We all know what physical abuse of a child is, but childhood emotional abuse sometimes falls under the radar.
What is childhood emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse causes harm to a child’s sense of self. Rather than whacking a child with a hairbrush, it is whacking a child with cruel words and looks. Verbal forms usually include blaming, shaming, humiliating, and threatening abandonment. Nonverbal forms include hateful looks, refusing to talk with a child, and behaviors that undermine a child’s sense of self-respect, such as providing only inappropriate clothing or sabotaging a child’s success.
How does this relate to emotional neglect?
My observation is that when there is childhood emotional abuse, there is also emotional neglect present, although not always vice versa. Emotionally abusive parents are rarely attuned to their children and responsive to their needs, which is why they are also neglectful.
Isn’t physical abuse worse?
Not true. According to a study reported by the American Psychological Association, “Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused.” It found that children who had been psychologically abused suffered from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and were suicidal at the same or a greater rate than children who were physically or sexually abused.
10 effects of childhood emotional abuse
I’ve written about the effects of emotional neglect in my book, The Emotionally Absent Mother. I’m thrilled to be working on an expanded edition of the book and including emotional abuse as part of it.
Since emotional abuse generally is found along with emotional neglect, I’ll abbreviate this list by providing 10 effects that can be added to the effects of emotional neglect. More detail will be found in the expanded book coming out in April 2017.
High levels of anxiety
Anxiety is the feeling that something is not quite right, often with a foreboding that something bad is about to happen. It is easy to see why a child who is not safe from attack gets filled with anxiety. Until we work this out, we often carry this anxiety well into our adulthood.
Anxiety shows up in many ways. Sometimes it spills out as a panic attack. Or it takes the form of phobias or obsessive-compulsive patterns. Anxiety can also be involved in nervous behaviors like hair-pulling, in excessive worry or becoming overly cautious, or being irritable and restless. Feeling anxious and on guard makes it hard to relax, and the body is then deprived of much that it needs to maintain good health, including good sleep.
Deeply ingrained avoidance
If we don’t have good skills for regulating our emotions, the situation with so many who were emotionally neglected or abused, we’ve got a very big stake in avoiding having emotions set off. That can lead us to not venture out into life and also avoid going inside. It leaves us with a small emotional range, perhaps living primarily in our heads. The need to avoid can also feed addictions.
Alienation from the body and degradation of health
The legacy of numbing, shame, and unprocessed trauma make it harder to occupy the body. Not fully occupying the body, in turn, makes it harder for the body to thrive. On a practical level, if we’re not present in our bodies, we won’t be responsive to our bodies needs—for rest, hydration, food, movement, and so on.
Adverse events in childhood are highly correlated with more disease in adulthood in the large-scale ACE study. Your immune and nervous systems, along with all the others, were burdened when they were developing and needed to be supported.
A third reason “the body bears the burden” (also the title of a book on trauma) is that what we’ve denied and given no other way to be worked out often expresses itself through somatic symptoms, a rather well known phenomenon.
Many times the person who has been emotionally abused as a child continues to expect to be used, hurt, manipulated, and dumped on. It generally feels too vulnerable to let down the walls you’ve erected to protect you. It feels foreign when people act genuinely interested in you, and it’s hard to trust that any interest will last or not have an ulterior motive. There is also a fear that if you rely on someone they’ll leave.
Used and unhappy in relationships
Of course being mistreated in your first relationship with a parent makes you more vulnerable to getting involved with others who behave in a similar way or make you feel a similar way. You may have learned to be compliant to minimize the other’s aggression, even becoming somewhat numb to it. Those who stay in abusive relationships often have a history of early abuse.
Another likely pattern is that of caretaking, becoming a doormat and giving too much to people who are “takers.” Because you desperately want relationship and don’t expect more parity, you may end up propping up people who need an audience.
Until we have separated ourselves from the deprivations experienced in our childhood, they continue on inside of us in the form of beliefs often hidden under the surface. This results in a ceiling we bump up against. It may be the sense that “I’m not allowed” to feel certain emotions, make decisions, or succeed.
Even when we push past barriers to actually succeed, other residues remain. One is the feeling of not being good enough, even being a fraud; another is a tendency to take away your own wins, just as your abusive parent did.
While we all have an inner critic who pops up at times, those who were cruelly criticized growing up often have a critic that is over the top. While it is often believed that the inner critic is motivated by a positive intention of protecting us (though in a very unskillful way), those with a history of abuse either have a critic gone wild or another part that is an inner perpetrator and who actually intends harm. This inner perpetrator often holds the same judgments as your abusive parent: you are no-good, fat, lazy, stupid, and should be exposed.
Self-harming behaviors can range from subtle self-sabotage and lack of good self-care to cutting on your body, other kinds of physical punishment of self, and suicide. There are many ways of understanding this—too many to go into here.
Frequent or ongoing dissociation
As I wrote in Healing From Trauma, dissociation is when you are not all here. It is most often a disconnection from your body, your feelings, or your environment. Dissociation is a circuit breaker for a nervous system which has become overwhelmed. It is only somewhat successful in managing the overwhelm, as you usually feel like you’ve just lost your brain. In a severely dissociated state, you feel like you can’t do anything.
Not sure what is real
When you have suffered extreme emotional attack at a young age, and especially when that is denied or blamed on you, and when you had no safe place to go but to retreat to an inner world, it may leave you with a sense that you’re not quite sure what is real, what actually happened and what you may have imagined or dreamed. It knocks an important part of your foundation out from under you.
As you can see, living with the impacts of childhood emotional abuse is an enormous weight to carry. I wish you the best in finding the support needed—whether people in your inner circle, a skilled therapist, relevant recovery groups, or good self-help reading. All my best to you.
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I’m not taking new clients in my therapy practice at the moment, but may have a couple of openings in the fall.