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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 away

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 childhood abuse.

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

Physical 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?”

Sexual Abuse:

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 the child.

Emotional Abuse:

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.

Intellectual Abuse

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 in life.

Spiritual Abuse

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.


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