Expert Speak

How parents’ sexual behaviour influences the child

If a parent has an extramarital affair, it can affect how the child behaves in future in her own sexual life
a couple holding a red heart

There is no denying that upbringing and parenting have a profound effect on the attitudes and behaviour children develop, which are usually set for their future as adolescents and adults, too. If the parents are an affectionate, touchy-feely kind of couple, it’s likely the children will be similarly demonstrative. The principles that the father or mother displays in their personal and professional life will foreshadow the moral character of the grown child. This applies equally to all aspects of life, from social to physical to sexual. However, as the following analysis shows, often the larger environment that surrounds a child has a mitigating or aggravating effect on the direct influence of the parental, home situation.

Case A: When child’s exposure to extramarital affairs is managed well by parents

Past: When Vanshika was 13 and Akash 11, they found out that their father was having an extramarital affair. They were told this by their mother. They lived in a joint family of 10 people who made sure that their father’s affair didn’t affect them. Their father was a hardworking man who was an alcoholic, too. He loved them but couldn’t get along with his wife. (He’s been with the other woman for 25 years, and married to Vanshika and Akash’s mother for 28 years.)

Present day: Akash and Vanshika are both in happy marriages and have kids. They lead a traditional loving family life, except for the fact that they share a troubled relationship with their father, ever since they found out about his extramarital affair. However, they still talk to him and are cordial.

Case B: When child’s exposure to extramarital affairs is NOT managed well by parents

Past: Rishita is an only child. When she was 13 years old, she saw her mother have an extramarital affair with a man for whom she left her family. Rishita’s father, an alcoholic who tortured her mother, brought another woman to the house as soon as his wife left. There was no one in her family to take care of her; she was left to fend for herself.

Present day: A woman in her mid-20s, Rishita has recently had to abort a baby that she conceived with her married boss, after a 7-year affair. Her father is abusive and forced her to be in a relationship with her married employer, and she hasn’t spoken to her real mother in 14 years.

We read an account by Ashok Chibber about a woman from a broken home, with an alcoholic father and an unfaithful mother, who married very young for love. When circumstances created a physical distance with her new husband, she succumbed to temptation and had an affair with his friend. Her marriage survived and she later had a child with the husband. What sort of conclusions are possible from this story?

Related reading: Her mother had an affair and so did she

Factors affecting future sexual and social interactions of kids

1.Family Structure

Happy Family

One of the most important factors influencing the upbringing of a child is the kind of environment he/she is raised in. Having a joint family that is loving and understanding forms a cushion of emotional security for the child to fall back on. Even if they see distress in their parents’ relationship, they can see other couples in the house and learn that not every marriage is the same. (Just like in Case B where the kids had a bunch of people in the family, like grandparents, uncle and aunt, who took care of them and took care of their needs if ever a parent wasn’t available. Unlike Case A where Rishita had no one to go to except her alcoholic and emotionally unavailable father and unconcerned stepmother.)

2.Emotional Response/Backup

Emotional support for child

Again, having a family or even a sibling who listens to you and shares your feelings of happiness or resentment. As a child we need someone to share our experiences with and having a sibling or an elder to talk to makes it easier to regulate our emotions. (Case B: Vanshika and Akash had each other as well as their extended family to talk to and make logical decisions and reason with each other. Case A: Rishita, an only child, had no one to talk to hence making her further closed off and emotionally vulnerable.)

3.Parents as role models

Parents are role models to children

For a child, their parent is by default a role model. They shape their behaviour to please their parents and in that process imitate their parents to seek approval. So it becomes a bigger responsibility for a parent to say and do the right things in front of their child. Even if the child is reprimanded once for copying a parent’s foul behaviour he she may register it subconsciously and repeat it once they believe that there’s no one to check them, correct them or that there’s someone who ‘cares’ enough to stop that inappropriate behaviour. (Case A)

However having an affair doesn’t mean that the parent becomes a bad person or a bad role model for the child, if the parent is emotionally available for the child and gives them time as well, never fights with their spouse in front of kids. This makes it easier for children to accept the situation as adults. (Case B)

4. Personality Traits

Different personality of children

Acceptance for any situation comes from within. Even in the case of kids, the acceptance of the fact that their parents are not like most couples comes (or not) from within. An introverted child who doesn’t talk much about his feelings (Case A) will have a tougher time accepting his/her parents’ situation more than the child who expresses his doubts, concerns and anger (Case B. both Vanshika and Akash, extremely expressive)

5. How children come in contact with the conflict

Children and conflict

Another very important factor to determine a person’s behaviour as an adult is hugely affected by how, as a child, they discovered their parent(s)’ infidelity. If the situation is presented to them as something normal, (as in Case B, it becomes easier for the child to come to terms with the conflict. Unlike Case A, wherein the child was suddenly abandoned by her mother, without any notice, or she constantly witnessed her father hitting her mother, making her grow into a woman with deep abandonment issues. She got so vulnerable that when her married employer showed her a little love and took care of her material needs she gave into that toxic relationship.)

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In Kanta’s case we can’t for sure point to a specific trigger. While watching her parents led her to grow distrustful in relationships, we cannot generalise and conclude that the girl’s infidelity is the direct outcome of her observation of her parents’ behaviour. There must be other factors playing in the background which lead to her choices.

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