The Long Shadow: Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse
It seems you can’t turn on a TV these days without hearing about childhood abuse. References to “the dysfunctional family” are so common they are almost a cliché.
But behind the cliché is the sad reality: some families are poisonous for children. Childhood abuse, particularly when severe, can cast a long shadow over your life influencing your emotional state, and how you relate to others.
Even when not abusive, families can be dysfunctional in other ways, such as having a chronically depressed, mentally ill or substance-abusing parent.
Your upbringing may have left you poorly equipped to parent your own children. In this chapter, I describe one of the most common types of abuse and family dysfunction, and how these experiences could be affecting you.
Types of Childhood Abuse
Child abuse takes a wide variety of forms, and can range from mild to severe. Even competent parents make mistakes, and have challenges and difficulties.
Abuse can occur inside the family, and with people who are not family members. By and large, however, the experiences I am describing occur within the home. In severely dysfunctional homes, it’s not unusual for several types of abuse to occur at the same time.
For example, someone who is sexually abusive is often physically abusive as well. In families where there is partner abuse, there is also likely to be parental depression and substance abuse. What seems to be important, across all these types of abuse, is the overall level of severity and degree of family pathology.
Neglect is by far the most common type of child maltreatment. Unlike physical or sexual abuse, where something is actually done, neglect is failure to do something. Types of neglect include not providing food, clothing or medical attention. It can include failure to supervise, provide a safe environment or provide proper education. (Unfortunately, families who home school are often harassed under the education portion of the neglect laws.)
Not surprisingly, neglect is often related to parental substance abuse and depression. Families who neglect their children are often chaotic. Parents don’t seem to be able to “get it together” to provide food or appropriate clothing for their children. In Beth’s family, both her mother and father were alcoholics. She was frequently hungry because her parents spent the money they had on alcohol.
Neglect is often thought to be solely a function of poverty. However, while poverty certainly accounts for some neglect, it is neither fair nor accurate to imply that all poor people neglect their children. There usually is something more, especially in chronically neglectful homes.
In a paper entitled “The Psychological Ecology of the Neglectful Mother,” Polansky and his colleagues (Polansky, Gaudin, Ammons, & Davis 1985) specifically addressed the issue of poverty in child neglect. In their study, they gathered a group of mothers identified as “neglectful” by social services. They then found another group of mothers who were not neglectful, but had the same income level, education, marital status, ethnicity, and even neighborhood as the neglectful mothers. What they found was illuminating. The mothers identified as neglectful were depressed, had few friends, and seemed unable to take advantage of resources that were available to them in their communities.
Depression in mothers and fathers is also related to neglect. Recall from chapter 2, that depression influences a mother’s ability to interact with her children. One interaction style is “avoidant.” Avoidant mothers disengage from their children, and ignore them much of the time. The other style, “angry-intrusive,” is a risk factor for physical abuse (I’ll discuss this in a minute).
Neglect also happens in the suburbs, and in more subtle forms. Food and clothing may be provided, but the parent might be emotionally absent. Parents may show little interest in their children. Mothers or fathers may have been so emotionally immature that children must care for them, rather than the other way around.
Parents can also be so uninvolved that they fail to notice when something really serious occurs in their children’s lives. Both Marilyn and Sandy were raised in middle-class homes with neglectful, substance-abusing mothers. Both were raped as teens by kids from their schools. Neither of their families noticed the abrupt change in their behaviors that occurred as a result of being raped. They never asked what was going on, or why their daughters were acting so strangely.
Today coose to make a difference, embrace a soul provide a healing hug you never know what someone is going thru.
Join me by showing compassion to someone that never knew compassion, together we can make the world a better place and provide hope for the broken , the battered, or the abused soul.