Adults who experienced psycho-emotional abuse growing up are unlikely to have their profound distress recognized or validated. This is especially the case for those trapped in the ‘family scapegoat’ role…
[Note: This article was first published in 2014 and revised in 2019 and again in 2020 for Psych Central.]
Child Psycho-Emotional Abuse Versus ‘Subpar Parenting’
According to Andrew Vachss, an attorney and author who has devoted his life to protecting children, the mental and 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” (http://www.vachss.com/av_dispatches/disp_9408_a.html).
While experts still do not agree on what behaviors constitute psycho-emotional abuse, it is generally recognized by researchers that it is abuse that 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 them, including parents, siblings, relatives, peers, teachers, ministers, scout leaders, coaches, etc.
The words ‘repetitive’, ‘chronic’, ‘persistent’, and ‘systematic’ are critical when it comes to defining psycho-emotional abuse. What might fall under the umbrella of ‘subpar parenting’ becomes 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. In such a non-nurturing, even hostile environment, the child is likely to grow up believing they are ‘bad’, unworthy, faulty, damaged, unwanted, and unlovable.
Family Scapegoating Is a Form of Child Psycho-Emotional Abuse
Abuse of a child occurs in dysfunctional / narcissistic family systems that are unable to nurture, encourage, and support the healthy development of a functional ‘self’. For example, the child may have grown up in an alcoholic family system, where fear and uncertainty was experienced on a daily basis, making it difficult to trust the very people who were supposed to care for them and keep them safe.
Others may have had a parent who suffered from undiagnosed or diagnosed mental illness, (such as Bipolar Disorder) or a disorder that caused extreme emotional instability / lability, (such as Histrionic or Borderline Personality Disorder), causing them to be parented by adults who were struggling intrapsychically and/or were emotionally children themselves.
In dysfunctional / narcissistic family systems where abuse of the children by the parents (or primary caregivers) occurs, it is common for the parent(s) to blame the child for any negative behaviors displayed by them toward the parent in an attempt to discredit the child’s or adult survivor’s truthful accounts of the mental and emotional abuse that actually occurred. This is especially true if the child / adult child is in the ‘family scapegoat’ role.
Examples of this type of abuse (which I term Family Scapegoat Abuse, or FSA) 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; using guilt, shame, and martyrdom in an attempt to make the child feel ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, and guilty; deliberating provoking / triggering the child as a means of asserting and establishing control; describing the child as ‘bad’, ‘crazy’, ‘a liar’, etc, to family and friends, at times in the child’s presence; 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 (it should be noted that these forms of abuse are likely to be especially intense if one or both parents are personality disordered – Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder, especially).
Below is a list that highlights additional acts exhibited toward a child that can result in impaired psycho-emotional functioning; many are associated with family scapegoating:
- 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”)
- Scapegoating the child to others as a means of hiding psychoemotional abuse and/or neglect (e.g., “Johnny’s always telling lies, he’s crazy, you can’t believe a thing he says”) – often in front of the child (this causes the child to question their own perceptions and experience of reality as well as their worthiness to exist and receive and give love)
- 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
- Exposing the child to a chronically stressful, traumatizing environment (e.g., alcoholism; drug addiction; hoarding; 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 Long-Term Impact of Psycho-Emotional Abuse on Adult Survivors
Psycho-emotional abuse experienced in childhood is insidious in that the adult survivor is often unaware that they were in fact victims of abuse, and therefore may not ever seek help or treatment for the invisible psychological and emotional wounds sustained. When healthy mental and emotional functioning is impaired, such an adult is at high risk of developing a variety of mood disorders, addictive behaviors, and other maladaptive ways of being in the world in their subconscious attempts to navigate around the pain of an injured psyche.
Given this, it should come as no surprise that the consequences of being psycho-emotionally abused as a child can be severe, especially if the child was in the ‘family scapegoat’ role (as mentioned earlier). Adult survivors may experience:
- Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which is at times misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder)
- Clinical Depression
- Generalized anxiety
- Active or passive suicidal ideation
- Misuse of alcohol and drugs, often resulting in addiction
- Sexual acting out
- Avoidant / Insecure / Anxious attachment styles
- Eating disorders
- Panic disorders
- Compulsive disorders
- Imposter Syndrome
- Difficulty forming meaningful, rewarding, trusting intimate relationships
- Self-sabotaging, self-destructive behaviors, and lack of impulse control (may include Borderline Personality Disorder-type symptoms)
- Abandonment rage / Abandonment depression
- Abusive acts toward self and/or others, including one’s own children
It must be emphasized that psycho-emotional abuse of a child, including and especially family scapegoating abuse, results in a deep-seated subsconscious belief that they are faulty, damaged, and unworthy of love, empathy, attention, and respect. The abused child develops distorted perceptions of self and others, and will often conclude at a deep, core level that there is something wrong with them; they may even develop the belief that they must be so faulty and damaged that they somehow deserve the abuse.
Such children typically strive life-long to be accepted and approved of by others as a means of proving to themselves that they are ‘okay’ and worthy of love. Alternatively, they may avoid attaching to others at a meaningful level and may even feel justified in behaving aggressively / abusively toward anyone who disappoints them (perceived authority figures in particular) due to deep-seated, subconscious abandonment rage.
Having little self-worth, adult survivors of child psycho-emotional abuse often find themselves in abusive relationships despite their best intentions to find happiness and love. They may also behave abusively at times toward others (including scapegoating their own children) without being conscious of the fact that they are engaging in the very same hurtful, dehumanizing behaviors that were inflicted upon them as children. This is especially likely when the survivor has little capacity for genuine empathy and is unable to control their impulsive, manipulative, and aggressive impulses, as is often the case with those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder.
“I Think I Am An Adult Survivor Of Child Psycho-Emotional Abuse: What Now?”
Suffice it to say that the consequences experienced by victims of psycho-emotional child abuse are incalculable. The research that has been done to date suggests that such children may experience lifelong patterns of disconnection, dissociation, depression, anxiety, dysfunctional / ’toxic’ relationships, low self-esteem, and an inability to experience empathy (although I was intrigued to discover via my research on Family Scapegoating Abuse that many adult survivors of FSA are highly empathic and sensitive beyond what one would expect to see statistically, which warrants further investigation).
Developmental processes may be impaired or even disrupted due to poor mental and emotional adjustment. By the time the child enters adolescence, they often find it difficult to trust and may find themselves unable to experience fulfillment and happiness in their interpersonal relationships, while not having any idea that the roots of their unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and distress as an adult may be found in their painful, wounding childhood.
Successful treatment and recovery from psycho-emotional child abuse is especially challenging in that adult survivors who initiate therapy may still be connected to those who continue to abuse them (most commonly the parents, and possibly other nuclear or extended family members). Also, as the therapist may represent yet another potentially harmful ‘authority figure’, the adult survivor may be unable to accept or respect therapeutic boundaries, making the development of trust and rapport difficult.
Alice Miller, renowned psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book, The Drama Of The Gifted Child: The Search For The True Self, had this to say about healing from childhood abuse: “Pain is the way to the truth. By denying that you were unloved as a child, you spare yourself some pain, but you are not with your own truth. And throughout your whole life you’ll try to earn love” (https://www.alice-miller.com/en/the-feeling-child/ ).
Ultimately, healing the invisible wounds of any form of child abuse requires the adult survivor to first bravely acknowledge even the most painful and incomprehensible truths: That they were mistreated, neglected, and/or abused by those who were supposed to love, nurture, and cherish them the most.
The decision to take responsibility for one’s own well-being and healing is a most courageous act indeed. As adult survivors, we may need to face hard truths, including exploring how we may be perpetuating the cycle of abuse via how we are behaving toward others due to our own unresolved pain and/or denial.
Perhaps it is also time that we ask ourselves as a society how we may be contributing to the continued abuse of children through our indifference, and what we are willing to do collectively to change this so that no child need ever believe that they are unworthy and undeserving of being loved.
If you think that you may be an adult survivor of abuse, I encourage you to visit Adult Survivors of Child Abuse to learn more about pathways to healing, receive peer-support and access additional resources; also, you might wish to consider engaging in psychotherapy with a therapist who specifically specializes in helping adult survivors recover from child abuse (they should consider themselves an ‘expert’ in this area for best results).
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