Growing Up with Emotional Abuse
By: David Lechnyr, LCSW
When children’s development of self-esteem, social skills or capacity for intimacy is jeopardized by their parents’ behavior or neglect, they may be the victim of emotional abuse. Whether it is alcohol or other drugs, mental illness, compulsive behavior (eating, working, religion, etc.), or any one of a thousand other things that deplete a family’s emotional life, the results are the same.
Children are left to their own devices to make sense of the pain and loneliness in their life. In the end, they are the victims of emotional abuse: A pattern of rejecting, isolating, terrorizing, ignoring and corrupting behavior from a parent or caretaker. Below are the elements specific to emotional abuse. Not everyone experiences every result; in the end, though, it is a combination of behaviors that teach us the damaging lessons that we ultimately live by.
Rejecting behavior means that the adults in your life refuse, or are unable, to acknowledge your worth or the legitimacy of your needs. Rejecting frequently happens in a direct and indirect way. Children are locked in a battle with their own sense of worthlessness, and may be unconvinced that their own needs matter. When adults are imprisoned by their own self-rejecting, they are unable to give a sense of worth to their children (you cannot give what you do not have). At the worse, out of control parents can systematically attack their children’s self-esteem, mocking their needs and openly competing with them.
Isolating behavior means that adults prevent their children from having normal social contacts or forming friendships. The result is that their children begin believing they are alone in this world. These children feel that their experience is unique, that no one could possibly understand them. Parents may keep their children from participating in normal childhood activities, as they fall into their own isolation from the world. A parent’s sense of being separate and misunderstood is communicated to their children, who do not have the tools to deal with such loneliness.
Terrorizing behavior means that adults may verbally assault and bully children, and create a climate of fear that leads their children to believe that the world is a dangerous and hostile place. There may be nothing more profoundly disturbing than to see your own parent be out of control. Parents are supposed to provide the consistency, the maturity and the self-discipline to help children develop their own self-control. This is impossible when one or both parents are stuck in their own daily battle with losing control. Anger is like a poison, and the home becomes a terrifying place to be.
Ignoring behavior means that adults no longer stimulate or respond to their children. The connection with parents is lost, as they become emotionally unreachable. Parents may be absent for may reasons as they retreat into their own world. Most young children are not capable of recognizing that their parent’s unresponsiveness is not caused by anything that the children do. As a result, kids are frequently left wondering what they have done to cause their parents to ignore them. If a parent is very self-centered, this contributes further to children’s sense of having lost the essential connection they need to their parent.
Corrupting behavior means that adults serve as negative role models for their children or actually stimulate their children to engage in destructive behavior. Most people would agree that teaching children bad behavior is a poor choice, even if the teaching is only by example. Worse, children can be encouraged to join in negative and destructive behavior in order to feel like a part of their family. Another form of corrupting behavior is if one parent is co-dependent and excuses the behavior of their spouse, causing the children to push down whatever negative feelings they might have.
The effects of emotional abuse are varied, partly depending on what age the abuse was suffered, what other negative factors may be present (physical abuse, sexual abuse, family disintegration, etc.) and what other mitigating factors may be present. In general, emotionally abused children tend to be anxious, feel unloved and unlovable, inferior, angry and defective. It is common to see them cling to a parent and, yet, move away when their parent tries to get closer. They are wary. They have been burned.