Children who are subjected to prejudice, ridicule and emotional trauma develop negative coping strategies.
By Dr Vihan Sanyal
Discrimination means the unjust treatment of children on the grounds of appearance, gender, aptitude, skills and family expectations. It means treating children adversely without any appropriate justification. A negative outlook or prejudice can lead to discrimination. This is usually observed in parents who choose to focus on children who exhibit greater skills, aptitude and talent.
Studies have discovered that discrimination may cause severe mental and physical health disturbances. It is not uncommon for such children at the receiving end to show signs of anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorders and personality disorders. It can also make them prone to illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes later in life.
Discrimination can cause severe and permanent damage to a child’s psyche. Children who are subjected to prejudice, ridicule and emotional trauma develop negative coping strategies. They are at an increased risk for developing issues with aggression, depression, anxiety, issues with self-esteem and in forming and sustaining relationships.
Here are some ways a child may face discrimination at home:
1. Gender Discrimination
A girl child can easily feel discriminated against if her parents and family members favour her brother over her. In a fit of anger parents can say things like “you should never have been born”, “we never wanted a daughter” or “If you were a son, then you would have been able to help and support us in old age”. Buying expensive gifts for the son and pampering him, sending him to a better school and spending on his education, while ignoring the needs of his sister has been a norm in certain parts of our society. Stopping a girl from participating in activities just because of her gender sends a message that girls are weak or are inferior to boys.
2. Academic Results
This is when parents and guardians judge the worth of a child based on his or her academic results. When they compare results among siblings and constantly praise the child who is good at studies while condemning the one who is not. Some households place too much of importance on academic achievements and put undue pressure on their children to achieve unrealistic targets.
3. Family Expectations
A household with a family history of high achievers in sports tends to have similar expectations from their children. Even we, as a society, tend to expect that the son of a legendary cricketer will be just as good as his father or the son or daughter of an actor is going to be just as good (if not better) than their parent. Often, a child is forced to take music lessons, dancing lessons, join sports coaching classes just because their family is well known for their achievements in that particular field. Parents are often guilty of forcing their career choices on their children. The child of a doctor engineer or a lawyer must follow their parents’ footsteps and become one themselves. It is expected that once the child of a businessman grows up, they will join the family business.
4. Weight Issues
If a child is obese, it can easily damage their self-esteem and perception of themselves. This is reinforced by behavioural changes in their parents, family members and children at school. If a relative comes to visit and makes a comment on seeing the child (“you need to play outdoor sports, eat less and exercise more”) or a child starts name calling at school (“fatty”, “baby elephant”, “hippo”), it can be devastating for the child. If a parent even jokingly becomes insensitive towards their child’s weight, it can have serious repercussions on the child’s mental health. Many parents tend to pay more attention to the child who happens to be better looking and in good physical shape compared to a child who is “average” looking and obese. This clearly sends a message to the child that physical attractiveness is what matters and that they will only be accepted in the world if they are good-looking with a perfect body.
5. Sexual Orientation
When parents of an LGBT child feel ashamed or embarrassed with their child’s sexual orientation, it can cause permanent emotional scars on the child. Parents are the safety net for children and when they behave in an indifferent or aggressive way towards their children, it completely shatters their young minds. Such children feel hurt, neglected, abandoned and unwanted by their parents. The one person they had hoped would understand and support them has let them down!
6. Physical Disability
Some parents of physically challenged children become overprotective and lenient towards the child. This can be counterproductive and make the child feel discriminated against. Instead, parents need to instill confidence in such children and encourage them to become self-reliant. They should not receive “special” treatment in their home from their siblings.
7. Discrimination Based On Age
Many parents have a soft spot in their hearts for their firstborn or for their youngest child. All children need to feel equally loved and cared for by their parents. Any preferential treatment by parents creates resentment amongst siblings. Children can also hold grudges against their parents for their preferential behaviour for the rest of their lives and it can become a major contributing factor for physical and mental health issues.
Discrimination may be harmful for children in a number of ways:
– Children who are taught to suppress their emotions at home have a greater chance of being bullied at school.
– These children can feel inferior within a peer group setting and can develop issues with social interaction and being accepted as part of the group. This can lead to a child feeling lonely and isolated.
– All types of discrimination can lower self-belief and self-worth of a child. It can make the child feel powerless and helpless. It can restrict a child from reaching their full potential.
– All forms of discrimination, at home, school or in the workplace are extremely harmful for a person’s mental health. It is especially damaging to a person if it happens to them during their childhood. A child’s psyche may not be developed enough to cope with insults, emotional pain or trauma, which are synonymous with discrimination.
Psychological counselling and other forms of psychotherapy are extremely useful in helping children become more resilient. It helps children to deal with such feelings and emotions early in life and can prevent further damage from taking place.
(The writer is a psychotherapist.)