Can children detect on some level when love is not genuine?
January 1, 2014 6:15 PM   Subscribe

Can children detect on some level when love is not genuine? An example would be when a parent is affectionate to spite their own parents as if to say "This is what you were supposed to do with me," rather than doing so out of a genuine feeling towards the child. Acting the part without the emotion and connection to back it. Can this be perceived by the child and perhaps effect their emotional development? If so, to what degree could this hinder them in the long term?
posted by mrflibble to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Are you looking for anecdotal evidence or actual studies on this topic?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:16 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can this be perceived by the child

In my experience, kind of. Can the child tell that something is wrong? Yes, sometimes, depending on the child and the circumstances. Can the child tell what is wrong? Frequently not.

Here's the thing: kids are remarkably perceptive, but not necessarily all that insightful. So they may notice as much or even more about people's interactions as adults do, but they probably don't have the experience to understand what it is they're perceiving or the vocabulary to discuss it intelligently. The vagaries of adult relationships mostly go way above their heads in terms of comprehension. So it would not at all surprise me if a kid could tell that someone didn't mean what they were saying, even if the words used were affectionate. But it would surprise me if a kid would understand exactly what was going on, and even more if they were able to express their intuitions cogently.
posted by valkyryn at 6:31 PM on January 1, 2014 [15 favorites]

Actual studies primarily but the anecdotal certainly contributes.
posted by mrflibble at 6:32 PM on January 1, 2014

I would think that children can detect when love is not genuine in the same way that any person (young or old) can detect that love is not genuine. Love for a child, in particular, has a very selfless characteristic that I think is almost impossible to imitate accurately. When affection and care is genuine, concern for the child and anticipation of the child's needs will be expressed in subtle ways that a caregiver who was simply "going through the motions" would be unable to even come up with, let alone carry out or act upon. There will be a difference.

The child will feel that there is a sort of distance between themselves and the parent, even if they cannot specifically articulate why. They might not feel completely comfortable approaching the parent for help. They might have trouble opening up to the parent to discuss personal issues. As to what degree this might affect the child later on-- it depends on a lot of things (personalty of the child, other aspects of the home environment, possibly peer influence, and so on...), so it'd be hard to isolate the true impact of that single aspect in childhood. Maybe reading about attachment styles would better help you answer your question.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:35 PM on January 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

valkryn, Yes, perception without the knowledge to communicate, piece together and connect the dots certainly makes it difficult to determine. I'm hoping that studies of some sort have been performed on this.

This article has sparked me to ask this question:
-- warning, the bit about the monkeys is really depressing.
posted by mrflibble at 6:36 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

gemutlichkeit, Thank you for the insight and additional branch of research :)
posted by mrflibble at 6:42 PM on January 1, 2014

There is no definitive answer.

Some people are good at faking emotions and some people aren't.

Some people are good at detecting when other people are faking something and some people aren't.

Children are just young, inexperienced people, so while some perceptive kids will be able to tell that an adult is faking it, some kids won't be able to tell (especially if the adult is a good actor).
posted by Jacqueline at 6:51 PM on January 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I could figure out that my relatives didn't like me when I was very small. Even though they were faking the bonhomie like all get out.

Yes, kids will know.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:56 PM on January 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Even if a very young child didn't realize it, the child might figure it out when he/she is older, which would be devastating for his/her ability to trust anyone ever.
posted by amtho at 7:03 PM on January 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are so many assumptions in your question that it is hard to answer as written.

You suggest that a parent is doing something to spite his/her parents rather than out of love, when the two motivations are not necessary exclusive--someone can love a child and also choose to be particularly demonstrative of that affection I. What may seem an "In your FACE," kinda way.

Then you ask if a child can detect that the love is not 'genuine'. That, too, is dependent on so many things! Particularly how the parent is treating the child. If that parent is clearly just going through the motions without feeling any real affection, I think a child would pick up on the lack of warmth and empathy, sure.

But rarely will a parent develop no feelings of affection whatsoever for their offspring. Sure, there may be complicating factors (a surprise pregnancy, an absentee or immature parent, a history of abuse, etc.) that might spur resentment, anger, or a sense of helplessness in someone, making for conflicting feelings that affect their parenting.

But still, the assumption that there is only spite motivating their actions and no real affection seems, at the very least, naive. People are complex and capable of feeling things on many levels.
And children, though perceptive, are not likely to assume ulterior motives when someone they love is showing them affection. In short, the child who feels loved will respond in kind.

It is easier to demonize people than to strive for empathy. Empathy is a process that requires a level of emotional maturity. The inability to perceive how people's human frailties affect their behavior and their relationships could potentially be quite harmful to that child, and carry over negatively in future adult relationships.
posted by misha at 7:32 PM on January 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Duty is a kind of love. I mean obviously not as good as unconditional parental love for a child, but children of many ages can recognize responsible, dutiful adults who may not be affectionate but who are reliable and trustworthy, and they can understand this as an important form of support and be truly and lastingly grateful for it. I think children can also very often appreciate when an adult is trying to do better than their parents, or trying to do right, even if they feel that that effort falls short.

Many hospitals with NICUs have volunteer baby cuddlers, who go in to snuggle babies with ill, absent, or imprisoned parents, because newborn babies don't need "love," per se, they need skin-to-skin contact. Any adult who is willing to provide skin-to-skin contact and snuggling is a benefit to that infant, regardless of how the adult feels about that particular baby.

It's hard to generalize without knowing the particulars, since children have such different needs at different ages, and so many styles of caregiving can "work."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:38 PM on January 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

Anecdotal, but I think yes in some cases. I could tell when I was a kid (I was 12 when he came into our lives and was unusually perceptive) that my stepfather actually very much disliked me and my sister, even though he acted like he was just so thrilled to be with us. At least at first, until he then perceived that I wasn't buying it and then proceeded to treat me with some amount of open hostility. On the other hand, my sister bought into this act very much. She's five years younger than me. She saw him as a father figure and since my mom and he were together all the rest of her childhood she formed a deep attachment to him. And he played the part of a loving dad very well. But when my mom and he split up when she was 23, he immediately cut off all contact and acted like she didn't even exist, even though she was quite willing to still have a father-daughter relationship with him, and attempted several times to resume this connection with him only to be quite coldly rejected each time. She was devastated, and it was heartbreaking to watch.

Anyways, as for how I could perceive that he actually wasn't emotionally invested in us, it was kind of a "trying too hard" thing. People that genuinely care for and love a child just have a way of displaying affection and love that seems unconscious, and they're doing it as much for themselves as the child. Whereas people who are just going through the motions display affection as a sort of performance, meant to be watched by others. Their affectionate acts and gestures tend to be weirdly grandiose or over the top.
posted by katyggls at 7:54 PM on January 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

The emotional development of any individual varies from the average by a big margin, but kids usually start recognizing that other people are in fact other people, with their own motivations and desires, around age 2 or 3. They tend to get really good at this by the time they're in late elementary school. I'd be pretty surprised at a 12-year-old who had absolutely no clue that their parent was in fact 100% emotionally withdrawn and going through the motions, basically - if for no other reason than this is when kids are hyper-alert to flaws in their parents.

The younger a kid is, the more likely that a parent could successfully con them into thinking they care. You can probably actually get through elementary school with a primary caregiver who is there totally out of obligation, so long as they make sure that physical needs are met, and that all behavior is scrupulously correct. Kids get complicated - their demands get complicated - and they start demanding authenticity, no sooner than the "the rules are the rules and they're very very important" stage. You can presumably fake it even longer if you manage to keep the kid from thinking that authenticity is an important rule.

Remembering that for gazillions of generations, "my parents truly value me as a human being and have lifelong attachment to me in a very specifically enriched manner" wasn't even in the top 50 things that a child was expected to need or want. It's not clear to me that western civilization really expected parents to behave like that until the last 100 years or so. It's awfully subtle stuff you're dealing with, here.

(Of course, if you mom says "I always make sure to tell you kids I love you because my mother never did that for me" then the cat's out of the bag. My mom didn't realize how messed up her childhood was until she was in college, for what it's worth - my sisters and I knew how messed up her childhood was by the time each of us was able to have a conversation of any real length with her.)
posted by SMPA at 8:04 PM on January 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anecdotal as well, but I've had two people tell me they'd always felt one of their parents didn't truly love them and was just taking care of them out of a sense of obligation.
posted by Autumn at 11:26 PM on January 1, 2014

I don't think any child, from infant to adulthood, can be fooled for very long. When they're infants, their instinct for survival enables them to tell whether the parent is pleased and happy to care for them or just doing it out of duty. Children also know whether they're actually loved or just an obligation to their parents, but they'll try very, very hard to believe that they're truly loved - the alternative is unbearable. Teenagers who aren't loved, who are merely fed and clothed, certainly aren't fooled, although the feeling of being unloved is something almost all teens go through at one time or another - I think it's an initial part of the separation process between children and parents.

Genuine love is tougher to fake than it would seem - it's the difference in your grandpa's smile when he sees you and a used car salesman's smile when he sees you.
posted by aryma at 12:37 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, children can tell when they're not loved. Anectodal: my parents adopted me. Their marriage was failing and they thought going to the store to buy some kids would help. They knew they were out of their depth, and they tried to do it right, but they just lacked the feeling for kids. On top of that they were superficial and image-oriented, and thought of their children as ornaments. We were simply extensions of their own egos. So when we failed in any pursuit, or expressed the wrong preferences, or showed emotions or tendencies that didn't fall in line with what we were expected to do for them, they became enraged.

At the same time they could "play" affectionate parents effectively - effectively enough to fool others, but not us. I remember as an infant being gripped so tightly by mother mother that I almost couldn't breathe, when the adoption agency social worker would come by to make sure we weren't being abused or neglected or whatever. Fear isn't the same thing as love.

My mother was freaked out about the fact that I wasn't literally her flesh and blood. Her favorite movies were The Bad Seed, Rosemary's Baby, and The Exorcist. She really thought I was some sort of demon from hell who was bent on destroying her. She was so fragile, apparently, that a little kid, a normal kid who was just growing up and devloping as an individual, was threatening to her. She couldn't take it. She grew to hate the sight of me because (I suspect) I was a constant reminder of her own infertility, her failure (as she thought) as a woman. It didn't help matters that I didn't look anything like her.

My mother had been a late, unexpcted baby herself and had been neglected by her own parents, who told her she was unwanted. I think she was so damaged by her own childhood that she had no love to give to me, but she had no interest in dealing with any of that past stuff. It was easier to scapegoat me. She never went to a therapist as far as I know, but she subjected me to a round of therapy-going from the ages of two to twenty-two in a pointless attempt to try to get a diagnosis of insanity for me. If I was insane, then her pain would be validated and she could point to me as the source of her problems. (I was never diagnosed as insane, and I've often wondered if any of those doctors ever suspected that she was actually the whackjob in the equasion).

Long story short: yes, children always know when they're not loved, though they may not be able to formulate it or admit it. A child can't afford to realize that it's unloved. Instead, the child creates excuses for the parent. Disillusionment (or enlightenment) comes later, if it ever comes. When I finally was able to admit that my parents didn't love me, I was fifteen - and suicidal. I think for some people this knowledge is never admitted to consciousness. Some people are better at repressing this kind of thing than others. And sometimes survival requires that this stuff remain buried.

I once had a therapist who, for whatever reason, couldn't accept my assertion that my mother didn't love me. "How do you know she didn't love you?" he asked. I posed him another question: "How do you know you're in a cold room?" He stared at me, so I helped him out. "You feel cold."
posted by cartoonella at 1:58 AM on January 2, 2014 [15 favorites]

I just asked a pared-down version of your question (keeping it simple while she's getting ready for work) to my wife, who's an early childhood education consultant. She stressed that she's not specifically credentialed in child psych, but I think it's an understatement to say that she understands child development. Here's my take after discussing it with her:

Can this be perceived by the child and perhaps effect their emotional development?

These are really two separate questions. Lets consider the first part:

Can this be perceived by the child?

(For the purposes of this answer, we're going to treat "perception" as something which can be sensed through cognition. The broader use of the term, as in "something which can have an affect" is an issue for the second question, which we will look at later.)

Generally, no. A child, and particularly a young child, will probably not be able to perceive that affection is not genuine if it is a large part of the child's primary experience with caregiver affection.

Child perception is developed through observing those around them, and the people with whom they have the most contact are the most influential. Because people express earnest affection in many different ways, feigned affection is not readily distinguishable.

No two people express themselves in exactly the same way. Even people who have similar inclinations and emotional range will express their love at least slightly differently. And the range of emotion and expression are so broad that it's unlikely that a child can discern between not-typical-but-real expressions and those which are forced.

For example, a child may have a parent who is on the autism spectrum, and while that parent legitimately loves the child, their affection would be expressed in a manner most people would consider atypical. The child, because it lacks the references required to be critical, will discern that there's a difference in expression between it parents, accept it, and that is the reality of affection for the child.

Likewise, if a parent or caregiver expresses feigned affection that lacks "depth" or some intangible quality of legitimacy, the child does not have the critical frame of reference to realize this. The affection will likely be accepted as real, but different from other people who express these emotions towards the child. If the child has no other major examples (single caregiver and few outside influences), affection simply does not have this intangible quality that you are concerned with, as the child is completely unaware of its existence.

Of course, this all becomes less true as the child ages and its experience with others broadens. We're all born completely naive and blank, and life fills us in. Young children can't judge, adults can, and everything between is a gradient.

and perhaps effect their emotional development?

It absolutely will, seeing as how we're all a sum of our experiences.

However, it need not be profoundly negative. If the caregiver is a good enough actor, it may make little difference-- if the child feels generally loved and attended to, this is probably preferable to a caregiver who may feel legitimate affection but who lacks or ignores the skills required to express it. It may be better to have a Stepford Dad who merely pretends to care but does it well, than a father who cares very much but has learned to express this by over-focusing on providing and subsequently is over-worked and distant.

Of course, the ideal is to have caregivers who are both involved and sincere. A child who exclusively or even often experiences simulated affection may express real affection in a similar manner as they age: stiffly, forced and/or lacking depth, which is potentially alienating in others urbane enough to notice. In the worst cases, it probably leads to attachment issues: the child may develop lacking the ability to forge strong emotional connections because they were not modeled, or they may become desperate for those connections and become insecure and possessive of others as they mature.

The severity of these issues will depend on the degree of presence of other, legitimately caring adults, as well as the child's natural temperament, style of cognition and self-awareness.

If so, to what degree could this hinder them in the long term?

As outlined, depending on other factors it's a range from "not at all" to unpleasant social deficiencies that will negatively affect their sense of fulfillment in many areas.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:54 AM on January 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Guess what....humans (or human-like primates) existed for millions of years before we had a great way of saying things with our words. What this means is that even with all the words we have today, most communication is non verbal. will know that you are faking it.

But here is another perspective....faking it and doing things as a duty that you don't really feel is still way better than apathy, disrespect and avoidance. The very fact that you desire to 'act the part' says that you do care at some level and are actually showing compassion and love in some non verbal form that will get through. A child in that environment will see that even clearer than a kid from some totally-ass-over-tea-kettle-outwardly-loving home. The child will see and feel it even when you don't. A parent who goes to all the stupid violin recitals and soccer games when they much rather stay home and do adult things IS faking it, but is still doing a better job than the parent being truly honest and just staying home.

Even better, spend some time learning empathy and compassion throughout your life and you will learn how to mean it, rather than fake it. Bonus points for how that will improve your adult relationships.
posted by BearClaw6 at 6:35 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

[Guys, this is sort of a tough question, but let's try not to fill the thread up with just "here's my opinion / feeling about this." As clarified by the OP, links to research is preferred, followed by first person or expert experience.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:47 AM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hm. I guess all this is hypothetical, but hypothetically, it sounds like the person who would be doing the wondering about this might be being pretty hard on themselves and/or carrying around some guilt or fear about not loving the right way.

I guess the answer is yes, people are finely tuned to pick up on inflection, body language and to detect when non-verbal cues might not match with verbal communication and to infer why that is. I guess I would communicate to the asker to trust that their love is okay and that they are not doing it wrong, and the recipient will pick up on the genuineness of the intention and it will result in good feelings for everyone. Or scientifically, oxytocin, I guess.
posted by mermily at 8:51 AM on January 2, 2014

It is a very strange question, but I do have some anecdote that might contribute to the OPs thinking.
My grandmother was not unusual for her generation or group of peers, but to our minds, she was a very harsh and cold woman. She definitely loved my mother, but because of external circumstances, including living as refugees, my mother became a problem for my grandmother when she was four, and their relationship never really recovered from that.
The next child was my uncle. My grandmother adored and spoilt him till at a certain point, he failed spectacularly, in terms of academic achievement, and my grandmother began to despise him. She could not respect a person who wasn't accomplished.
Then there was my aunt, who was born while my grandmother was a lonely refugee in one country while my grandfather was in another. I am certain she had a postpartum depression, which was not at all treated, and my grandmother never liked my aunt, ever.
In other words, my grandmother was a terrible parent, and she made no attempt to hide it, because several of her friends were equally terrible. Her basic understanding of children was that they were born as tiny devils who were set out to ruin their parents' lives, and thus parenting was a power-struggle, which she lost. My grandfather tried to compensate, but he was mostly busy doing other things, so very often, the compensation was money or things.
All three siblings set out to give their children another sort of childhood, not out of spite (though my grandmother certainly interpreted it that way), but out of a genuine longing for something completely different. They have all failed, each in their own way. One reason, in my view, was that we children were mere objects, here to fulfill their dreams, and we never complied. When I was 7, I believed my mother loved me but was somehow a lost soul. When I was 13 or 14, I finally understood she didn't love me, and couldn't, and I got on with my life. But those of my siblings and cousins who didn't get that message, or something equivalent, still have huge personal problems.
On the other hand - who am I to judge? If you asked my mother, she would claim she loves me more than anything: whatever she feels, that feeling, she calls love.

Finally, love between parents and children and among siblings is something that can and most probably will change over time. Nothing is final, and it works in a different way than love among spouses or friends. You have your family no matter what, for ever. And depending on what you do, much more than what you feel, things may change quite dramatically.
posted by mumimor at 10:07 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for sharing the stories. Cause and effect are definitely helpful. With the anecdotals, it would be really good to know the resulting adult that came of the lacking in parenting as a child.

As taz stated, links and books for research or studies surrounding this element of child development will be very helpful to me. It's amazingly hard to find specific information. I almost wish there was a keyword fairy who could help eliminate all the kinda sorta but not quite results that keep coming up.

I'd imagine that even within the specific bounds of this question, that enough data has been collected to have at least likelihoods of correlations between parent-child experiences and behaviors and issues in adulthood would exist somewhere. This is certainly a far more subtle thing than abuse, alcoholism, molestation and the like but no less catastrophic for the child's future.

Hopefully this thread continues to grow.
posted by mrflibble at 5:39 PM on January 2, 2014

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