Socialization and Psychological Maltreatment: Isolating Children and Teenagers


HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on October 3, 2014.

This post deals with parents isolating and controlling their children’s social interactions; of course my parents and many other homeschooling parents have engaged in many other forms of control, but this is one that people don’t seem to realize is a problem. Below, I give some examples of social isolation and control in my own life, and then reference work from Roberta Hibbard, Jane Barlow, and Harriet MacMillan to show how social isolation can be a serious problem for children who are subjected to it.

As I have said in previous posts, many of the people who were involved with my family over the years still don’t really get what the problem was. They will admit that my parents were a bit overprotective. Depending on the day they might even admit that my parents were controlling. But they always cycle back to trying to convince me that my parents were just doing their best, just trying to keep us safe. Then sometimes the same people concede that not everything was perfect but assure me that my father has changed.

I don’t spend much time around people who think they are in a position to re-write my history for me.

Once when I was about 15, I was something like friends with the neighbour girl. She was about 2 years older than me, and very conservative (more so than we were, in some ways – they attended a very conservative Mennonite church). Her parents and my parents ran in the same circles and spent time together talking about fundamentalism (not their word). Her dad had a home business, and one day she called and asked if I wanted to go with her to a little hamlet about 15 minutes away to pick up a part with her for her dad. My dad turned this invitation into a really big deal. He told me I had to ask her if I could call back in a few minutes so we could discuss it. I hadn’t been out of the house for days, and I really wanted to go on this 30 minute adventure with her.

I sat down with my parents, and they went over how they felt I had behaved over the past while, pointing out instances of rebellion and ways I could have tried harder in helping out around the house. In reality, I was a full time mini-mom, I cooked and cleaned and homeschooled my siblings and gardened and changed diapers. I wasn’t being taught anything anymore, although I was still being “homeschooled” I didn’t say any of that to them. I displayed appropriate contriteness and promised to mend my behaviour, and I was allowed to go. They selected several chores I would need to complete before going, and said she could pick me up in an hour. I called her back, very excited, and she reacted with confusion. It was just a short trip to grab something and she just wondered if I wanted to come. Furthermore, it was an errand she needed to run quickly for her father, and she had not planned to wait even the fifteen minutes it had taken for me to call her back, much less another hour. She went and checked with her dad, and he agreed he could wait an hour if that meant I was able to go.

This is the problem: when a teenager is “homeschooled” like that, not really doing school work anymore, and spending most of their time being the assistant mother, it actually costs the parents for the child to do something that doesn’t serve the family. And I want to be clear, although my parents were notably controlling, it wasn’t just them, there are quite a number of girls that I knew at that age that experienced a similar level of control. Every chance I had to get out of the house was treated with exaggerated importance. And then my parents have that added power to exhort even more compliant behavior.

I could give so many more detailed examples of this, like the time I “lost all privileges” (of which there were few) for being a few minutes late getting back when I went with another neighbor Mennonite girl into town to – wait for it – drop off her mother’s homemade quilts to customers. My father decided what a reasonable time was for this errand that had nothing to do with him at all, and I had the girl rush me home in a cold sweat when I realized I would be late. This errand was one that was planned in advance, and I had to earn the privilege to go with days of displaying a perfect attitude, and days of hard work. And being a few minutes late meant I lost the ability to go anywhere for months. My father allotted two hours for the trip, and we were about 20 minutes out of town. That gave us 1 hour and ten minutes to do all her errands for the quilt business.

I know a number of Mennonite teenagers from a certain church when I was 14-15 and my brother and I were invited to their youth groups. We also wanted to attend church with them on Sunday evenings. My parents treated each weekly occurrence of these activities as special privileges that they arbitrarily allowed us to earn sometimes but not others. I often wanted to go to someone’s house after church, or have someone over, but my father would not give advance permission, or even answer me if I asked him after church. He would sometimes turn to me in the van as we were leaving the parking lot and tell me that I could have someone over, or that if someone wanted me over I could go. By then, everyone would already have plans so I sometimes went back to the group and pretended to ask, and that no one was interested. I was too embarrassed to try to make plans at that point. If I refused to go over, he would be upset with me and say that I didn’t really want that privilege and shouldn’t be wasting his time asking.

My parents were able to pass this behaviour off as protective. And technically that is true, I suppose. So what is the problem?

First of all, the way they restricted my social activity, including Sunday night church, really skewed my concept of social interactions.

Social activities were something that I coveted and dreamed about, but experienced so rarely that I didn’t know how to handle myself. I tried to be funny and make people enjoy being my friend, which of course just made me seem odd. I felt envious of others my age that were allowed to have regular social interactions. Those with a more normal social life seemed more well-adjusted then me, and I felt this when I was with them, which increased my feelings of inadequacy. I felt like those with normal privileges were more important than me, because I was sometimes put in the position to try and solicit their attention and invitations. This skewed my sense of value of myself and others.

Because I had to behave so carefully in order to get a chance to take part in a social activity, there was a sense of fear attached to other people, especially other teenagers. It also increased the sense of control that my parents had over me; before I was interested in spending time with other youth, there wasn’t much that I wanted, that my parents could actually provide, that I was motivated to work for, and our family was reaching a point of chaos that meant that there wasn’t much parental approval to work towards. So I was motivated to perform my duties at home purely to get out and see other youth. My parents kept me fearful and off balance by sometimes allowing this and sometimes taking away the privilege with no explanation. My father said that if I didn’t know the privilege was being taken away, maybe I needed to lose more privileges in order to learn to respect him.

The biggest problem I have with this control over social interactions is that it stifles the learning of social lessons.

It is a form of child maltreatment to teach a child to act in an abnormal way, and therefore a form of neglect to not teach them lessons that they will need to function in adult life. I simply didn’t get enough exposure to other people as a child and teenager, and the skewed value of other people and of social interactions meant that I didn’t learn how to be a friend. I didn’t know how long a visit with a friend should last, and I didn’t know how to see that a visit was reaching an end. In fact, it was so hard for me to get out that when I was out, I often overstayed my welcome. It also impacted my ability to build planning and decision making skills.

In their report titled “Psychological Maltreatment” in “Pediatrics”, Hibbard, Barlow, and MacMillan provide a table outlining six different categories of child maltreatment (find it here). According to this table, the simple act of confining a child and restricting their community social interactions is a form of maltreatment likely to result in social maladjustment. Under the heading of exploiting/corrupting, there are two descriptions that my parents fulfilled: “Modeling, permitting, or encouraging antisocial or developmentally inappropriate behavior” by not allowing me to develop appropriate social behavior, and “restricting/undermining psychological autonomy” by not providing opportunities for me to learn to plan and make decisions in social interactions with enough information.

Isolating children and not allowing them to interact with other children and youth is a form of psychological maltreatment. Not allowing children enough opportunities to learn how to behave in social situations and not providing them with opportunities to plan and make decisions in social situations is psychological maltreatment in the exploiting/corrupting category.

“Socialization” was a joke to my parents, as it was and is for many homeschooling apologists, but the different aspects of isolation are easily categorized as psychological maltreatment.

Hibbard, et al, state that psychological maltreatment may result in a child feeling that they are unloved or only valued for what they provide to the parent, even if the parent did not intend to cause harm. They state that the effects of this maltreatment can include problems with adult attachment, including attachment to their own children, and trouble with conflict resolution in adulthood.

If a woman is to have a career and friends of her own, she will need these skills. Even if one ascribes to the school of thought that the purpose of women is to get married and stay at home with children, it should be clear that this type of isolation will not result in girls growing into well-adjusted stay at home mothers. To succeed in such a role, women will need to have social skills, planning and decision making skills, conflict resolution skills, and good attachment in order to have good relationship with their husbands and children. If a woman is to engage in some type of out of home employment before getting married, these skills will vital in that setting as well.

Socialization is not a joke; it provides several essential skills for adult life in various settings. Isolating children and youth is not a joke, it is psychological abuse, and can have serious consequences for those who experience it.


  • Just want to say that I totally identify with all the incidents you describe where your socialization was blocked — and I was raised in a household where religion had zero to do with the family philosophy.

    Control freaks all behave the same, apparently. It seems to me that some just hide behind theology and fears for your immortal soul. But really they’re just psychologically messed up control freaks, just like in my family.

    And it’s indeed horribly damaging. Pretty much for life. The assumptions baked into my young brain about whether it’s okay to go anywhere, do anything, be spontaneous, approach anybody, connect with anybody, do things in a group, enjoy being with people or open myself up in any way — and it was not okay, in pretty much all cases — are so hard-wired in me and became an unconscious way of being for me so early that they simply bypass and underlie all conscious thought. Decades later, they sabotage my life on a daily basis, even though I’ve gradually and and with difficulty fought them off in a few specific areas, such as work.

    This approach to child raising is extremely dangerous. Horrible that there are groups that elevate it to a philosophy and urge other people to adopt it.

    Very good piece. Thanks.

  • Although socialization is not a joke, many homeschooling parents act like it is and openly laugh about it. “My kids socialize plenty, hahaha. We go to the library. Socialization is SO overrated!” You are right: it’s not a joke.

  • I knew the issues and how I felt about them, but I honestly didn’t make the connection with my inability to follow through with social relationships on my own with my isolation and the total control of my social interactions growing up. Mine didn’t really “punish” me, as I toed the line and they only wanted to know when and why if I were running late, but I didn’t have freedom of socialization at all. I can talk to and befriend anyone, but don’t know how to “push myself” into their lives and form a deep connection without something to bring us together. I’m capable, it’s just a struggle.

    • Wow, that resonates with me too. I still feel like I don’t know how to “reach out” to people. I was so used to my socialization having a structure and leader behind it (being in a rural area where I couldn’t just walk down the block to visit someone) that I just stopped (or never really started) trying to enter into others’ lives and when I tried I felt like I was annoying them.

  • Yes! Preach! The dreaming, the hoping, the trying to earn, it never happening….all of this. Then finally having the opportunity to make a friend or two and just being so weird and completely out of touch with how to interact with someone who is NOT 20 years older or 5 years younger than you and the never getting to plan…Augh! All of it! People just do not get it, how bad it is! I got lucky, in a way. When my folks separated(on account of my mom being full-blown skitzophrenic) [and raise your hand if you can guess how small fundamentalist communities react when ugly martial separation happens] , I landed in a teeney tiny private Christian school that (oh joy) also used mcguffeys AND A-beka AND had a Courtship Policy AND Women Wore Skirts etc. Etc….anyways, I was so already wrapped up in the role of having to take over for my mom that I just stuck with my siblings. While my mom had custody, she could barely make up her mind to leave the house…going anywhere without her was so far out I only bothered once. Once my dad got us, I was so different from my peers (even fundie private christian school peers) that I found few connection points. Then I went to one senior year of public school and joined the army. Look for my upcoming story in the Sex Ed section! Hahaha

  • Er, I meant, great piece. I thought socialization was a joke word to be said in a sneery voice….at 9….

  • Thank you for this well written piece. I have been on a journey to understand myself and my social limitations as a formerly home schooled individual. This article really sheds an honest light and perspective on the often indescribable and overlooked negative effects that home schooling has on its victims. Home schooled children are often nothing but a pawn in their parents ambition in the competition in being a Christian. The right to a future and an education is stolen from home educated children in a sick Christian version of “Keeping up with the Fundamentalist Joneses” . Child abuse comes in many forms, home “education” is definitely one of them.

    • Please do not attribute home education as a form of child abuse. I was raised in a controlling Christian cult and was not allowed to socialize outside of our church, but I went to PUBLIC school and lived in a suburban community.

      I now homeschool my children and they have more friends in their 4, 7 and 8 years of life than I have had in all 36 of mine. I do not abuse my children by controlling their socialization, in fact, they socialize more than any public school kids I have ever known~from back when I was a kid to now.

      If you think that sitting next to someone in a classroom for 8 hours is considered socialization, then you have a bigger problem than being home schooled. I went to 10 years of public school and I chose to graduate early because even though I am intelligent, I am also VERY social and I couldn’t be friends with people at school.

      I think the point made here should be ISOLATION is an issue for ANY child whose parents are controlling…and SOCIALIZATION is not sitting around in the same building as other people.


      • My mother’s decision to home school me definitely did result in more social seclusion than I would have had in any school. Her decision was made based on her religious ideologies and fears that I believe were improperly attributed to public schools but the real problem with homeschooling my siblings and I was due to my mother’s personality and possibly her mental health. She is a socially maladjusted and unaware person. While I craved social interaction, there was little to be found because my mother isolated herself and coincidentally she isolated her children. So, in my case I would have had more opportunities for social interaction with children my own age if I had gone to school simply because I would have been around other children.

        Many of the homeschooling issues that people fear are overblown, but so are many of the issues with placing a child in a public or private school. For instance, the psychological ramifications of bullying are horrifying but not all children experience bullying at an extreme level. It ultimately is the responsibility of the parent to protect the child, but I’m not sure that social isolation and mistreatment at home is better than bullying.

        Parents should take a long hard look in the mirror and consider whether they are a good fit for homeschooling before looking at the children. My sister home school’s her children, but she has a teaching degree and she keeps them involved in activities that provide ample opportunities for social interaction. My niece and nephew are well adjusted socially and are above their age level in most subjects. So, some parents make wonderful home school teachers and some don’t. A parent’s motivations for homeschooling are important, but the skills and abilities needed are just as important.

  • So I’m definitely crying right now. All of that is so real life to me. People don’t understand when I try to explain how crippled I have been socially. It’s made my life 1000x more difficult because I dont know how to interact socially, be normal, and make and keep friends. And yes, it is a HUGE deal. My mother always blamed it on personality and my own self-esteem issues. Yeah… those issues that were created by her in me at a very young age. As a young teenager my “best friend” was a girl a good 5 years older than me. On the rare occasion I was good enough to spend the night I would come home to days worth of dirty dishes left for me to do because it was my chore. I always felt I was being punished for having a friend. I also wrote a little about this in my blog:

    • I think socialization is one of those things that a lot of people take for granted. They don’t realize how valuable to development it is to be able to make plans and interact with other people outside of a little bubble. Hence why a lot of oversheltering homeschooling parents treat it like a joke. Even people outside of the homeschooling community, when they think “unsocialized” they just think of someone who is a little socially awkward, doesn’t get certain cultural references and might have odd interests. They don’t realize how damaging it can be to be unsocialized. It’s a basic, necessary life skill. It’s sort of like when kids grow up not being required to do anything for themselves, and then they go out to college or whatever and they don’t know how to do laundry or cook simple meals or whatever.

      • Yes! And the vast majority of homeschooling parents (in my day) had been to public school, so they HAD those advantages. They just didn’t see it, or thought they were giving us something better (and maybe they were in some ways). It’s like all they saw was the bad and ignored the benefits they had received their whole lives. So often “socialization” was mentioned along with peer pressure, alcohol, dating, and drugs, and equated with those things, as if learning to interact with others was the sure ticket to evil. And if they were realistic about the socialization challenges, it was more along the lines of “Well, we have to give things up to serve God…” as if that’s what God wants or something.

    • Because I had developmental, emotional and behavioral issues, I was overprotected by my parents when I was small. I could’ve gone to a private high school, but refused to do so, and am glad of it.

      Since Chapter 766 wasn’t in existence during the 1950’s and the 1960’s, when I was growing up, I was mainstreamed my whole life, and although it was often more difficult for me, I was glad of it, since I would’ve otherwise been in with kids who were of the same ilk that I went on a special trip with back in the early 1970’s, which would’ve made my childhood and adolescence even suckier.

  • You’re absolutely right that socialization is important. I was homeschooled for all but one year of my pre-college education, and I was fortunate that I was “socialized.” The main issue I faced after that homeschooling experience was the lack of diversity, especially of opinions, that I had been exposed to in those “socializing” situations. If you’re a Catholic homeschooler who only ever interacts with other Catholic homeschoolers, you will think that the majority of the world has similar opinions to the ones you were raised with. The people who disagreed with my parents’ upbringing were entirely “other.” They were far away, and the few adult teachers I knew who were more liberal were just adults. It was shocking to me to encounter diversity of opinion in my peers. I’m really glad that I chose to attend a diverse college. I’ve spent the past three years of my college education exposing myself to as many new opinions as I can to make up for all those years of one-sided thinking. The world is not anywhere near as simple as I thought it was, but as far as I can see, that’s a good thing–once you get yourself used to it.

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  • The one positive thing I got from my Catholic homeschooling experience was the drive and discipline to undermine that reality structure; I’d be chatting with my hyper Papist teachers in one browser window and downloading Throbbing Gristle and Burroughs material in the other (internet aint so bad). Since I’m a white het male, you’ll have no sympathy for me, but now that I can conceptualize the actions of my parents as abuse, I can at least make sense of the feelings of devastation, blankness, hyper-aggression and shameful disgust that characterize my experience of sexuality. Don’t worry, I’ve long since taken up an ascetic worldview and don’t let girls my age (or any age) get near me. I only want to absorb as much suffering and derangement as possible so I can dissolve the foundations of the institutions that enabled my parents (mostly my mother, who is a covert narcissist) to damage me and many other kids the way they did.
    I don’t know if I’m becoming Dionysos or Silenus, but the more I let myself feel the pain and rage that I suppressed to get along with my corrosive Catholic peers and family, the more human I feel, if anyone like me can be said to possess human traits in any appreciable quantity anymore. May the silky blackness of the Void between worlds drown all opposition in its sterile embrace…

  • This was (like many posts on HA) very painful to read as I was flooded with a dozen miserable memories. Thank you for pointing this very real problem out. As a teenager I cried and cried because I was lonely. I could easily go a month or two (if not more)without leaving my home or seeing a peer (with the exception of trips straight to and from the orthodontist ). Whenever I did venture out, even to the grocery store, my mom would ask if I met anyone, particularly a boy. When I said no, she’d call me a wallflower. When I didn’t have a boyfriend by 20 she asked if I wore a sign around my neck that said “I’m gay” so boys wouldn’t talk to me. This has damaged my social skills beyond complete repair. I always felt like even though I was friendly that I was unlikable. No matter how hard I tried there was something wrong with me that pushed people away. I gave up. Now I know better, but I still have a terribly hard time making friends. Oddly, people like me very much now but my fear of rejection keeps me from even trying to pursue close friendships.

  • Huh, I’m socially impaired much like the author and I was fully public schooled and given free reigns my entire time growing up. I think, no, I know, it was the social structures of junior high and high school that screwed me up.

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  • Wow, it’s quite refreshing to hear if another homeschooler’s social struggle, as it unfortunate.

    I grew up moving around a lot. Many times living in the middle of nowhere all the while being home schooled. With that came isolation, and with isolation came deep depression at a very young age. My parents heavily disregarded my pleas to go to a, what I called “normal” school. Being alone all the time drove me into both rage and depression. My parents’ idea seemed to be that the best way of raising me was to isolate me from social circles to prevent me from making mistakes rather than allowing me to learn from socializing in the first place. Hell, I remember my parents forbidding me from calling a girl I had met. Believe it or not, we met from me dialing a wrong number. My parents said I was too young to be friends with women…I was 13. Now, I’m 28. I can hardly get myself to interact in large groups without drugs or alcohol. I make friends. I meet women, but somehow it’s so hard for me to establish anything long term.

    To this day, I still feel a deep sense of anguish toward my parents and the Christian ideology that justified their need to be so controlling. It certainly makes me wish there were more awareness of the social neglect among homeschoolers.

  • Abigail Mercado

    I completely understand where you are coming from. My mother has been doing the same thing to me and my siblings. When you say they didnt teach you anything anymore, what does that mean exactly? How did it effect you?
    Trying to get insight on a situation I thought I might have been alone in.

  • creoleseasoning

    Wow, I am so grateful for stumbling upon this post. I didn’t know so many others had dealt with this!

    I was not homeschooled, but my father was a strong authoritarian and old school Christian that forbid me from leaving the house or even looking at a boy sideways. My mother sat passively and didn’t intervene. For my senior prom I had managed to get a date (a HUGE deal), and we went as a big group with my girlfriends. To my surprise, my dad showed up right at the door of the venue after the dance and took me home at 10pm. Our wild and crazy group plan was to get burgers at in-n-out.

    So desperate to connect and make friends, I would spend hours on the phone or on AIM (remember those days??) with the shallow friendships I had. I remember more than once my dad coming in, grabbing the phone from me and hanging it up while I was in the middle of a conversation for no reason. I went to public schools, but my home life left me severely lacking in my ability to make real friendships. I often stumbled awkwardly or gravitated towards people who were rejecting.

    Like the author, I was raised to be completely subservient and unquestioningly obedient. The three of us lived in a big rundown house, and I almost always had to vacuum, sweep, and wipe down the entire house (3 stories) and/or wash the car in the 90 degree noonday heat before going to spend the day with a gal pal. I definitely still experience the effects of this today, where I still feel the barriers that my parents put up around me even now as an adult at 30 and I am free to move about in the world. I always want to connect, but I feel scared to or that I don’t know how. I would like to grow from that. I wish this problem was talked about more!!

  • Oh goodness so many memories! I was socially isolated and homeschooled, with the added twist of being a missionary kid. There was even isolation from extended family. My siblings and I would get in trouble for asking to interact with neighbors. By the time I became a teenager (and dad became a pastor so we had to be around people) I had no clue how to make or keep friends. I’m 40 now and still can’t seem to do it. I’ve had to learn about playful banter and such from coworkers (yes this “you’re supposed to be a keeper at home” girl had to get a job because – life). I’m curious if anyone in these situations ever do learn to navigate relationships and if it affects their marriage? I don’t see how my brain can change in this area since it’s such an important part of the developmental process. I’ve learned some social cues and norms but feel I’m acting a part more than anything.

  • Thanks for putting this article out! It’s like a breath of fresh air to hear someone talk about the isolation connected to homeschooling. Once, I remember my Dad laughing at a bumper sticker that said “Caution: un-socialized Homeschoolers on board” as though the isolation and loneliness connected to the homeschooling lifestyle was contrived and silly. When I was younger, I occasionally told my parents that I was lonely and wanted to have friends. By that point being around other children was so anxiety inducing I had developed a speech impediment that made it difficult to even talk to peers. When I tried, kids would often imitate my stuttered way of speaking. Other than church events, there were a handful of things I tried as a child. I attended a couple meetings of cub scouts until something minor happened to offend my parent’s strict religious values and they would take me anymore. The youth group at our old fashioned Baptist church was too “worldly” for them and that was also out. The years just went by. Every day was like the last. As time went on, the contrast between kids at church and I became more pronounced. They had cars, girlfriends, part time jobs, college plans. The future seemed frightening and uncertain. Things are much better with the passing of time. I’ve had the opportunity to live on my own and develop some friendships. There are times when I want to confront my parents to ask why things had to be the way they were. But I think that would likely be painful and worthless. It pisses me off when people say things like “at least you had a family who loved you” or “some never had the advantage of a close family.” Smothering and controlling love is not a positive thing. If you haven’t had the experience of being confined in your home for the first 18 years of your life, having every single aspect of your life micromanaged by your parents, all while having radical Christianity forced down your throat every day, don’t kid yourself and pretend to know what it’s like.

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