End Ritual Abuse The Website of Ellen P. Lacter, Ph.D.

What is the Nature of a Child’s Love for a Parent or Caregiver?


The most painful thing in the world is to realize that your parent doesn’t love you.

~Anonymous Survivor

Victims of child abuse experience complex feelings for the parents, other family members, nannies, clergy, coaches, etc., who abused or neglected them or who enabled or were passive bystanders to their abuse. These feelings often include subjective experiences of “love” and attachment. Other victims experience conflict about whether they feel “love” for family members who mistreated them because of moral or religious beliefs that dictate that they should “love” them.

In victims who have suffered abuse extreme enough to cause their minds to produce dissociated identities, feelings of “love,” attachment, etc., for their abusers are often confined to particular identities. For example, normatively conscious identities typically have little conscious awareness of having been abused and often experience feelings of “love” and attachment for the people who inflicted their abuse. Subjective feelings of “love” and attachment are also often held by identities who are typically dissociated from the normative identity. This has many complex origins, including:

  1. survival-based dependency and attachment needs,
  2. experiencing the self as deserving the abuse that was inflicted and viewing the abuser(s) as right or righteous,
  3. having been made by abuser(s) to feel unworthy of the love of kind people, often originating, in part, in having been forced to participate in the abuse of others, and feeling only worthy of belonging with the abuser(s),
  4. having learned that a self-denying vigilant focus on the abuser’s wants and needs can appease the abuser(s) and reduce the abuse,
  5. having been calculatingly manipulated by the abuser(s) to form affectional bonds to them,
  6. having been manipulated to form sexual bonds to the abuser(s), and/or,
  7. having been manipulated to be loyal to the abuser(s), and/or to feel like a member of the abuser group.

Dissociated identities who feel love for, or attachment to, their abusers often comply with their abusers’ requests and demands, thereby subjecting them to ongoing abuse long-term, even into adulthood, and often out of the conscious awareness of normative identities who may only have a dim awareness of having lost some time.

Whether victims or particular dissociated identities feel “love” for their abusers or feel morally required to love them, they benefit from considering the nature of children’s love for parents and other caregivers. What feelings of love are genuine and what feelings of “love” are actually something other than love and harmful?

As child abuse victims become more able to distinguish optimal forms of a child’s love for a parent or other caregiver from the complex kinds of feelings that children feel toward adults who abuse them, and as they acquire language to think about and express these complex abuse-based feelings, the more they are able to:

  1. understand the losses that they suffered,
  2. increase self-understanding and self-compassion for feeling “love” or not feeling love, and reduce self-judgement,
  3. move through the grief process for the kinds of love they did not receive,
  4. love, understand, and heal the hurt “inner children” and dissociated identities within, and,
  5. create the kinds of love that they want to give and receive as friends, parents, romantic partners, and more.

The following chart examines both optimal and harmful parenting and caregiving of children and the kinds of feelings that children experience in response. The chart refers to parents, but applies to all caregivers of children, including grandparents, older siblings, extended family members, nannies, teachers, clergy, coaches, etc.

This is followed by a list of questions that abuse victims can ask themselves to deepen their understanding of their complex feelings toward the adults who raised them, especially those who abused them.

The Nature of a Child’s Love for a Parent or Caregiver in Optimal Development and in Abuse.

Optimal Forms of LoveHarmful Forms of “Love”
The parent is warm, nurturing, and kind:

The parent provides attention, affection, and patience.

The child trusts that the parent will meet his/her basic and emotional needs. The need for love is sated; “the tank is full.” The child feels calm, safe, and free to “be.” The child comfortably identifies with the parent and is calmed by the internal representation of the loving parent. Moral development is based in having received kindness and compassion and identification with a kind parent, which yields natural feelings of empathy for others. A wish to please the parent motivates the child to cooperate with the parent.

Love: The child experiences natural, relaxed love for the parent, feels gratitude, and returns affection naturally. The child’s attachment to the parent is connected and secure.
The parent is cold, rejecting, and harsh:

The parent withholds attention and affection and is impatient.

The child withdraws from the parent or desperately works to obtain “crumbs” of care, attention, and affection. The child feels anxious, depleted, and starved for affection; “the tank is empty.” The child feels something is deeply wrong with the self and hopes that the parent will be more loving if only he/she is a better child. The internal representation of the parent is cold, harsh, and continues to produce feelings of deep unworthiness and angst. Moral development can develop based in fear of consequences, such as rejection or harm, rather than empathy for others.

Love: The child experiences desperate longing for love from the parent, even when the parent is present, and may subjectively experience this as love. The child clings to good memories for dear life. The child’s attachment is insecure, survival-driven, anxious and/or avoidant.
The parent is emotionally attuned and respects the child’s thoughts, and opinions:

The parent wants to know and values what the child feels and thinks. The parent responds with understanding and compassion to the child’s needs, emotions, thoughts and opinions.
The child understands his/her own feelings and thoughts to be valuable. The child feels safe and free to express his/her emotions and thoughts, including anger and disagreement. The child knows that he/she need not behave “perfectly” to receive love.

Love: The child effortlessly loves and values the parent based in give-give reciprocal love.
The parent ignores, dismisses, and/or devalues the child’s feelings, thoughts, and opinions:

The parent is inattentive, dismissive, critical, condemning, and/or punitive in response to the child’s emotions, thoughts, and opinions. The child is not allowed to express anger or disagreement.
The child internalizes the parent’s views and devalues his/her feelings, thoughts, and opinions. The child may desperately seek the parent’s approval or give up on ever winning it. The child is anxious, vigilant, self-critical, meek, fearfully submissive, and often emotionally detached with minimal language for feelings (alexithymia).

Love: Subjective feelings of love are most likely an effort to win the parent’s love, emotional support, and approval.
Shared joyful experience:

The parent plays with the child, enjoys their time together, can be silly, and can experience relaxed “flow.”
The child values this time and connection.

Love: The child seeks proximity to the parent.
Little or no time spent enjoying each other’s company:

The parent’s primary concern is the child’s behavior. Parent-child interaction is rule-bound and the parent makes little or not time for shared joyful or fun time together.
The child is anxious with no or limited capacity to play.

Love: The child seeks to avoid proximity to the parent.
The parent earns the child’s respect:

The parent’s kindness, care, protection, ethics, efforts, and abilities earn the child’s true respect.
The child trusts the parent to have the child’s best interests in mind, so generally cooperates with the parent. The child admires and seeks to emulate the parent, a beneficial identification process.

Love: The child naturally loves the parent.
The parent coerces the child’s respect:

The parent demands that the child demonstrate unquestioning “respect,” usually meaning complete and immediate obedience. The parent enforces this behavior through moral and/or religious judgement, emotional withdrawal, rejection, anger, punishment, and/or abuse.
The child is fear-driven to show “respect” and to fully obey the parent. To not feel respect results in shame based in fear of criticism or condemnation by the parent.

Love: Beneath forced and inauthentic feelings of “love” and respect, the child feels betrayed, fearful, and angry.
The parent meets the child’s needs:

The parent takes responsibility for the child’s happiness, psychological well-being, and health by providing emotional and physical care, protection, and guidance. The parent looks to other adults to meet his/her own psychological or physical wants and needs.
The child rarely worries about the parent’s psychological well-being or physical welfare.

Love: The child feels naturally-occurring love based in genuine feelings of gratitude.
The parent forces the child to meet the parent’s needs:

The parent requires that the child meet his/her wants and needs and makes the child feel responsible for the parent’s happiness and psychological well-being. This may include caretaking and/or submitting to the parent’s sexual wants and needs. The parent enforces this through moral and/or religious judgement, rejection, anger, punishment, abuse and/or by demonstrating distress, despondency, and in the worst case, suicidality, when the child does not meet the parent’s needs.
The child is consumed with worry about the parent’s well-being and sacrifices her/his own needs to meet those of the parent. When focusing on the needs of the self rather than meeting the parent’s wants and needs, the child feels fear, shame due to fear of condemnation, and guilt due to violating the parents’ moral injunctions.

Love: The child feels “sorry for” the parent and forced to “love” and care-take the parent. Deeper feelings include betrayal, fear, and anger. Note: The child, perhaps as an adult, may develop compassion for an abusive parent due to the parent’s own history of child abuse or other issues, but this should be distinguished from the natural and safe love that a child feels for a warm, attuned, and safe parent.
The parent accepts and facilitates normal sexual development and romantic interests:

The parent protects the child’s natural peer-to-peer sexual feelings and development. The parent is not morally or religiously critical of normal crushes and romantic interests, nor is the parent overtly sexually stimulating.
The child feels comfortable about normal sexual feelings and romantic interests.

Love: The child easily distinguishes the qualities of a child’s love for a parent and parent’s love for a child from romantic love or sexual feelings.
The parent is sexually abusive or repressive:

The parent sexually overstimulates, sexually exploits, or sexually abuses the child, and/or is morally or religiously condemning or punitive in response to the child’s normal sexual and romantic development. In calculated dissociation-savvy abuse, the parent manipulates particular identities to form sexual bonds with him/her.
The sexually overstimulated, sexually exploited, and/or sexually abused child feels frightened, endangered, betrayed, damaged, shame-filled, morally “bad,” and more. The sexually condemned child feels rejected, anxiety-ridden, shame-filled, and guilt-ridden.

Love: The sexually abused child has difficulty distinguishing the nurturing love that a parent normally feels for a child and that a child receives from sexual and romantic love. The sexually condemned child feels fear of rejection and shame from the parent for having normal sexual feelings rather than feeling safe love.

Rosie the Dog

The moment I took this picture, before I even looked at the image, I knew I had captured an incredible moment, a pure expression of my dog’s total and natural love for me. Her expression shows that she is completely relaxed, appreciative, adoring, and fulfilled. She was probably 13 at the time and had been with me for eight years, and by this time, needed two hours to accomplish all of her goals for her walk. She needed no leash because she was so slow and gentle that even the park ranger made an exception to the rule. She would slowly make her way through the park, cross the street, and meander into the winery that welcomed dog visitors. As she walked in, she was greeted by the vintner and servers, one of whom reliably provided a treat and bowl of fresh water, and the guests, most of whom knew her and were thrilled to see her. She would greet whomever she wanted. These were her friends after all, not mine. Then, she would pick a spot to lie down on the cool floor and just be in the zone. Sometimes, she went out for a short stroll to visit the other local shopkeepers, then returned to the winery, with me following close behind to make sure she did not take too many liberties. On this day, we were in the winery and she approached me and I snapped this shot. Rosie went to heaven in 2020, but this picture still gives me joy and pride. I wish for every child on this earth the love captured in Rosie’s eyes in this photograph.

Distinguishing Genuine Feelings of Love for a Parent from Other Feelings that Can Subjectively Feel Like Love

Drawing from the chart above and the picture of Rosie, the following are some questions that abused children, adults abused as children, and dissociated identities within abused individuals, can ponder to help them sort out genuine feelings of love that children feel toward loving parents from complex feelings that abused children feel for parents and caregivers that can be subjectively experienced as love when they are actually something else:

Was the love I felt for my parent (grandparent, caregiver, etc.) genuine and relaxed and appreciative love or was it, in truth, desperate longing for something I needed that was barely there or not there at all?

Do thoughts of my parent produce peaceful or painful feelings?

Do I have many wonderful memories of my parent or only a few good memories that I hold onto for dear life?

Did I feel valued by my parent or did I feel it was hard or impossible to win my parent’s approval?

Did I feel comfortable to express my emotions to my parent, even anger?

Did I feel free comfortable to express my thoughts and opinions to my parent, including disagreement?

Do I respect my parent’s qualities and ethics, or do I only feel required to respect my parent based in moral or religious injunctions or because my parent required respect.

Is my love for my parent natural and flowing or based in worry about my parent’s psychological well–being? Do I still fear that I will harm my parent if I do not “love” or think well of him or her?

Do I recall being loved in non-sexual ways or did my parent mix sexual feelings into parental love?

Do I feel the secure and relaxed love in Rosie’s eyes for my parent, caregiver, etc., or did I not receive the love that should be every child’s birthright?

End Ritual Abuse The Website of Ellen P. Lacter, Ph.D.

Articles by Section