Prince Harry’s autobiography is making international headlines and it quickly reached the top of the best sellers’ list.
I confess a complete lack of curiosity regarding all things related to the British monarchy. However, the title of Harry’s book, Spare, caught my attention. The prince underscores a human reality: privilege, wealth and power are not an adequate substitute for meaningful, caring relationships.
In Texas, I have worked with teens and adults who felt the sting of “spare,” or perhaps the more American term, “irrelevant.” Often it was not intended but the family situation pushed the child away, into a corner or into invisibility. I call it, “the child who is not there” syndrome.
For some families, because of the chaos of addiction, alcohol or dysfunction, young children are lost, pushed aside or left to their own coping skills, which are often insufficient to compensate for the absence of parental attention or care. Such children often feel as if they are alone, or that they are growing up alone, even when surrounded by people.
Many issues arise when a child is not the focused subject of someone’s loving attention. Historically, research has shown that food, shelter and safety are not enough. In fact, research continues to show that the absence of attentive care may stunt every aspect of a child’s growth, development and future success.
We know this as a society, and we believe in the infinite value of every child. This is why most nations have developed a broad safety net when children are born without the essentials they need.
Nothing reaches the level of parents whose attention shifts from self to nurturing and care for their child. However, children born to parents who are trapped in addiction, abusive relationships or untreated mental illness struggle to provide the basics of life to their children. Shockingly, this happens too often, with significant negative impacts on both families and communities.
“Spare” children might feel they are not valued because there is another child in the home whose needs are all consuming. As a result, the parental attention may be riveted on the fragile child and the battle to keep that child alive.
However, at some point, when there is a medically/emotionally/psychologically fragile child in the home, the other children must feel seen, loved, safe, secure and valued.
Those needs do not disappear as a child grows up. Rather, those needs shift requiring more thoughtful plans and responses.
In many states, a wide-ranging menu of services help families meet the needs of their children. Some are state-run, like child protective services. Others are non-profits that are designed to enhance the growing experiences of children.
As a therapist who has worked with teens for most of my adult life, there are some things of which I am certain.
First, children never, ever outgrow the need for healthy connections.
Those connections are hopefully begun and nurtured by healthy parents. When such is not possible, surrogates must be found. What is not acceptable is an infant/child/teen left to their own resources.
Second, a community has a responsibility for all the children within its reach.
We must come together to provide the fullest, most well-rounded environments that we can collectively provide. For example, children who grow up in less than “good enough” homes, should have public school attention and support to help compensate for what was lacking in the early years of life.
It will always be an uneven compensation because of the overwhelming demands teachers face each day. However, if we learned nothing else during the pandemic, it is how vital public education is to the emotional, intellectual and social growth of children and youth.
I know this adds another layer of responsibility to an already overwhelmed public school system, but the reality is that the unseen, invisible, pushed-aside child who is lost in the dysfunction of home can be seen, heard, valued and often loved at school.
Third, elected officials cannot be allowed to continue underfunding public education because of ideological issues.
We must demand that we fully fund and support our public schools where all children find a place of safety and educational opportunity.