Note: This article was first published in 2014 and revised in 2019 and again in 2020.
Were You a Victim Of Abuse in Your Family-Of-Origin?
Ever wonder if you were were the victim of actual psychological / emotional abuse versus ‘sub-par parenting’ as a child? Many people have no idea that they grew up in abusive, ‘toxic’, and/or dysfunctional environments. Some therapists may miss the signs as well…
Article By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, MACP, LMFT, Founder of Better Online Counseling California
An Abuse of Power
According to Andrew Vachss, an attorney and author who has devoted his life to protecting children, the mental/emotional abuse of a child is “both the most pervasive and the least understood form of child maltreatment. Its victims are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible… The pain and torment of those who experienced “only” emotional abuse is often trivialized. We understand and accept that victims of physical or sexual abuse need both time and specialized treatment to heal, but when it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will “just get over it” when they become adults. This assumption is dangerously wrong. Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. Like cancer, it does its most deadly work internally. And, like cancer, it can metastasize if untreated” (You Carry The Cure In Your Own Heart, A. Vachss).
Abuse Versus ‘Sub-Par Parenting’
While experts still do not agree on what behaviors constitute psychological/emotional abuse of a child, it is generally recognized by researchers that this form of abuse impairs the psychological and emotional growth and development of the child. Anyone that holds power, authority and/or privilege in the child’s life is potentially capable of mistreating the child, including parents, siblings, relatives, peers, teachers, ministers, scout leaders, coaches, judicial figures, social service employees, etc. The words ‘repetitive’, ‘chronic’, ‘persistent’, and ‘systematic’ are critical when it comes to defining the psycho-emotional abuse of a child. The behavior is abusive when it acts as a continuously destructive force in the child’s life, as the repetitive maltreatment shapes the child’s unconscious narrative describing ‘the truth’ of who they are at the most basic, fundamental level, resulting in the child believing they are ‘bad’, unworthy, faulty, damaged, unwanted, and unlovable.
Examples of this type of abuse by a parent toward a child include the child being blamed, shamed, dismissed, and/or belittled in public and at home; describing the child negatively to others, including in the child’s presence; always making the child at fault; holding the child to unrealistic expectations; verbalizing to the child and/or others an overt dislike and/or hatred of the child; being emotionally closed and unsupportive; and threatening the child. Below is a list that highlights additional acts exhibited toward a child that can result in impaired psycho-emotional functioning, which can include words, actions, complete indifference, and/or neglect:
- Abandonment of the child (physical and/or emotional)
- Verbal abuse (including calling the child “stupid”, “dumb”, “idiot”, “worthless”)
- Intentionally terrorizing / frightening the child
- Sarcasm, criticism, ‘teasing’; Ridiculing or insulting the child, then telling the child “it’s a joke”, or “you’re too sensitive / “you have no sense of humor”
- ‘Gaslighting’, lying, distorting reality
- Excessive performance demands (e.g., “You need to make straight A’s, all the time, or else”)
- Shaming / Punishing a child for exhibiting natural behaviors (e.g., spontaneous and emotionally honest expressions, playing, laughing, age-appropriate body exploration, including masturbation)
- Discouraging attachment / Withholding basic physical nurturing and touch
- Overtly or covertly punishing the child for displaying positive self-esteem (e.g., “Don’t be so full of yourself, nobody likes a braggart”; “The world will knock you down a peg or two soon enough”)
- Overtly or covertly punishing the child for developing healthy attachments (e.g., “You love your friends more than me”)
- Dressing the child in a manner that provokes ridicule from peers and/or in a manner that the child experiences as shaming and humiliating
- Exposing the child to traumatic / violent family scenes
- Failure to protect the child from the abuse of others (e.g. looking the other way and/or refusing to believe the child’s report of maltreatment by another)
- Exposing the child to a chronically stressful, traumatizing environment (e.g., alcoholism; drug addiction; domestic abuse)
- Unwillingness or inability to provide genuine nurturing and affection on a daily basis
- Meeting basic physical needs only; unwilling to nurture and comfort the child (e.g., ignoring emotional needs; shaming the child for having emotional needs)
- Failing to provide a growth-evoking environment for the child, including neglecting to nurture and support the child’s growing sense of self
- Making the child an emotional ‘spouse’/partner (common after a divorce)
- ‘Parentifying’ the child: Forcing the child to take on inappropriate parenting tasks versus allowing him or her to be a child
- Expecting / Demanding the child meet the primary caregiver’s emotional needs (when it is supposed to be the other way around)
- Social isolation: Isolating the child, including from peers
- Bullying (psychological domination of the child)
The Impact On Adult Survivors
Abuse experienced during childhood can negatively impact the adult survivor throughout the duration of their lives, if the silent damage to heart, soul, and mind remains unrecognized, untreated, and unhealed. If the adult survivor of an abusive parent does at some point attempt to address the abuse, it is typical for the parent to deny that maltreatment of the child ever happened. It is common for the parent to blame the child for any negative behaviors displayed by the child toward the parent in an attempt to discredit the child’s or adult survivor’s truthful accounts of the abuse that actually occurred. The parent will often go to great lengths to tell anyone who will listen (other family members, especially) that their adult child has always been “a problem”, is “angry” and “unforgiving”, and other negative descriptions designed to discredit the adult survivor and protect the public image of the parent. Such intentionally aggressive tactics on the part of the parent is simply another unrecognized form of psycho-emotional abuse and further adds to the untold suffering and distress of the adult survivor, who may already be struggling with mental and emotional symptoms, such as the ones listed below:
- Active or passive suicidal ideation
- Misuse of alcohol and drugs, often resulting in addiction
- Eating disorders
- Panic disorders
- Compulsive disorders
- Difficulty forming meaningful, rewarding, trusting intimate relationships
- Self-sabotaging, self-destructive behaviors (may include Borderline Personality Disorder-type symptoms)
- Abusive acts toward self and/or others, including one’s own children
The Hidden Wounds of Psychological / Emotional Abuse: Summary
Many adults grew up in environments that did not support their authentic true self nature. They may have been victims of abuse, existing in a near-constant state of terror as they struggled on a daily basis just to survive and be who they thought they needed to be in order to have their basic needs met. They may have grown up in an alcoholic family system, where fear and uncertainty was experienced on a daily basis, making it difficult to trust the very people who were supposed to care for them and keep them safe. Others may have had a parent with one or more undiagnosed or diagnosed mental illness disorder(s), (such as Schizophrenia or a Bipolar Disorder with or without psychotic features), or a disorder that caused extreme emotional instability, (such as Narcissistic, Histrionic, or Borderline Personality Disorder), causing them to be parented by adults who were still emotionally children themselves.
In such chaotic, non-nurturing environments that failed to lovingly and positively mirror the developing self, such children may have gradually disconnected from their true self: The ‘true self’ may be defined as the most pure, innate, natural, free, and intensely alive aspect of a person’s being. It is therefore the ‘true self’ that becomes distorted and diminished as the child seeks to conform to the expectations of others around him or her – especially the primary caregivers and/or the ‘power-holders’ in the child’s family system. This disconnection from their primal, core ‘true self’ was a means of ‘getting by’ and emotionally surviving an uncertain, unpredictable environment. As adult survivors, they may have no idea that they have lost connection with an innate, precious aspect of themselves, but may experience anxiety, addiction, depression, and other symptoms that are ultimately rooted in unmet needs and trauma unknowingly repressed during childhood. However, it is never too late for such an adult to recover, embrace, and embody their authentic, true self nature so as to reclaim and more fully realize who and what they most truly are at the most basic, fundamental level so as to live in a more emotionally honest, authentic, expansive, energized, and awakened manner.
Psychological/Emotional abuse experienced in childhood can be insidious: It is insidious because the adult survivor is often unaware that they were in fact victims of abuse, and therefore may not ever seek help or treatment for the invisible psychological and emotional wounds sustained. When healthy mental and emotional functioning is impaired, such an adult is at high risk of developing a variety of mood disorders, addictive behaviors, and other maladaptive ways of being in the world in his or her subconscious attempts to navigate around the pain of an injured psyche.This type of abuse, when repetitive and/or chronic, results in the child unconsciously believing that he or she is faulty, damaged, and unworthy of love, empathy, attention, and respect. The abused child develops distorted perceptions of self and others, and will often conclude at a deep, core level that there is something wrong with them and that they must deserve the abuse. Such children typically strive life-long to be accepted and approved of by others as a means of proving to themselves that they are ‘okay’ and worthy of love.
Having little self-worth, adult survivors of child abuse often find themselves in neglectful, even abusive relationships despite their best intentions to find happiness and love: Adult survivors may go on to abuse their own children without being conscious of the fact that they are engaging in the very same hurtful behaviors that were inflicted upon them as children. In the event that an adult survivor does for some reason seek the help of a Mental Heath professional, such as a licensed psychotherapist, they still may not receive the psycho-education and targeted support that they so desperately need to recover from abuse experienced while they were young. This is especially likely if the childhood wounds remain entirely unrecognized and go unreported by the client, and/or the therapist unconsciously colludes with their client to prevent the painful material from arising in session (this is especially likely if the therapist has repressed childhood wounding of their own). Successful treatment and recovery from this particular form of child abuse is especially challenging in that the adult survivor in therapy may still be experiencing mental / emotional abuse as a consequence of wanting to remain connected to those who continue to abuse them (most commonly the parents).
“I Think I Am An Adult Survivor Of Abuse: What Now?”
As illustrated here, the consequences experienced by the victims of psychological/emotional child abuse are potentially incalculable; however, research in this specific area has until recently been relatively sparse. The research that has been done to date suggests that children may experience lifelong patterns of disconnection, depression, anxiety, dysfunctional/’toxic’ relationships, low self-esteem, and an inability to experience empathy. Development processes may be impaired or even disrupted due to poor mental and emotional adjustment. By the time the child enters adolescence, they often find it difficult to trust and may find themselves unable to experience fulfillment and happiness in their interpersonal relationships, while not having any idea that the roots of their unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and distress as an adult may be found in their painful, wounding childhood. Sadly, if they become parents, adult survivors may have great difficulty identifying and responding empathetically and appropriately to the needs of their own children, thereby perpetuating the cycle of multi-generational abuse existing within their family system.
Alice Miller, renowned psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book, The Drama Of The Gifted Child: The Search For The True Self, had this to say about healing from childhood abuse: “Pain is the way to the truth. By denying that you were unloved as a child, you spare yourself some pain, but you are not with your own truth. And throughout your whole life you’ll try to earn love” (A. Miller, The Roots Of Violence ). Ultimately, healing the invisible wounds of any form of child abuse requires the adult survivor to bravely acknowledge even the most painful and incomprehensible truths; hence, the decision to take responsibility for one’s own well-being and healing is a most courageous act indeed. Perhaps it is also time that we ask ourselves as a society how we may be contributing to the continued abuse of children through our indifference, and what we are willing to do collectively to change this so that no child need ever believe that they are unworthy and undeserving of being loved.
Note From The Author: If you think that you may be an adult survivor of abuse, I encourage you to visit Adult Survivors of Child Abuse to learn more about pathways to healing, and receive peer-support and resources; also, you might wish to consider engaging in psychotherapy with a trauma-informed therapist who specifically specializes in helping adult survivors recover from child abuse (they should consider themselves an ‘expert’ in this area for best results).