Note: This article was first published in 2014 and revised in 2019, 2020, and 2021.
Were You a Victim of 'Invisible 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…
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:
- C-PTSD (Complex Trauma)
- 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