Socialization and Psychological Maltreatment: Isolating Children and Teenagers
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.