Perceived parental neglect has a far-ranging impact on the social and emotional aspects of people’s lives. In this month’s Ilm o Amal, Sarah Ladhani examines two personalities –one real and one fictional – to understand the factors that determined their diverse responses to similar circumstances.

In this article I will be examining how children’s perception of being rejected by their parents, influences the social and emotional aspects of their personality. I have picked two personalities for analysis: one is Aisha, a woman I know personally, and the other is Brooke Davis, a fictional character from the popular TV show One Tree Hill.

Aisha: Living with inconsistent parenting

Aisha is a 31-year old female. She is a middle child and is single. She lives in a joint family with her parents, younger sister, brother and an aunt. Her grandfather and grandmother also lived with them until they died. She is trying to complete her Master’s degree privately and has previously taught at a Montessori for about 3 or 4 years. She now stays home and mostly does household chores. Apart from housework, she is also involved in community service which she performs once a week.

Not a very social person, Aisha has some friends, but is not very close to them. She believes close friendships means revealing yourself and your family, which she is not ready to do. She doesn’t go out with anyone other than her family and this has affected her social life. Since she isn’t married, she thinks people gossip about this and it further inhibits her.

Her single status is also affecting her relationship with her family members. Her family wants her to get married, but she doesn’t as she finds it difficult to trust people. As a result her relationship with her parents continues to deteriorate. She feels like she is a burden on her family.

She is the second daughter of her parents and is repeatedly compared to her siblings. She feels that her siblings have achieved more in life and are doing quite well. As a result she feels inferior to them and not as beautiful.

She doesn’t feel confident of her abilities and has low self esteem. Even though she has been encouraged by her siblings to apply for jobs, she refuses to for fear that she will be rejected. She firmly believes that she is unemployable.

Not only does Aisha feel neglected by her parents, she also seems hopeless. On one occasion she said, “I have suffered a lot because of some of my family members. God hasn’t helped me nor am I doing anything to get rid of this (feeling).”

There is a history of domestic violence in the family. She has seen her (unemployed) father physically beating her mother and verbally abusing her. She tried to stop the violence on various occasions by stepping in, but since her mother didn’t give up on the relationship with her father, or voice her issues, it left a negative impact on her. She felt deceived by her mother. As a result she feels that she shouldn’t speak up in domestic issues as it is of no use. Even though the violence has stopped Aisha continues to think that she cannot trust her mother to take a stand for her. She thinks her mother is weak and that her father is cruel and that it is because of him that everyone is suffering.

The unstable environment has deeply impacted her behavior and thinking. Her perception of the world is very rigid and negative at times. She won’t forgive anyone, nor will she give anyone a second chance. She views people’s actions and motives quite negatively and doesn’t trust too many people. She is not empathic towards others and doesn’t consider other people’s points of view.

Aisha was quite attached to her grandfather and was brought up by him. After his death, she thinks her life really changed. Now she spends a lot of time taking care of her mother who gets ill quite often. She believes that she sacrificed a lot for her mother and her family, and therefore didn’t get a chance to look after herself.

I think overall, she is living quite a complicated life where she is not happy with herself or her family. She is a very sensitive person who grew up in a violent and disturbed environment in which her emotional needs were neglected. As a result she has built a wall around herself.

Brooke Davis: Overcoming neglect

The other personality is a Brooke Penelope Davis, a fictional character from the television series One Tree Hill, portrayed by Sophia Bush. Brooke is a beautiful, perky but often misunderstood brunette. She is the only daughter of the wealthy Davis family. Brooke’s parents, although very well-off, were also absent for most of their daughter’s childhood and adolescent years. The only parenting they did was to support her financially. The lack of an authority figure in her life resulted in Brooke’s high school years to be full of parties, and drinking. Academically she wasn’t into studies, but was the captain of the cheerleading squad of Tree hill and was popular among her peers. She had one best friend Peyton Swayer who she was close to and shares everything with.

During her school life, she gets into a relationship with her boyfriend (Lucas Scott) who later cheats on her with her best friend. Feeling betrayed Brooke breaks off with both of them. Later she forgives both of them and continues to be their friend, but this incident changes her a lot. Just like Aisha she is she unable to trust people and has created a wall around her which she doesn’t allow anyone to break.

With the passage of time, she discovers her talent for fashion and starts her own online fashion line known as Clothes Over Bros. After graduating, she moves to New York to continue her fashion career. Over there, she joins forces with her mother, Victoria Davis, who takes over the “business side” of Clothes over Bros making her fashion line a nationwide phenomenon and making both Brooke and Victoria incredibly wealthy. Brooke and her mother share a business relationship with each other, but the parent-child relationship doesn’t improve. Her mother often insults her daughter’s sense of business because she believes that although her daughter has talent, she has no sense of business. According to her, if she wasn’t involved, her daughter could never have gained such fame. On the other hand, Brooke wants to be close to her mother therefore she continues to be verbally and emotionally abused by her. They don’t have any personal or emotional bounding.

At one point in the narrative, Brooke is attacked in her store and she thinks her mother is behind it, because she wanted to overtake the company. She became a physical and emotional wreck because of this event, but didn’t share it with anyone.

At one point Brooke even bought a gun and trained to shoot in order to kill her mother, which she eventually decided against.

She found a teenage girl (Sam) whose mother had abandoned her at birth. Brooke provides the girl with shelter and becomes very close to her. Eventually, after many misfires Brooke also finds a love interest that she can trust. Since this was a TV serial, this maybe the reason that the character had a happy ending with a loving husband, parents and two kids. But her emotional journey was remarkable.

The reason behind selecting Brooke is that even though, like Aisha she was neglected by her parents throughout her life, she didn’t give up on herself. She was able to fight back through all the hardships either alone or with her friends’ help. She doesn’t view the world as unresponsive and believes in the kindness of people. Brooke’s character shows that parental rejection may not always lead to detrimental effects in one’s life. One’s personality and many other environmental factors add up to one’s development too.

Dissecting diverse responses to parental neglect

According to Haque (1987) and Sheikh & Haque (1994), children will feel rejected if parents criticise, punish and ignore their physical and emotional needs. Cursing, shouting, mocking and humiliating the child are classified as verbal aggression and they make a child feel unwanted and rejected. In Aisha’s case, she has been criticised a lot by her parents because she has not been working or studying properly for the last three years. She feels that her parents do not understand her.

The ironic thing is that even though her parents are concerned about her and feel that she is different from their other children, they do not approach her differently. They are now preoccupied with and worried about getting her married. At this point Aisha is frustrated with her life and wishes to die, but her parents continue to ‘not understand’ why she doesn’t want to get married. Here the study of Haque and Sheikh (1994) is validated as we see in Aisha’s case that if parents ignore their child’s emotional needs and are verbally abusive towards them, the person will feel rejected. And the person who feels rejected by their parents will tend to have negative influences in the formation of their personality along with the emotional and behavioural functioning (Rohner, 2007).

According to the parental acceptance-rejection theory given by Rohner (2007), the perception of being rejected creates hostility, aggression, dependency and impairs their sense of self esteem and self adequacy, instability of emotions, defensiveness and a negative world view in children. I was surprised to see the accuracy of Rohner’s theory predictions in Aisha’s life. Though it doesn’t mean that she behaves in this manner every time, but her thoughts and behaviours reflect these feelings quite often. As Aisha feels incompetent and worthless she doesn’t want to go anywhere alone. It takes a lot of persuasion to make her do something. She is not indecisive but she doesn’t initiate outings and occasions for socialising on her own.

Many times, it is difficult to make Aisha understand a perspective that is different from hers. She is quite rigid and defensive in her views. And she is quick to latch onto a negative perception about something than to think positively about it. To me it seems that her inability to trust anyone has led her to create this pessimistic view of the world. As Hoffman (1982), Janssen & Gerris (1992), Radke- Yarrow, Zahn-waxler, Chapman (1983) and Staub (1979) hypothesised, parental warmth and responsiveness creates feelings of trust, control and security in the environment which promote empathy and pro-social behaviour in children. A similar view has been given by the psychoanalyst Erikson, where he said trust in the environment is created with the consistency of parental responsiveness. Thus because of Aisha’s parents’ inconsistent love she does not trust the world and the people in it. And if she is unable to trust then she finds it difficult to consider anyone’s feelings or even to show empathy to them. Hence her feelings, behaviours and the research findings are similar.

However, she is not completely a non pro-social person as she volunteers in her community, but overall she has given up on the idea of benefitting others. She thinks that it is useless to think about others’ benefits, as no matter how much she does, she doesn’t feel that it is significant.

Pines and Marron (2003) say that the quality of the mother-child relationship generates pro-social behaviour and empathy in children. Even though Aisha harbours feelings of rejection, yet she spends a lot of her time with her mother who is ill. On many instances, it has been observed that she is deeply concerned about her mother. It seems that she has ambiguous feelings towards her mother, where she feels rejected, but also wants to be near her. If we relate Pines and Marron’s findings to Aisha, then maybe the lack of this quality relationship in her life has affected the empathy and pro-social attitude in her.

Besides the relationship she shares with her mother, the relationship she shares with her father seems more restrained. Her father has been physically and verbally abusive with her mother and verbally abusive with her. This has created hatred towards her father in Aisha. Straker & Jacobson (1981) in their research found out that those children who are abused in childhood may learn to respond to their environment coercively or they may be unable to express their feelings of resentment towards their parents and so these feelings accumulate and result in non-empathic behaviour in later life (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). Aisha is not just non-empathic towards other people, but her resentment towards her father also shows up in many different ways. Even though, I have emphasised earlier that parental rejection alone does not shape one’s negative behaviour, there are many other factors that add up to it.

On the other hand, the neglected Brooke Davis is different from Aisha. She may not seem as damaged, yet parental rejection has affected her differently. In her case, it was her social environment and the presence of other significant people that has helped her to achieve in her life and view the world differently from what the research says. In contrast to Aisha, Brooke is fairly empathic. Barnett (1987) explains that the development of empathy is most likely to occur in a family environment that is fulfilling a child’s emotional needs and is exposing them to interactions with others who encourage emotional expressions and sensitivity in them. In Brooke’s case, her family might not have met her emotional needs, but the environment in which she lived, was sensitive enough to promote emotional sensitiveness in her. This shows that alongside parental behaviour, the environment is equally important in shaping positive emotional behaviour (Hoffman, 1982 & 2000). In Aisha’s case her parents might not have been there to do this, but her grandfather had quite a positive influence on her – yet she turned out differently.

This shows that a child’s personality is also an important factor in how they respond to different environments. Aisha is not just different from her other siblings, because of her different behavior and thoughts, she is also a middle child with a sensitive nature. Therefore the way she responds to her environment and parental behaviors is quite different from the way her siblings respond to it.

Coming to Brooke, the other way in which she differs from the research article is that according to Pines and Marron (2003), a positive relationship between mother and child promotes pro-social behaviour in children and yet in Brooke Davis’ character, this was quite the opposite. She shared a restrained relationship with her mother, yet she was the most pro-social person in that series.

My understanding of her character was that she did the exact opposite of what had been done to her. If she wasn’t loved by her mother, she wanted to adopt a child whom she could give her love and support to. Her mother lacked sympathy and empathy, but Brooke was quite sensitive to others’ feelings. Brooke’s personality was very different to Aisha’s which led to different outcomes.

Pines and Marron said, Allport (1961) argue that a secure home environment is the basis for tolerance and empathy in children. We see that even though Brooke was a neglected child, she still had a secure home environment which might be the reason she has those traits even in the absence of a good parental relationship.

In addition to a secure home environment, Brooke Davis shared a positive relationship with her father. Although both parents had been absent from her life, Brooke views her father far more positively. It may be because unlike her mother, her father didn’t belittle and criticise her. She felt more rejected by her mother than by her father. According to Arzeen, Riaz, Hassan (2012), Biller & Trotter (1994) and Hinchey & Gavelek, 1982) a positive relationship between the father and the child also promotes positive behaviour in children.

The effects of a parent-child relationship are not limited to one’s personal and emotional life, but also have an effect on the social development of a child (Gulay, 2011). The social lives of both Aisha’s and Brooke couldn’t be more different. At one end, Aisha is unable to form close bonds with others while Brooke had many superficial bonds in her college and even after that. Both of these people have difficulty trusting people. With Aisha, it is her overall environment including her parents and her own thinking about herself. I believe the death of her grandfather must have been really hard on her, which might have changed her view towards many things as well.

While with Brooke it was the betrayal from her friends and the absence of someone whom she could trust. But when Brooke was able to find a person she could trust, she adopted more healthy emotional and social behaviours in her life. Aisha also says that she lacks a person in her life that she can share her issues with. Though the research does not support it, but it seems that in the absence of parental affection, if there is some other significant person in a child’s or adult’s life, then the person is able to adopt healthy behaviours both socially and emotionally.

Creating a difference in a child’s life

It is evident that both the mother and the father play an equally important role in a child’s life. Children respond to the environment parents provide, not only in their childhood but throughout their lives. Parents should understand that each child is different and they need to treat them differently. Comparing them with others or challenging and insulting is not constructive and may hinder the child’s development. It is equally important for parents to provide a positive and consistent environment for their children.

A teacher or any other adult in a child’s environment has to understand that they have a significant influence on his or her development. Therefore, providing a healthy and positive environment is also a teachers’ responsibility. If a teacher or adult observes any event or behaviour that they feel is affecting a child, they should talk to the parents within the school policy limits. Even if one person in a child’s environment is responding positively to them, it can create a huge difference in his or her life.

Sarah Ladhani is a TRC-IECE graduate.

• Arzeen, S., Riaz, M.N., Hassan, B. (2012). Perception of parental acceptance and rejection in emotionally empathic and non-empathic adolescents. Pakistan Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 9, 60-69.

May 2015