In a healthy parent-child relationship, a parent supports the healthy loves of his/her child. If a child loves to play basketball, the parent will make sure the child gets to practices on time, show up for the games, and cheer on the child. After a loss, the child may receive gentle guidance from the parent and words of encouragement. After a win, the child is supported but the win is kept in perspective. The child feels love no matter what.
Likewise, if a child has a beloved pet, a healthy parent makes sure the child knows the responsibilities of keeping a pet, asks the child about the pet (something even as light as “How’s Snowball today?”), listens to the child speak about his treasured pet, and delights in the child having a good relationship with nature.
The love of the adult is felt by the child, and the child does not feel like he or she needs to hide or protect the loved item or creature from the parent’s grasp. The parent’s love is open and healthy enough to understand that a child will love friends, pets, classmates, and so forth.
And then there are the abusive, unhealthy relationships. In those, parents will actively seek to hinder and destroy what a child loves or holds dear.
These types of parents are the “bunny boilers.”
Bunny boiling has become a popular reference to how people sometimes exhibit their rage by behaving destructively toward something symbolic, important, or treasured possessions or representations of those whom they wish to hurt, control, or intimidate.” (Out of the Fog, Emotional Abuse page)
The term “bunny boiling” usually refers to an event in the relationship between two adults. The term comes from the 1987 movie “Fatal Attraction,” in a cheating husband finds that the lover he broke up with has boiled his family’s pet bunny.
However, as many adult survivors of emotional child abuse know, some abuse parents have bunny boiling down to a dark science.
Destroying What a Child Loves
The following are examples of how an emotionally abusive parent will ruin what a child treasures.
- A child loves her pet cat and takes care of the cat. An abusive parent might start limiting the child’s interaction with a cat, start separating the cat and the child (for example, make the cat sleep in a different room than the cat). In some cases, the parent may decide that s/he is suddenly allergic to the cat and get rid of it. This is not a true allergy, for the parent only “developed” it when the child grew attached to the cat.
- A child has a best friend, and the abusive parent will seek to destroy the bond. The parent will repeatedly badmouth the best friend to the child and wage a smearing campaign against this best friend. The parent will limit time with this friend. (Note that this is not an emotionally healthy parent who has found that his child is hanging around with a bad influence. This is a parent who cannot bear for his child to have an emotional connection with someone else. And this parent will interfere so deeply as to ruin the relationship. (We’ve heard adult survivors share stories of parents who forced the child to stop hanging around with his best friend, even though the best friend was not a bad influence.)
- A child loves to draw, but the parent is jealous of the time that the child spends doing what he loves instead of what the parent wants this child to do. The parent will take away the child’s art supplies and punish the child for spending too much time drawing. The abusive parent wants to destroy what the child loves.
Stealing What a Child Loves
In some circumstances, an emotionally abusive parent will not destroy what the child loves but will take it over, thus ruining what makes it so special for the child.
Here are some examples:
- A child deeply enjoys acting in school plays. The parent will decide that she, too, enjoys acting. The parent will begin taking acting classes, auditioning for plays, focusing on building an acting resume… The parent takes over what the child loves (in this case, acting) and owns it; she makes it her thing, draws attention to herself, and eclipses the child. Meanwhile, the child receives no support of his own acting.
- A child has a favorite CD that she listens to regularly. The parent will borrow the CD… and then lose it and never replace it. Healthy parents may sometimes lose possessions, but an emotionally abusive parent shows little remorse for losing something the child loves and absolutely no desire to replace it.
- A child has a favorite teacher, and the parent decides to befriend the teacher and become close to that teacher. The parent takes over, as always.
What is important to note in the above examples is that the abusive episodes are not one-time events. The emotionally abusive parent doesn’t just destroy one relationship that the child has or stealing away what a child loves. The abusive parent does this repeatedly, steadily, systematically.
The abusive parent continually takes over what a kid loves, so that the child feels isolation (because the parent has destroyed so many relationships) or inept (because the parent takes over the child’s past-times and hobbies for the parent’s own).
What Bunny Boiling Teaches the Abused Child
Bunny boiling teaches a child that the parent has ultimate control in all aspects of a child’s life.
In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent will not try to control everything about the child. The healthy parent knows that a child will form opinions about favorite colors, pets, friends, hobbies, etc.
In an abusive parent-child relationships, the parent wants to be the dictator of a child’s life. And by systematically destroying or stealing what a child loves, the abused child learns to hide what she or he loves, learns that everything can be stolen away by the parent, learns to smother emotions (such as the desire for friends, the urge to be creative, etc.).
What This Means for Adult Survivors
In researching bunny boiling, we’ve found very little about the parent-child dynamic… Most of it has been in regards to romantic relationships.
That said, we’ve received so many emails, read myriad comments, and have been told so many stories about this behavior of an emotionally abusive parent (especially those with a narcissistic personality disorder). Bunny boiling seems to have affected so many emotionally abused children.
So, what can an adult survivor take away from this realization?
The adult survivor, now awakened to the truth of his/her abuse, may want to look back at what was taken from him or her and begin to reclaim it. For example, a child who was repeatedly grounded for drawing too much or had his art supplies taken on a whim by an abusive parent may now decide to start pursuing art once more. Or one who liked to sing as a child may start taking music lessons as an adult.
Take time to consider what was taken from you and now, make the conscious decision of whether to bring it back into your life. If the love is no longer there (for example, you no longer feel drawn toward baseball as you once were), let it go.
But if you still feel your old creative urge stirring within you, if you feel a longing to express yourself through the arts, if you want to enjoy sports again, consider reintroducing them into your life.
You’re an adult now, and you no longer have to fear the bunny boiling.