When does love become toxic?

Singaporeans have been talking about the tragic case of 66-year-old Tan Tian Chye, who killed his mentally ill adult daughter in 2018. This week, Tan was sentenced to 2 years and nine months in jail. High Court judge Hoo Sheau Peng backdated the sentence to November 2018, which, with a one-third remission for good behaviour, meant that Tan walked out of prison a day after the trial.

During the trial, Justice Hoo described Tan as a “selfless, loving and devoted father” and that he will “no doubt continue to suffer the pain and anguish of his action well after his imprisonment term.”

Tan may be a free man, but there are no winners in this sad incident.

Many of the reactions to this case focused on the mental wellness aspect and pressures faced by caregivers.

Is there such a thing as too much love?

But I think one big question in everyone’s minds is: How did it end up like this?

As I write this, I look at my 10-year-old girl sprawled on the sofa watching TV. How can any parent even start to contemplate harming their child? I am struck by a visceral feeling, an almost physical recoil at the thought of laying a hand of violence on her. But then I catch myself, who am I to judge other people without understanding their situation?

And a second thought bubbles up: Is there such a thing as too much love?

We are all familiar with the dangers of spoiling our children. But we may not be entirely sure what constitutes spoiling a child. If I shower my kid with gifts, does this mean that I’m spoiling her? What if I can afford it? Do rich families have more spoiled children?

Image source: Shutterstock / sutadwatthanakul

I would argue that spoiling a child doesn’t require an excess of possessions, it simply requires a lack of parental understanding.

To illustrate, here is a simple thought experiment. You give $10,000 to your child as a university graduation gift; he thanks you for it and promises to use it wisely. Conversely, you give $100 to your child; he asks you why are you so stingy and gets unhappy that you gave him so little. Who is the spoiled child in this scenario?

In the thought experiment, you can change up the value of the gift in either scenario. The size of the gift doesn’t matter: The reaction does. That’s how sometimes, no matter how much you give, it’s never enough. This article explains it better.

It is easy for us to indulge our children, especially in these times where we have fewer children and less time to spend on them. If you only have a limited time to spend with your kids, do you want to have fun with them (which can lead to us taking the easy solution to tantrums) or make the extra effort to discipline a child? Sad to say (and I’m guilty of it myself), we often just go “aiyah, never mind lah, just give them the iPad for now.”

That lack of parental awareness, taken to its logical extreme, could explain Tan’s case.

Now, hindsight is 20-20, so I’m not here to criticise Tan, nor to apportion blame. No one has the right to do so.

But any parent would understand where I’m coming from. We all have this deep-seated fear: What if my kid turns out bad? Does this mean that I have failed? How can I prevent it? What do I do if I can’t?

It is a sad fact that this tragedy has happened and we all want to understand how a loving parent, when faced with a child that has gone beyond control, and suffering abuse to the nth degree, could go down the road of no return.

By all accounts, Tan and his wife were devoted parents, constantly giving above and beyond what was necessary to care for their adult daughter. Tan’s daughter, Desiree, who was 35 when she died, lived off her parents’ earnings, scolded them constantly and grew increasingly erratic and unreasonable. She was also diagnosed with a mental disorder that she refused to get treated for.

So how do you ensure that your children react properly to correction?

The Pride team had an interesting discussion on the topic of parental discipline recently. We were having a spirited debate on whether or not, in this day and age, we should still cane our children. Among the usual “I got caned and see, I turned out fine… ish” comments came this great reminder from a colleague.

He said: “Our children watch us and listen to us every day. We are their biggest influencers, when they are young so it’s up to us to lead by example. So when we get angry at our kids or need to discipline them we also need to take a moment to reflect on our actions, to see if we had indirectly influenced their decisions.”

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Our kids don’t exist in a vacuum. They react to us just like we react to them. So if a child throws a tantrum, we need to take a step back and understand how they got there. Then it would be easier to decide if a firm hand is needed, or a more gentle touch.

But what do you do when kids grow up? How do you reconcile it when there are fundamental differences in beliefs? What happens when your adult child stops responding to a hug around the shoulder or a slap on the wrist?

Families fall out for numerous reasons ranging from the massive to mundane: religion, love, money, vices, friendships… but the fundamental commonality between all these reasons is a lack of communication. There may be no lack of love, but if the other party doesn’t know it… or misunderstands it, chances are it all still ends in tears.

Love means not running away from difficult conversations. Love means daring to insist that someone seek help, even if it’s against their wishes. Love means having the courage and discernment to say to someone: “You need help. I may not be able to give that to you. But I will be with you to hold your hand while you go through the process.”

Don’t ignore caregivers

Image source: Shutterstock / tumsasedgars

Another issue brought up by the case is a gap in the mental wellness system in Singapore. There has been a greater emphasis and education on mental wellness and on those suffering from mental health conditions, but there needs to be more attention given to caregivers.

As in many situations, an external perspective is needed to shed light on a possibly toxic co-dependent relationship.

Justice Hoo described it best: “As a society, it is critical to continue with efforts to improve and enhance access to mental health services… It is unfortunate that much-needed help, support and intervention were not sought by or given to the Tan family during those years for their daughter and, thereafter, for the accused.”

This could be referring to more societal services being made available at large, such as counsellors or social workers to follow up on those diagnosed with mental health conditions, and on those who care for them.

But it is also a clarion call for all of us to do something. As a friend, do you speak up when you see someone you care for in a toxic relationship? It could be a parent-child relationship, between husband and wife, or among couples.

This is not to say that we should judge others or stick our noses where they don’t belong. We don’t need to be kaypoh to be kind. It could be something as simple as “Hi, I’ve noticed that you’ve been down recently. Is there something bothering you? Would you like to talk about it?”

Show your concern, then show your respect by listening and not talking.

We should respect Mr Tan and his wife and their request for privacy to give them the space to heal. But I also hope that they acknowledge and get the help that they need after this tragic episode.

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