Living in this newly minted Trump era is terrifying for many people. It is terrifying for those who value democracy, transparency, and truth. It is terrifying for those who experienced or whose ancestors experienced an oppressive regime. And it’s terrifying for those who grew up in an abusive family, sometimes triggering memories of childhood trauma.
10 Parallels Between Trump Rule and the Abusive Family
- Gaslighting. By now you have likely heard the term gaslighting, perhaps several times. Gaslighting makes another person feel crazy, and adult children of abusive parents are often all-too familiar with it. Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway are masters at gaslighting. It happens every time they deny what in many cases is patently obvious and when they disparage any who object as being hysterical or ridiculous, or when Kellyanne tells us we shouldn’t pay attention to Trump’s words or actions but trust what is in Daddy Donald’s magnanimous heart.
- Humiliation and Verbal Abuse. Donald Trump feels perfectly free to humiliate anyone who is not doing as he wants. Hearing this may bring back memories of some of this same name-calling: stupid, loser, lyin’, weak. Defending yourself brings more attack. There is cruelty here, ruthlessness. The abuser doesn’t care (or worse, takes satisfaction) in your hurt.
- Volatility. What we see in Trump’s behavior is déjà vu for those with parents with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. When will he (or she) blow up? When others (especially others with power over you) are volatile, you never feel safe. This supports constant hypervigilance, which drains and strains your system.
- Authoritarian Control. My way or the highway. Standard fare again for insecure petty tyrants who too often parent children. Authoritarianism is an abuse of power, kept in place by threats. Threats of deportation or being fired or similar to the fear children face when parents threaten to take them to the orphanage or otherwise abandon them if they are not compliant.
- Forced Loyalty. Trump’s rallying cry of “America First” is very much like the rule in dysfunctional families where your first (and pretty much only) loyalty must be to family. Trump’s framing of Acting Attorney General Yates’ disagreement with his travel ban as “betrayal” is classic. (Of course he could have had her vet it first.) The attitude is “If you’re not with us (i.e. compliant), you’re against us.”
- Gag orders. Trump has tried to prohibit thousands of workers in federal agencies from saying anything he doesn’t like, cutting off critical topics like climate change. This is parallel the rule in families with alcoholic parents (as with various forms of mental illness) of “Don’t Tell.” Don’t let the outside world know anything outside our carefully crafted image. Especially don’t share secrets.
- Extreme Narcissism. Donald Trump has become a model to the whole world for what a narcissist looks like. For those who grew up with a narcissist, the grandiosity and self-obsession is totally familiar.
- Chaos, no stable routines or secure foundation. The infighting and instability in Trump’s inner circle (along with a larger shake-up in government) once again mirrors an unstable home where parents fight, you don’t know when one will leave, and there is little stabilizing routine. There is no bedtime or family dinner. You can tweet any time you like.
- Invasive and predatory behavior. In dysfunctional families, a parent may read a child’s diary or listen in on their phone calls. Trump walking into dressings rooms at his beauty pageants mirrors the predatory parent walking in on children or not allowing them to close the bathroom door. At some point, predatory looming crosses the line into sexual assault. From reports of the dozen women brazen enough to come forward, Donald Trump has crossed that line. Sexual assault leaves lifelong fault lines, as any victim of childhood sexual abuse too well knows.
- Incompetence. Abusive parents, tragically, do not have the skills or psychological health to carry out the critical job of parenting. Usually, they have had no good models and haven’t a clue what is really involved. Trump is similarly unqualified. He is like a bull in a china shop, thrashing around, irritated, erratic, clearly out of his league.
It’s a wild time for us all. The old order is being turned upside down. Sometimes that needs to happen for something new to be born. I’ve been heartened by the level of engagement and creativity that is arising during this time of need. Will government continue this authoritarian trend or become less rigid and more responsive to the needs of its citizens?
Tips for Survivors of Childhood Abuse
This larger situation creates an interesting nexus for those who grew up in the kind of families described here. Although I’ve heard one such survivor find it validating to hear this public outcry around these familiar behaviors, others can be weighed down from this second dose of what was so harmful and disempowering. To this end, I offer some suggestions:
- Empower yourself. As a child there was little you could do. The only sense of safety may have come from lying low and staying invisible. Now, you can join with the millions of people who are saying, “This is not ok.” Taking action politically has never been easier.
- Identify resources. As a child there was nowhere to go for help. Now there are resources. Especially if you fear being deported, identify all possible sources of help.
- Look for what is different in the current situation than in your childhood. The feelings are the same, there are many of the same dangers, but you must also recognize what is different in order to break any sense of paralysis. For example, now you may have a partner, a phone, the ability to remove yourself periodically, opportunities to use your voice.
- Seek support of people who “get it.” I’m referring to both people who understand the larger dangers and people who understand what growing up in an abusive family is like. You are not alone.
- Be caring and attentive to the child parts of you. Listen to feelings, soothe yourself (by healthy means), let your inner child parts know that you are with them and will do everything you can to protect them.
This is a time that requires a lot of self-care for everyone but especially for any who are having traumatic memories come up. Sometimes that same energy is activated but without specific memories and we don’t fully understand our reactions. We are looking through our trauma rather than at our trauma. Looking through our trauma is being influenced by something in the past and distorts how we view the moment. Often this leads to fear, mistrust, and the kind of scapegoating that we see coming out of the White House.
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