|Adults Abused as Children
By Licia Ginne, LMFT
Dr. Jasquith says that tyranny
is sometimes expression of the maternal instinct. If that's
a mother's love, I want no part of it.
Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale in "Now Voyager"
The experience of having lived (or living) in trauma is probably
the number one reason that brings people to psychotherapy.
It is the shame we feel at who we are, how we feel and what
has happened to us and why it has happened that truly brings
us to seek help. We may not immediately identify our problem
as the result of trauma or neglect, that label may come later
with more analysis and objectivity. What you may identify
is a difficulty with relationships, self-esteem, eating disorders,
alcohol and substance abuse, or any compulsive behavior, self-sabotage
and/or self-destructive behavior. What’s important to
remember is we are not born with self-loathing or low self-esteem
we learn this from how others have and do treat us.
The goal of in-depth psychotherapy is to teach us how to identify
our needs, our feelings and our experience of us and the world
we live in. Contemporary Psychoanalytic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis
creates a relationship where the analyst and client are able
to understand and learn how we came to be who we are and how
to challenge some of these false beliefs we have learned about
ourselves. The relationship is an interactive one where hopefully
the client does not feel alone exploring topics and feelings
that may feel frightening. People with histories of abuse
often do not feel safe, have trouble trusting others and have
limited tools for problem solving.
We learned coping skills in our homes and schools as children
and these tools should grow and develop as we grow and develop.
Adults, who have been abused or neglected, find their tools
to be limited and have been taught to ignore their needs and
wants. It may surprise you to think of an addiction as a coping
tool but think how it can soothe and calm our pain. Anger
is another coping tool it gets people to back up and stand
clear; if I am not feeling safe I want what is threatening
me to back up. Learning how to communicate I find that I have
only one speed for getting angry and that mode of expression
is not getting the best results. The goal of communicating
is to have my message heard and understood. I need to learn
more effective tools so my anger is not just blowing everybody
What is abuse?
The purpose of defining abuse is so we all have a common language
and so we can fully experience and embrace the depth of the
hurt we have suffered. It is not about blaming but lets us
understand why we may always feel like someone is blaming
us, or out to get us. We have our feelings in a context that
makes more sense and gives us options to choose our behaviors
and not just always reacting to things. It helps us to understand
why we may feel or think the way that we do.
It is not for the purpose of blaming others but to help us
all be accountable.
During the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s the alcohol
and drug recovery movement was abundant and developing the
concept of co-dependency and “inner child work”.
The self-help bookshelves were over-flowing with "how
to re-parent your inner child" and re-defining abuse.
The definition of "Adult children of alcoholics"
was expanded to include adult children who had experienced
any kind of abuse or trauma. During this time I was working
at the Monterey Peninsula Recovery Center (drug and alcohol
recovery program) and I was lucky enough to hear Pia Melody
present her theories on abuse and co-dependency. I returned
to Los Angeles and began working at the John Bradshaw Treatment
Center, learning even more about trauma and recovery and from
We all struggle with understanding and believing in how these
behaviors have affected us. From the safety of our lives now
we can look back and rethink our experiences. We may minimize
or distance ourselves from those critical comments, from being
ignored, or being left to fend for our selves. A key to healing
is acknowledging our treatment and/or neglect, understanding
how it impacted our self-worth and forgiving ourselves for
assuming the blame.
We tend to empower our past experiences -- like being a latchkey
kid – by saying it toughened us up, that it built our
self-confidence or independence. Yet research supports that
being left on your own actually causes us to doubt our perceptions,
feelings, thoughts and lower self-esteem. Latchkey kids were
forced to grow up too quickly and take on too much responsibility,
and they were not allowed to be afraid. When children are
left to figure out their feelings on their own the best coping
skill they have is their minds: you can change how you think
and feel about something a lot better than you can change
whatever reason it is that you have to stay alone. You learn
to override what you think and feel in exchange for getting
along. As you grow up and develop intimate relationships,
you may find it is hard to form close relationships. Trust
has been broken and there is a fear to depend upon anyone
else. A fear of feeling let down and rejected the way you
did as kid when no one was around.
Here are some definitions of abuse
Touching someone’s body without their permission, hitting,
punching, pinching, slapping, tickling, pulling hair, hitting
with objects, banging the head, so that marks are left on
the person. Punishment that may go too far, or what is often
referred to as corporal punishment. Punching someone to the
point of knocking them off their feet, slamming them into
walls or hard objects, strangling or choking someone. Intimidating
someone with the threat of violence, punching walls or throwing
objects. Also, you might think that because some other member
of your family was receiving the blows you are not a victim
of physical abuse, but if the underlying fear is, “When
will it be me?”
Whenever an adult is being sexual with a child, it is abusive
to the child. Physical sexual abuse is bodily sexual activity
with a child or touching in a sexual way. It includes: intercourse,
oral sex, anal sex, an adult masturbating a child or having
a child masturbate an adult, sexual hugging, sexual kissing,
and sexual touching. When the perpetrator is a family member
it is called incest, and when it is a non-family member it
is called child molestation. To coerce or guilt another adult
into sexual activity is abusive.
Inappropriate seductive behavior by a parent toward a child,
or any adult toward a child, an adult sharing explicit sexual
information with a child (which only serves the adult and
not the child), teasing the child during maturation, and making
the child into a surrogate spouse.
Many people who have been molested or incested feel responsible
for what happene, feel that they caused it to happen or wanted
it to happen. I have also heard clients express acceptance
since it was the only kind of attention that they received.
You are not responsible and it is not acceptable behavior.
A child will not seek out sexual encounters except what may
be age-appropriate sex play with other children. It is the
adults responsibility to set appropriate boundaries and protect
An umbrella term for the following abuses:
Verbal abuse includes screaming, name-calling,
teasing, ridiculing, sarcasm and witnessing someone else receive
verbal or any type of abuse
Social abuse includes isolating the child,
not allowing friends to come over or not allowing the child
to visit others. Indirect social abuse occurs when the child
chooses to not have friends come over because the child may
be embarrassed about home, a parent’s behavior, or it
might not be a safe environment to bring other children into
and the parents have indirectly communicated this to the children.
Mother or father might be passed out on the couch, depressed,
angry, or some other handicap that makes it uncomfortable
to have outsiders to the family home.
Neglect and Abandonment – Are the child’s
dependency needs met? Remember the child cannot survive without
a caretaker. The impact of neglect and abandonment is often
harder for people to comprehend. They often express relief
at being left alone, felt it toughened them up and they became
better people. In some ways its true but they didn't get to
feel taken care of or protected and don't expect to find it
in other relationships.
Food, Clothing, Shelter, Medical/Dental care, Physical nurturing
(appropriate touching and comforting), emotional nurturing
(empathy, time, attention, and direction), sexual guidance
and appropriate information.
How to succeed in the world we live in; financial guidance
and information, education and occupation guidance, career
and life goals.
Where you told you were stupid, girls were you told you were
lucky to be pretty because that’s all you had, or where
you told you would never succeed. When the child is not encouraged
or supported to think independently, told they are stupid
or incapable, not taught to problem solve, how to be accountable
your actions and thoughts and how to communicate is abuse.
It also includes not being taught a philosophy or belief system
Spiritual abuse occurs when the parent is so rigid that they
are the final word in everything. The child is not allowed
to have their own desires, wants and needs; it must coincide
with what the parent wants and needs.
Addiction to Religion
Is similar to any addiction, it means that there is no room
for questions or alternative thought. Religion can be used
to scare and control, which is abusive. If you recall the
Brian De Palma movie, Carrie, it is a good example of religious
addiction; the mother’s religion controlled Carrie’s
life and did not allow for alternative thought or experience.
Abuse from a Religion Representative
When a representative of a religion abuses besides the trauma
of the crime it also casts doubt on “God” for
the victim as well as the fear of authority figures.