In this post, Areti Theofilopoulou (Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences) discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the range of wrongs that can occur in problematic parent-child relationships.

We know that our upbringing massively affects the way that our lives go. This is partly because, in our unequal societies, the socioeconomic status of our family determines the education and connections we have access to. But our upbringing would still affect the rest of our lives even in fairer societies, because the ways our parents treat us determine our future mental health and the kinds of people we become. Often, the upbringing people receive leads to the development of mental illness or personality traits that disadvantage them in all spheres of life (such as their career and relationships), and that is undeniably unfair. In my recent paper, I argue that states should intervene heavily in the family via mandatory parenting lessons and therapy to prevent these harms and disadvantages.

As things are, states typically ban abuse and neglect and intervene (e.g., by removing children from their home) when there is evidence that parents violate these laws. But this clearly fails to prevent abuse and neglect. Firstly, parents know that their behaviour will often go undetected. Secondly, many parents abuse or neglect their children for mental health-related reasons, such as suffering from addiction or personality disorders associated with violence. As a result, existing policies don’t prevent them from engaging in abuse or neglect. And even if they did, there would still be many children who would develop mental illness, personality disorders, and disadvantageous personality traits due to their upbringing. This is because there are some parental behaviours which aren’t classified as abusive or neglectful, yet have very harmful effects on children and the adults they become. One such behaviour is invalidation – the denial of one’s emotional experience – as when a parent says ‘you aren’t sad, you are fine’, or ‘you say that you don’t want this, but I know that you do’. Invalidation might seem innocuous compared to standard cases of abuse and neglect but there is consensus among psychologists that it is the leading environmental cause of borderline personality disorder (which only develops when a child also has a sensitive biological predisposition). Apart from invalidation, there are other behaviours, like oscillating between compassionate and harsh responses to a child’s crying, which can similarly cause issues such as anxiety and unhealthy relationships. Because anti-abuse and anti-neglect laws don’t address these behaviours, they are bound to fail to prevent harm and unfair inequalities between children and the adults they become.

Perhaps this simply shows that abuse and neglect should be reconceptualized in broader ways, to include behaviours such as invalidation. But that would actually be a bad idea for several reasons. For instance, a narrower understanding of abuse and neglect is useful for deciding when drastic measures, such as removing a child from their home, are appropriate. Similarly, it can better serve as a signal for interference by other citizens, because it is relatively easy to identify swearing or screaming, whereas identifying behaviours such as invalidation requires more complex knowledge of psychology. Moreover, we should doubt whether someone abuses or neglects a child if they couldn’t reasonably be expected to know that their behaviour is harmful. If we suddenly discovered that a behaviour that has been considered relatively harmless until now actually traumatizes children, we would normally hesitate to call the parents who have been unwittingly engaging in it abusive. We can reasonably expect parents to know that hitting or swearing is traumatizing, but this isn’t true of behaviours such as invalidation. So, it might make sense to keep a narrow understanding of abuse and neglect, even if other dysfunctional behaviours are similarly harmful.

Does this mean that states should let some unlucky children have a dysfunctional upbringing? Certainly not! Preventing this kind of upbringing is a matter of justice, even if it doesn’t entail abuse or neglect. All children have certain rights and interests that states should protect, such as the interest in developing the capacity to experience hope, motivation, ambition, to recognize their own self-worth and to form stable, non-abusive relationships. It is also undeniably unfair that children who grow up in caring, compassionate, stable, and secure families are more likely to have healthy, prosperous lives, with more career success and better relationships compared to those who grow up in dysfunctional ones. Moreover, apart from seeking to protect children, states should also prevent dysfunctional parental behaviours because these perpetuate the cycle of violence, as for example, when a previously abused child ends up becoming abusive as an adult.

So, what should states do to prevent dysfunctional parental behaviours? Some of these behaviours happen purely due to ignorance, because parents aren’t aware of their effects. The best way to prevent these behaviours is through mandatory parenting lessons. As things stand, some parents do seek information on parenting by consulting psychologists or through self-help books. But seeking that information should be treated as a duty, not as something supererogatory. Of course, these lessons wouldn’t prescribe a specific behaviour. Besides, even psychologists disagree on which parental behaviours are the optimal for child development. What these lessons can ensure is that parents know which behaviours are clearly harmful.

Other behaviours take place for psychological reasons. For example, some parents who have been harmed as children may unconsciously use defence mechanisms about their upbringing in a way that has normalized or rationalized harmful behaviours. This makes them more likely to repeat the behaviours they experienced as children. To prevent these behaviours, parents should undergo mandatory therapy that targets the emotional, often unconscious drives of their behaviour. Because the affective experience of love is sometimes blocked due to the parent’s own unresolved trauma or due to affective disorders that inhibit some emotions, therapeutic interventions would lead to parents not only behaving in more loving ways but also experiencing more loving emotions towards children.

Of course, no policy could ever be fully bulletproof and some children will inevitably continue to be brought up in dysfunctional ways. But a more interventionist approach to parenting is surely our best chance of ending intergenerational cycles of harm and of fulfilling our duties to children.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.