When We Suffer Abusive Treatment

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. David Lykken of the University of Minnesota says that the evidence tells us “that most of the 1.4 million American men currently languishing in prison would have grown up to be tax-paying citizens and acceptable neighbours if they had been switched in the nursery and sent home with a mature, law-abiding married couple rather than with their biological parent or parents”. By “mature” he’s referring to parents who love and care for and protect their children.

The complex harm to psychological development caused by child abuse and neglect sets a course for a big range of big problems – relationship instability, violence, addictions, physical and mental health problems, you name it.

The neglect and abuse of children is a product of generations of conditioning. If you want to shine a light on why a parent may be rarely or persistently abusive or neglectful, you’ll often glimpse the next layer of insight by looking at the parent’s parents, and then at their parents.

When we, as children, suffer abusive treatment and a life that feels dangerous we all reflexively use what we have to protect ourselves and to just survive. Leaving home or calling a responsive grown up is not always an option that a distressed child can muster. Kids are often left to their own meagre adaptations to manage their life.

One protective adaptation is for kids to pay careful and ongoing attention to the abusive parent. Kids can then shift their own behaviour in order to modulate the state of mind of the distressed parent. By “being good” somehow, some control and safety may be had. And the felt reason is to be safe, to be accepted, if not loved.

But vigilance is not just something someone does now and then – it becomes a way of living born of the need to be safe. So paying rigid attention to the Other becomes a deeply ingrained pattern for distressed kids, a habit that we don’t even know we’re strengthening through repetition. It’s automatic. And we grow up that way.

To not pay attention to the Other but to pay attention to yourself can be dangerous because when the guard gets let down you might be open to a new kind of attack. Scolding “What’s wrong with you?” would do the job, but sharper sticks are easily at hand. The internal reaction to one’s own emotion then becomes complicated instead of being one of acceptance. Kids may be ‘taught’ to feel ashamed of their own emotions, and so there can develop an internal sense that our own emotion is wrong, bad, awful, disgusting.

And so yet another way we commonly protect ourselves is by keeping our emotion hidden even from ourselves. Children experiencing frequent fear may use and over use their natural ability to space out, slipping away from awareness to nothingness. No feeling, no problem. An emergent problem here is that children don’t learn about their emotions and how to tolerate, regulate and know them, a problem which can extend through adulthood.

These and so many other ways of protecting ourselves and trying to get needs met become an automatic way of life that we carry on into adulthood. The emotional infrastructure from childhood results in the understandable tendency to live our adult life with other people in ways that are similar to our developmental history.

Our development doesn’t end with childhood. Hopefully those unfortunate early relationships will be supplemented by the loving aunt or teacher or friend’s mother, or by later healthy relationships that help to undo the earlier abusive conditioning. It is indeed never too late to face and to work on your life.