When people can’t show remorse

When people can’t show remorse

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A controversial thought

I was driving to work a few mornings ago and the news was on. They were talking about decisions to look at whether we have more stringent punishments for parents who mistreat their children in any way. If the parents blame other people or don’t show remorse for their behaviour then we should look at stronger consequences.

Whilst I totally understand that it’s very difficult to imagine a parent mistreating their child in any way, I also am well aware of the complexity of people’s lives and the psychology behind behaviours.

This follows on from my video last week looking at the area of rewards and sanctions in school. We have this obsession with behaviour modification – at any age. Of course, we need to try to help people to be healthy in their relationships and how they treat others but it’s much more complicated then a “if you can’t be sorry for what you’ve done then off to prison with you”.

I don’t mean to be flippant about this subject, I know from my own children’s birth experiences and others I come into contact with through our work and personal lives that abuse is a very serious and impactful experience.

I guess the questions it’s provoking in me are around why adults might do or not do the things we deem to be inappropriate and at its extreme abusive to others? How can a mother watch her child being hit and not take them away? Why would a parent not do all they can to provide food for their family? How can people get so far into addiction that they ignore their child’s basic needs? It’s very hard to answer these questions and particularly so when we come from the premise that people have full responsibility for their actions.

I’ve said this before I’m sure – with our children when is the cut-off point when we say they have to take responsibility for their actions and stop blaming their past? BUT and it’s a big but, how can they take responsibility if there’s no concept of empathy, remorse, cause and effect thinking? All those are essential to being able to take responsibility and to be able to change your actions.

Also, often the way any of us behave comes from our inner working model. Our levels of anxiety and resilience play a part, as well as the solid foundation of stability we’ve hopefully had from our parents. Being able to manage your emotions is difficult even for those of us who would consider they’ve had a stable start in life, let alone that cycle of neglect and abuse that breeds more parents trying desperately to do their best but without the skills and resources to do so.

So, what is the answer? Of course, we need to protect children and keep them safe. We need to be able to try and change adult’s capacity to parent better and to manage their own lives better. BUT will imposing more punitive systems reach that end?

Some of the lessons I’ve learnt from my children, and am continually learning is that their early experiences have a long-term impact. That doesn’t mean the impact can’t be minimised over time, but something like empathy and being able to feel remorse takes a long time and people working with us to show us those things. If a parent had a difficult start themselves, is then in unhealthy relationships and making bad choices as a result of their poor sense of self or right and wrong, the way to break that cycle is surely to have a different approach then what’s happening now?

Don’t get me wrong I know how hard it is to feel compassion for people who have hurt children. I’m not saying it’s easy. But it’s also not working to just keep telling them to stop and make different choices. They need to have the ability to make a better choice through a variety of strategies and support.

My hope for my children is that as they grow they will learn to accept their past, to integrate their experiences into their lives, but also to find healing and be able to do things differently. That takes compassion, making allowances at times, keeping them close when they are hard to be close to, seeing the scared child behind the aggressive teenager, rewarding them through our relationships and not external prizes, relieving anxiety instead of behaviour modification and generally understanding that the root of their difficult behaviour is fear.

What that looks like in an adult is maybe what we see in society when people just can’t cope with parenting or managing their own lives. Surely a different approach is needed with them too?

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