Goodness Of Fit And The Abusive Parent-Child Relationship.
by Elaine Ellis
I just think this is SO cute! It's four of my cats
I always think that it's a good thing to revisit themes in one's life. It affords a chance to re-evaluate, to see things with the benefit of "hindsight", and to do a bit of extra learning. Sometimes, this act of re-visitation occurs spontaneously; other times, it may be prompted by a specific and significant event, or may even take place as a deliberate and conscious choice.
Well, I recall having previously written about such matters as "favouritism" within families, and whether this can be linked to abuse of a child; as well as writing more recently about the need to find one's inner sense of true "self". It was this latter act of writing that prompted my thinking...
If we do all have an innate sense of "self", something deep within us, that is the essential, vital us, then surely it must be this that makes us all different? Years ago, Charles Darwin wrote on the subject of "natural selection", informing a skeptical and startled Victorian generation that he believed that a series of natural and random genetic mutations had led species to evolve. Darwin hypothesised that certain of these genetic mutations had proven beneficial to survival ("survival of the fittest"), and had therefore become traits passed from one generation to the next.
Darwin's theories of evolution certainly give credence to the belief that individuality and diversity are both necessary to the survival of a species. Perhaps it is the random genetic mutations that Darwin talks of which led to us all being different? After all, we do not yet fully understand how the human body and mind function. Perhaps there are minutely subtle differences from one person's physiology to the next, which account for the diversity of the human form? I can but speculate! After all, I am no scientist!!
Still, what I do know, from my years as a Social Worker, is that people ARE all different; to the extent that there can be marked differences between the personality traits, behavioural style, likes and dislikes, lifestyle choices... (to name but a few factors) of even close family members. There is a term in Developmental Psychology - "goodness of fit" - this describes the happy coincidence which occurs when the personality traits of the child match those of the primary caregiver. This matching of personalities is thought to give rise to a happy and stable bond between parent-figure and child; the two sharing tastes, interests and, hence, experiences. It could be argued parents are instinctively drawn towards the child most akin to them.
Obviously, there must be an opposite to this. A "bad fit", so to speak; where the personality traits of the child and the parent/caregiver are so dissimilar as to lead to a clash. I have devoted a separate article to exploring the theme of being true to oneself, highlighting the importance of this. What if one is NOT allowed to be true to oneself? What if, because of a clash of personality, a child is made to feel in some way "opposed" to their parent, or caregiver? To feel that they are fundamentally "unacceptable" as they are? To feel that they must change, in order better to "fit in"?
Obviously, there are a number of factors which affect individual outcomes in life. These can include peer influence, environmental factors, extended family set-up, and general stability of a person's support network. The general gist would be that, for the child whose personality is a "good fit" with that of the caregiver, and who lives in a comfortable home environment, surrounded by a stable support network of caring extended family and friends, the outcome in life should be favourable. For the child whose personality is a "bad fit" with that of the caregiver, and whose support network is fragmented (perhaps through divorce or bereavements in the family), and who is subjected to a deprived home environment, it would be expected that the outcome be poor.
We must understand that the concept of "self" is complicated. "To a large extent our self conception is a result of what others have told us about our strong and weak points." (Raaheim and Radford, 9183, p.76). So, if we are repeatedly given the message that we are somehow "bad" or "wrong" we eventually come to believe this - particularly if this belief is reinforced by events that happen to us. Unrealistic or not, this concept of our "self" may then profoundly influence our behaviour, choices and actions.
I have asked, before, whether the favouring of one child above others in a family might lead to abuse. It could be argued that this "favouritism" is abusive in its own right. However, sadly, it is also quite likely a natural result of the so-called "good fit" phenomenon. It is so much easier for a parent or caregiver to parent a child who is similar in essence to them. They have much in common. The child will must likely share interests, energy levels, likes and dislikes with this caregiver. These form the basis of a strong, natural bond.
The child who is unlike the parent/caregiver is probably seen as much more difficult to parent. No child comes with a manual - a step-by-step guide of how to rear him or her; and how to get it right. Parents and children must feel their way tentatively through this process, and clearly sometimes this can be difficult. The parent may want to "make things easier", they may feel scared, inadequate and out of their depth. And, I would suspect that this is more likely to happen where they have a child whose personality clashes with that of their own.
In the abusive relationship, the parent or caregiver figure is truly well out of their depth. They want to be in control, to have power over a subordinate child. Here, we may be talking about a caregiver/parent who, for whatever reason, fears loss of control, taking it personally, as an affront. They may be immature in their own right, lacking life experience and empathy. They may have a substance misuse, or mental health problem which leads to instability within their own personality traits. They may have experienced abuse themselves, leaving them damaged. Whatever the reason, THIS caregiver is unable to provide the care, nurturing and stability needed by a growing child. THIS caregiver cannot face challenges, and cannot tolerate change, and cannot be flexible in the manner that is required of one in such a position of trust and responsibility. When faced with the child who is not a "good fit" they are at breaking point.
Does this in some way explain why abuse might occur? That is not for me to say definitively. I can but speculate. What I can say is that abusers tend to look for what they perceive as vulnerabilities in others - and these may include personality traits that clash with their own. I can also add that there is evidence that where abuse occurs in families with more than one child, there is often a particular child who is victimised. Is this child the so-called "bad fit"?
Awareness of self, and of others is essential. By exploring who we are as ourselves, we can improve the way that we interact with others. If you're interested, I can suggest some reading...
Raaheim and Radford, "Your Introduction To Psychology", 1984, Cappelen Sigma: London.
Buss and Plomin, "The Analysis Of Temperament", 1975, British Journal Of Medical Psychology No. 17.
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