As a foster parent, I witnessed many abuse victims. Child abuse grabs headlines when it involves acts of sexual, physical or neglectful nature, but most people don't hear about mental or emotional abuse. This involves an even greater amount of children and adults and often goes without detection.
Today's post is an article I wrote that covers this invisible enemy.
The Invisible Battle
Child abuse has come to the forefront lately, flooding our news with reports of violence, neglect and sexual abuse. Estimates range from three to nine million American children become victims each year. Yet some forms of abuse go undetected, and while not as extreme, can have lasting effect on a person’s psyche.
Mental abuse is not as readily apparent as its counterparts, but it can leave deep, painful scars. In The Circle of Friends, the main character, James, suffered from physical abuse and mild neglect, but emotional berating caused the most damage. Verbal attacks target a person’s self esteem, eating away at his sense of worth and moral foundation. Constant belittling or being treated as inferior damages a child’s self-image, and that portrait is carried over into adulthood. Young people crave love and acceptance and will seek it elsewhere if their needs are not being met at home. The fear of rejection can be traced back to rejection experienced as a child. Coldness and criticism can alter a child’s perspective of relationships, and he may in turn treat others with the same chilly indifference.
Like a debilitating disease, abuse can cripple one’s ability to function in society. For some, the results of extensive mental abuse are devastating. They may react violently, resorting to anti-social behaviors, substance abuse, or mistreating their own children or spouses, thus perpetuating the problem. Inner stress and turmoil can manifest as a physical ailment or an anxiety disorder, the true cause of which may go undiscovered. Deep psychological scarring means some individuals will spend years trying to resolve issues, occasionally at the expense of those around them.
More often, abuse causes less debilitating problems, filling the child with any number of inhibitions. As adults, they can become depressed or withdrawn, avoiding new situations for fear of failure. Negative and inconsistent behavior from a parent can result in misplaced suspicions and a lack of trust. Social skills can be lacking, causing difficulties with relationships and all forms of intimacy. James struggled with this problem, occasionally exhibiting unacceptable behavior. Some individuals may not be able to form an attachment with their spouse or children, keeping them emotionally distant. Others crave and seek acceptance, desperate to find the unconditional love they did not receive as a child. All of these situations eat away at an already depleted self-image and further destroy a person’s confidence.
An emotionally troubled childhood does not automatically confine one to a life of misery, though. Many factors go into one’s ability to overcome an abusive past. Certain characteristics affect one’s resiliency, such as a good self-image, a high level of intelligence, a sense of humor, and optimism. A positive mental attitude may be the only thing a person can control that will affect his or her future success. Those with a strong sense of independence sometimes feel challenged to achieve a better, more rewarding existence. James funneled his anger into work and school, determined to excel at both endeavors. Possession of such attributes can be the difference between succumbing to the abuse or rising above it with purpose and meaning.
Sometimes resiliency is not enough and recovery requires outside assistance. To aid the healing process, it is crucial to find positive influences. Associating with a supportive circle of friends will begin to raise one’s self esteem. A good reading program or support group can provide guidance and assurance, reinforcing a sense of worth and belief that life can be better. At one point, James attended anger management classes to better control his temper. As a result, he continued to struggle with frustration, but his outbursts were no longer so violent. The average person’s perception of normal may be foreign to victims of abuse, and therapy or counseling may be necessary to readjust their belief system. Parental examples may have taught inappropriate responses to various situations and reinforced negative views of the world. Coping skills will need to be fine tuned so that they may properly handle unpleasant circumstances and discover what is normal, acceptable behavior.
Coming to terms with negative feelings is essential to dissolving the internal conflict and moving forward in life. Many discover guilt to be their greatest struggle and blame themselves for their childhood trauma. Others battle daily with their anger, fighting the urge to foist their agony onto someone else. Coping mechanisms may be in place to block the hurt, such as James’s desire to place the needs of others before his own. All of these issues need to be dealt with in order to restore internal balance. Ultimately though, the pain and frustration at some point needs to be dispersed and released. While making amends with the abuser may be out of the question, forgiving that person will dissolve one’s own ill feelings and set them free. Reconciling oneself with the past, coupled with setting realistic goals, will focus anger and negative energy towards a more constructive purpose and begin the road to recovery.
No one has to remain a victim. The effects of mental abuse are far-reaching, but they do not have to be permanent. In the end, James overcame his struggle, as have many survivors, and broke the cycle of abuse. There is always hope that for those who can abandon the baggage of abuse, a life of fulfillment and contentment awaits.
- Author & professional speaker, L. Diane Wolfe www.spunkonastick.net www.thecircleoffriends.net