How Good Intentions Ruin Relationships and Traumatized Countless Children 50 Years Ago.


Up until the late 1960’s hospitals, pediatricians, and nurses believed it was best for parents to have limited visiting privileges to see their children. With medicine not where it is today, illnesses like pulmonary tuberculosis were more common and so were long child hospitalizations. At the time it did not matter if the stay was for a week or four years, the visiting policy remained the same. Parents were allowed visitation for one hour a week. That’s not a typo. Professionals at the time believed that parents interfered with the child’s progress. By reducing parental visits the children would be less emotional, which would make their jobs easier and help the child to recover faster. That was the belief of professionals at the time. However, the lack of parental visits resulted in “hospitalization trauma” to countless children over decades of time. Intent is all well and good until it isn’t.

At the time people did not have an understanding of attachment and early development. I say at the time but unfortunately, it feels like the majority of people still do not have an understanding of attachment and early development, but I digress. Then when the nurses would check in on the children they would do so by standing at the head of the crib just out of the children’s sight. They did this to avoid the child from seeing them so as not to encourage them to demand anything. The kids were ignored because interacting with them only made them harder to deal with because they would burst into tears when left alone again. The hospital’s hard work of ingraining a culture deprived of interaction would be offset when the parents would visit and the kids would cry and become unmanageable when their parents left again. This behavior from the children after seeing their parents encouraged hospital professionals that limiting parental visits in order to stop such behavior was the right thing to do. Of course this resulted in hospitalization trauma that would follow the children home. They would become clingy, have temper tantrums, disturbed sleep, bed-wetting, violent outbursts, nightmares, refusal to sleep alone, and unfortunately the list goes on to more unusual behaviors that were not present in the child before their visit to the hospital. Fortunately, the professionals at the time had an explanation for this behavior; the parents simply were not as competent or caring as the nurses. 

For older children, the long stays were not as hard. Typically the kids who were five or older were able to understand why they were there and that their parents would come back to visit them when they could. But the younger children were not able to understand why they were being abandoned and the disappearance for days at a time was incredibly hard on them. Having a young child suffer abandonment over and over again for weeks, months, or even years can bring about an immense loss of hope and feelings of being unwanted. It shouldn’t be hard to understand the kind of impact that can have developmentally on a child at such a young age, but it was, even when the answer was literally right in front of everyone’s faces. At the time BBC had a Christmas program that included a visit to one of the Hospitals in the area. They would visit with the older children who would wish their parents and everyone else a Merry Christmas with a smile on their face. However, when they would turn the camera over to the younger children they would sit silently and then burst into uncontrollable tears. A skeptic might say, “well, kids cry that’s what they do”, but this happened so much that BBC ended up cutting out the toddler section completely because they could not find any cooperative younger kids. Well, you can’t expect the cultural mindset to change over a few crying babies on television. Which could be an argument you could make except the term “hospitalization trauma” was coined by Harry Edelston in 1948 in The Nursing Times. Edelston was a psychiatrist who had been arguing that children were emotionally damaged by their hospital stay as early as 1943, almost a decade before BBC would cut toddlers out of their Christmas program. The cultural and professional mindset was so ingrained at the time that they fought against the idea that what they were doing was wrong for decades. Intent is all well and good until it isn’t.

That wasn’t my intention, is a phrase often reserved for when someone offends someone or just messes up. Most of the time this goes without saying or is understandable, because well you know, it would be weird if someone’s intention was to be a jerk. Typically and hopefully that’s not the case, someone isn’t intentionally trying to ruin your day or offend you. Their intentions are pure but their execution is criminal. Good intentions with bad results happen all the time. Like a person making a home cooked meal for their significant other. Wonderful, except the significant other, is allergic to peanuts and the dinner ended with a trip to the hospital. The intent like Steven Spielberg making a fourth Indiana Jones was for the best, the result, however, was a disaster. Other times intent means nothing at all because it is acting in self-interest. For instance, when somebody says something that is politically incorrect or borderline racist, they usually defend themselves with well that wasn’t my intent. The intent wasn’t to be sensitive, or understanding, it was just to make a point or voice their frustrations. The intent does not care about or show concern for other people. This would be comparable to Michael Bay making a movie. He doesn’t care if it’s good or if people like it, he just wants to make money, and as long as he is doing that he doesn’t care about other people.

Good intentions with bad results on a larger scale are found in war, politics, policies, and more. On a smaller scale, it’s found in relationships. It’s found in parenting, friendships, and in love. Unfortunately, most of the time, whether it is hospital policies around parental visits, war, government, Indiana Jones 4, Michael Bay, or people’s relationships, intention does not matter. The outcome is what matters. So how do good intentions with bad results impact relationships? Well, I’m glad I asked. The pediatricians and nurses wanted what was best for the young children they were seeing. However, what they were taught impacted the outcome of their intentions. Their actions unknowingly were doing harm to the children they were caring for. This is the same in relationships. People want their partner to feel loved, supported, and cared for. That is the intention, but often times their actions make their loved one feel otherwise. Like the pediatricians who were taught that limiting parental visits was the best way to take care of kids, often times people learn or pick up bad habits or actions from their parents, past relationships or other life events that unknowingly have a negative impact on their current relationship. They haven’t learned the skills that make their partner feel loved, supported, or cared for and their actions harm the relationship and create a divide.

Okay, I’m following you but could you give me some specific examples? Of course, that’s why I’m here. Some areas where this might come up could be from people who have a hard time verbalizing how they feel. They have a hard time expressing appreciation and telling their partner they love them. Maybe they grew up in a family that didn’t express emotion, or maybe they were surrounded by a culture that told them guys don’t express their emotions. Whatever it is, not being able to express your feelings and appreciation for your significant other can make them feel like they are not a priority or cared for. Another area could be not helping out around the house. If someone in a relationship feels like they carry the burden of the chores around the house don’t feel surprised when they don’t feel like they are in an equal partnership. And to add to the list it could be not spending enough quality time together, less romance in the relationship, lack of physical affection, and so on. If you respond to your significant other in a way that gets a negative result, even if that’s not your intent, it doesn’t matter. The outcome matters.

Don’t worry, there is hope. And I don’t mean that to sound like an infomercial selling you a magic pen that corrects misspelled words. Actually to let it sound less like an infomercial let me try that again. Don’t worry; there is hope, for some of you. Wow, hopefully, that doesn’t make you change the channel but unfortunately, it is the truth. Let me explain. Let’s revisit good intention with bad results and selfish intentions with bad results. For both of these, the outcome is what matters. However when your intentions come from a place of caring you are likely to own your mistakes and correct them. Spielberg went on to make Warhorse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies, earning our trust and support again. Michael Bay went on to make more terrible Transformers movies because he could care less about making a good movie. Now I’ll relate this to a relationship. Let’s say you make a nice romantic dinner for your significant other. Now if your intentions are to make them feel loved and appreciated that’s great, you’re Spielberg. However if you’re doing it with the intent of getting laid, you’re acting in your own self-interest, you’re Michael Bay. Don’t be Michael Bay. The people who have good intentions and get bad results are likely the people who will look to change and improve areas of their life. Maybe they can do it on their own, or maybe they reach out to friends or a therapist to help them better their life and relationships. When people act with self-interested intent they have difficulty changing their behavior because they do not think they need to. They believe others should change, and rarely look in the mirror. It took the medical field over twenty years to accept and change their practices once it was first pointed out that limiting parental visits was causing kids trauma. Some hospitals changed their practices soon after hearing the news and being educated about what was going on. Their intent was greater than the inconvenience it would be on their work and how much it would cost them to change their policies. The hospitals that were the last to change, or were forced to change, were stuck in their own beliefs and refused to accept responsibility or believe their actions were impacting children’s lives. Their beliefs and self-interest outweighed their intent, and people suffered as a result of it.

Good intentions don’t matter, except when they do. It’s easier to trust someone who has good intentions, and make no mistake you can have good intentions one day and self-interested intentions the next. However, when the person who feels hurt or mistreated knows that was not the other person’s intent they can trust that the other person will do their best, in order to make it right and change. That’s what matters about good intentions gone bad; the ability to inspire change. It’s about the only thing that matters, the ability to recognize where your intentions have gone wrong and the ability to align your actions to represent your intent. If that is not the case it doesn’t matter what your intent is, whether you a politician, pediatrician, doctor, therapist, husband, wife, parent or just anybody, if a person cannot recognize and learn from their mistakes then they will be doomed to repeat them. My intent, in writing this is to inspire people to examine the areas of their lives where their good intentions for their loved ones fall short and to challenge them to find ways to change in order for their partner to feel loved, supported, and cared for, just like they intended. That was my intent, but if that didn’t happen then I will work on that and I will try to do better the next time.

All information regarding the history of parental visitation rights was taken from the book Becoming Attached, by Robert Karen. You can buy it here on Amazon.

If you buy this book or anything from amazon after clicking the link I get money from amazon. Not making it rain kind of money, more like by the end of the year maybe I can take my wife out to dinner kind of money.