribute to the parents’ materiel well-being in their old age. A friend of mine got a law degree just for his father. When he graduated, he told his father “This diploma is yours, now I am going to do what I like” What a waste of time! A caring parent is preoccupied first and foremost with his child’s happiness, not with the benefits he will draw from his children’s material success. While transactional relationship are required in the field of business, the world of family and friendship is there first to teach us about unconditionality. Real love is about giving without any expectation in return. I have a friend who used to help a lot financially his wife’s parents when they were married. When they decided to separate, she kept the expectation that her ex-husband should keep paying for her parents’ lifestyle. She has been suing her ex husband for the last 5 years for exorbitant child care fees charged by her parents for spending time for their own grandchildren! The irony is that she is also preventing her children to spend any time with their father.
These self-centered parents are distorting reality to manipulate their children to feel a sense of indebtedness so as to better control them. One of my friends had a mother who had an affair with a young man during their marriage. She told her daughters that he was the love of her life but she decided not to leave their father as a sacrifice to them. In reality, she never had any intention to divorce as she enjoyed the financial stability of her emotionally unavailable husband. The daughters felt terrible as they felt responsible for their mother’s “sacrifice”. Many of these children, once they become adult, become very concerned when they receive anything in a relationship. They are afraid this may be used against them in the future. Some mothers may say they sacrifice having a fulfilling career because they had to raise their children while in fact they were afraid to face the workplace. People should never give out of sacrifice. Either they give from their heart or they should not give at all. I have heard from many grown-up children that they would have preferred not getting anything than feeling guilty because of their parent self-sacrificing behavior. They understand this is just plain manipulation. These parents have the habit of convincing their children that their own selfish behaviors were in fact self-sacrificing. They are just teaching their children that it is wrong to have needs of your own, and the only way to fulfill desires is through manipulation.
The helicopter parent
An helicopter parent pays extreme close attention to a child’s or children’s experiences and problems. This a coping mechanism not to experience their own inner void, self-worth issues and dissatisfaction about their own lives. They oscillate between being over-loving, over-protective or over critical to their children. With their actions, they are depriving their children of their own experiences and are severely limiting the child ability for autonomy. Children raised with helicopter parenting show poor emotional regulation as they are never given the space to handle, process and reflect on their own emotions. Whether they are feeling sad, angry, disappointed or distressed, the parent immediately takes over in solving the situation for them. Hence, they are disabled to handle real-life situations without their parent. The parent is enabling the child’s over-dependency of the parent. If the child is on school trip, the child will insist for example to talk with her mother at night before she is able to fall asleep. This child will continue to call her parent every day even far into adulthood. The child never cuts the umbilical cord with the parent which severely impacts his/her ability to experience life. The parent stays omnipresent and this leaves no space for other intimate relationships in the grown-up child.
The “gift” as a control mechanism
Such parents may give very generous gifts to their children however they may take the desired object just as quickly if the child deviates from their line of conduct. One of my friends had a boyfriend she was madly in love with. He was receiving financial support from his parents, and the parents found that she did not have the appropriate social status for their son. They threatened to cut financial support if he were to stay with her. He broke off with her shortly after. Another one of my friends got a dog when she was a teenager. She adored the dog as she received unconditional love from the animal in sharp contrast with her parents. The mother did not like the fact that her daughter could pour so much love outside of her. She got her husband to tell their daughter that they could only keep one dog because of the size of their house, but because her mother was very attached to her own dog, they would then give away the daughter’s dog. The daughter became so enraged with this decision that she actually became cruel with her mother’s dog. As a result, the dog started to exhibit some dangerous behaviors and they had to part with that dog too. The daughter developed some toxic guilt traumatizing this animal, and had to eventually work through it in therapy. This type of parent shows his or her omnipotence by making clear to the child that he has the ability to give but also to take away. In the most extreme form of this pattern, it is common for satanic cults to make little children attached to kitties before sacrificing the young cat in horrific ways in front of the child months later. This is imprinting the child with a deep sense of powerlessness so that they may be more easily controllable to follow the cult’s agenda. When the child becomes aware that anything they care for may be taken away at any time, they refuse to connect intimately with anyone or anything outside the toxic organization.
Preventing competing child’s intimate relationships
There are some parents that cannot stand if their children may start showing more affection towards someone else than themselves. They have a strategy of “divide and conquer” to stay #1 in their children’s heart or mind. Such parent would criticize the child’s boyfriend or spouse behind their back to ensure the child shows loyalty first to the parent and not to the romantic partner. One of my clients’ mother had left “inadvertently” an open bottle of pain medicine at her house and my client’s dog ate dozens of pills. The dog barely died as a result. Toxic mothers may even get jealous of their daughter’s attachment towards their newborn. In another situation, one mother took away her pregnant daughter’s chair as the latter was going to sit down. As she didn’t notice that the chair has been removed, she fell abruptly and almost got a miscarriage. These parents are very proficient at slandering anyone that may become too close to their child. These could be children, romantic partners, other grandparents, friends, animals or even competing activities that could prevent the narcissistic parent to feel his/her dominance. These parents only know possessiveness because they know no real love in their heart. There is a common pattern in families when the mother becomes jealous of the daughter as she becomes an attractive teenager. This mother would then use her husband to punish the daughter on futile ground. This achieves multiple goals at once. First, it reassures the insecure mother about the loyalty of her husband. Secondly, it antagonizes the daughter towards the father to ensure that the mother-daughter bond stays primary. Another mother would make sure to exhibit all his son’s pictures with his past girlfriends every time a new girlfriend of his would visit. This would make the new girlfriend feel insignificant and create strife in the relationship. The hidden purpose is to ensure that she stays the dominant female figure in her son’s life.
Before we can experience real love, we need to recognize what is not love. Narcissistic love can exhibit many of the attributes of real love: deep care and concern, commitment, gifts, affection and positive compliments. To differentiate conditional and unconditional love, we need to consider if the parent is able to see the child as separate to him, that he possesses his own desires, aspirations and dreams that may be different from the parent. While we come to this world in a state of fusion with our mother, the process of maturation is about recognizing our own individuality separate from our parents as we grow-up. It is also natural to be egocentric and think we are the center of the world as a small child. Problems start arising when we do not develop past this stage because of childhood traumas. Real love stems in complete freedom when we choose to spend time and affection with people we care for. Not because we have to, but because we want to.