Parent-imparted positive emotional behaviours towards an infant affect that baby’s life well into early childhood. Committing quality shared time, undivided attention, open, honest communication, and solid essential physical handling enable a parent to exhibit those positive emotions. They lay the foundation for building a healthy relationship.
Healthy relationships result from learning how to relate to others and this development starts in infancy through connection, initially, with the primary caregiver. Usually that person is the biological mother. We learn how to express, regulate and express our feelings towards others from her and our experiences with our first human relationships.
From those experiences come a feeling of being loved, of feeling safe and secure, of an appreciation and value of another human being.
Those experiences, positive and negative, introduce us to the way in which others react to us. Our emotional development begins with learning from our parents — or parenting substitutes — and siblings. They set the initial stage for us to learn how to interact with other people.
Secure relationships enable us to learn how to regulate and express emotions. That security helps us to learn how we feel about ourselves, about others and the world. It begins in infancy with our initial caregiver; usually the mother and, by extension, with the father, if he is present. It is both social and emotional. Recent research shows a direct connection between healthy social-emotional development and academic success.
Much of the input for our social-emotional development happens by the age of 5. The home provides those opportunities because so much of our time is spent there during that period. That does not mean that correction of a behaviour, if it becomes necessary, cannot happen after age 5.
All of us have needed to bring about some behavioural changes after the age of 5 because we did not get it right, initially. It does mean if change is needed and we are unable to effect it on our own, then appropriate help should be sought. That help might come from the other parent, a sibling, a grandparent, another relative, or someone who is outside the family.
Sometimes the need for us to change is pointed out by someone outside the family circle. That person might be a teacher, a coworker, a counsellor or even an employer. As children, the need for correction of the child might be mentioned to the parent who is asked to provide the help directly or to seek help outside the home. Failure to provide help early might result in dire consequences in the long term. We are talking about forming relationships, and this is significantly dependent on emotional development. That is, we are looking at how we react to our feelings in relation to ourselves and other people.
Some children experience neglect during childhood. Suppose, for instance, parenting is neglectful. Failure to provide basic necessities is neglect. Failure to seek help when needed is neglectful. Failure to provide appropriate supervision is a form of neglect.
Mother might not be able to make herself available to the child on a consistent basis. Instead, she might designate a suitable person to act on her behalf. That intervention avoids neglecting the child. She does not leave the child to fend for themselves. No child comes with a “How to Parent Me Kit”, and some parents have no available reliable parenting support. There are community services that can assist and are willing to do so. Not everyone knows about them.
There are some cultural factors that come into play here. Some time ago, we lived by the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. In Bermuda, a lot of “the villages” were very different years ago. Nowadays, it is important to evaluate if “your village” is one you wish to use. For instance, years ago many mothers were at home and did not work outside the house. Some were willing to look after a neighbour’s children. Families often shared common values. Is the value system in your home the same as your neighbour’s? Are the imported value systems ones the island wishes to promote?
How are you protecting your children’s social development? Do you check on the friends with whom they interact? The television programmes they watch? Again, are the value systems the same as your own? Are there significant cultural differences in expectations for your child’s development? Do you accept those differences? Are they positive values?
You are interested in where your children are, what they are learning from those with whom they are interacting, how they are being transported to and from school, and how those situations match the core values you as a parent portrays for your family. As a parent you are aware that what you nurtured in infancy and how you are continuing your child’s development will come to fruition in adulthood. You are not waiting until they have reached the age of majority to assume you can fix the pattern. You remember that they learnt the patterns at your knee in early childhood and you recognise how the outcome of some of those patterns do not serve them well.
The quality of relationships is dependent on how each person talks to and with each other, how they behave towards each other, and the manner in which they manage situations, especially how they handle unpleasant situations, with each other. The adult’s attitude towards and treatment of the child during that developmental stage is critical. It is demanding for the adult. The feedings. Diaper changes. Loss of sleep for parents. All of those experiences contribute to the child’s development, especially the emotional development.
Relationships usually begin with family members, and branch out to neighbourhood friendships, school acquaintances and friendships, the workplace and romance. Over time, maintenance of those relationships thrives or fails. Neglect of a child, for instance, is bound to have a negative impact on a relationship. Unhealthy relationships feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned and humiliated.
Common unhealthy relationships are caused by a variety of negative factors. Those factors include, but are not limited to, persistent dishonesty, hostility, dependence, disrespect, harassment, intimidation, controlling behaviours, checking electronic devices instead of attending to spouse or partner or children, constant unreliability, avoidance, physical, emotional and sexual violence, distrust, constant negative criticism and judgment.
Most people strive for partnerships, family connections and working conditions that enable them to feel secure, safe, happy, respected, cared about and appropriately independent. When those conditions are fraught with negativism, relationships fail to bloom.
Food, protection, social contact, appropriate shelter, personal care and stimulation, for example, are basic needs required by the child. Over time, relationships embrace a wider circle wherein additional family members, friendships, acquaintances, coworkers and romantic attachments are formed. Each connection is different and each requires work in order to keep — or make — it healthy.
Relationships built on negative factors may be toxic, but anyone experiencing them ought also be aware that they can be outright dangerous — dangerous to health, dangerous to life. They always result in dysfunctional and unhappy life periods. They are also unrewarding and unproductive situations. Occasionally, they are fatal for one or more persons in such relationships.
Perhaps, we should take a survey on how life is affecting us and our children. Have we become desensitised to the value of human life? Are we able to watch a television programme in which there are shoot-em-ups and distinguish between reality and fantasy? Does it occur to us that the actor in that programme is actually “playing” the part? That he comes back another day, in another programme, alive? Have we noticed that what we saw wasn’t reality? When we play certain video games, are we smart enough to know that we are playing a game and that we haven’t killed anyone?
When a relationship leaves someone feeling emotionally drained, constantly sad, unhappy and stressed, does the individual recognise it is time to correct what is happening? Are you the one causing the condition or is the other person responsible for the complaint? How do you know that? Is it as if you are giving but not receiving anything from the relationship? Do you experience a lack of shared communication, feel manipulated, feel a lack of commitment to the relationship, and feel insecure or unsafe in the relationship? Is it because you are in an unhealthy relationship? Will compromising help? Why? Are you there because you so desperately want a connection that you will put up with anything?
Relationship difficulties result because of an array of problems. Those difficulties may be related to families, parenting, workplaces and romance, for example. They may result, for instance, because of overall long-term family dysfunction, trauma, violence, neglect, parenting deficiencies — either through ignorance or deliberately — intimidation, workplace harassment or incompetence, which may be employer and/or employee-related.
Intimate partner violence may begin with verbal abuse but escalate to “slaps or pushes” during an argument. It may progress to severe physical violence and battering or even murder.
Violence frequently occurs in relationships full of conflict. When partners have issues about money or where jealousy or envy exists, conflict in the relationship can be expected. Additionally, problems associated with how a male partner might perceive the woman’s gender role may present reason for conflict because it tends to arouse the man’s concerns regarding his identity as a man and fosters his motivation to assert the stereotypical idea of male dominance. Heavy alcohol consumption increases a risk for violence.
If you are in a relationship that makes a person feel as if they are living in a hostile atmosphere, as if it is all give and no take, you feel drained and unsupported, controlled and always judged, entrapped and undermined, never doing anything right and constantly being your worst, then you are in a toxic relationship.
Healthy relationships include open communication, honesty, trust, comfort, happiness, respect, energy, independence, reliability, security, feeling cared for and cared about, carrying out compromise, kindness, acceptance of boundaries and transparency. If those are missing from your relationships, you know you are in an unhealthy relationship, and that you need to take corrective measures.
You will want a relationship that includes positive characteristics. There is no “one size fits all” type of relationship. Healthy relationships are about staying focused on persons in the relationship without letting outside forces dictate how your relationship should function.
Unhealthy relationships require corrective measures. It doesn’t matter whether it is family membership, friendships, marital relationships or workplace situations.
There is a need for updating local legislation related to certain common abuse situations. Of importance is recognition that the world has moved on since some of the legislation, promulgated during the days of full parliamentary male dominance, is outdated. There appears to be a need for parent education. Some common ideas about gender roles require extensive correction.
If you are in a relationship that you find stagnant, inappropriate, hostile, and in any way toxic, it is time to do something about it. If it is abusive, it is unhealthy and needs to have something done about it because assistance is required.
It is often difficult to correct unhealthy relationships without help. Reaching out for help is a sign of courage. It does require understanding how to do so in order to avoid greater conflict, anger and violence. Discussion with a trusted confidante about how and when to do so may be required before proceeding.
If you are in a violent relationship, you are in an unhealthy relationship.
• Norma Cox Astwood, PhD, also known as Lady Blackman, is the first woman to serve as Vice-President of the Senate of Bermuda, and is the founder of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians Group