People often speak of the resilience of children, and that’s true, in that they find a way to survive physically and emotionally. But it’s not true that children slough off the effects of childhood family dysfunction, traumatic events and patterns, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or child neglect. They suffer deep emotional pain and are changed for the rest of their lives.
Children should be seen as a treasure, a gift to the family and the world, and treated with love, tenderness and care. It’s so sad when that’s not what happens.
Childhood family dysfunction
Many children grow up in families where things happen that are on a continuum of childhood family dysfunction ranging from mild to severe, with the severe end of the spectrum including sexual abuse, physical abuse, child neglect and much emotional pain. Often, children seem to “turn out all right” even so, and are later able to obtain and keep jobs, enter into relationships, marry and have their own children. But that doesn’t mean that their lives and relationships are not deeply affected.
Childhood family dysfunction affects children’s personalities
Children who are put through the emotional pain of being repeatedly criticized; called negative names; not allowed to become angry or cry, shout with glee or laugh happily; or not allowed privacy or comfort, often automatically begin to believe that they are bad, stupid, ugly or worthless. They often learn to push down emotions until they are no longer aware of having them. They learn ways to create privacy and comfort that are not in their best interests but rather are a way to survive the childhood family dysfunction.
How children may be harmed by physical and emotional pain
In a child’s mind, parents are all-knowing figures. If the parent does or says something in relation to a young child, in the child’s mind, what they say or do is ultimate truth. The more often something is repeated, the more deeply this “truth” is etched into the child’s mind and emotions until it actually begins to create the child’s personality. For instance, a child who is constantly criticized or told it’s stupid or ugly will begin to feel worthless and might learn to cringe around others, to try to make itself invisible, to believe it can’t be competent and so to fail in school and, later, as an adult, have difficulty engaging in relationships or jobs, or she may fail in college, relationships, and jobs.
A child who is told “I wish you had never been born; you’re such a burden” often will feel unworthy to be alive on the planet and, as an adult, will act in ways that brings misfortune into his life. If a child is told, in a negative way, “You’re just like your father (or mother),” it may be terribly torn because it loves its father (or mother) but at the same time feels that it is bad to love the other parent-and the child feels it itself is bad in some way. This emotional pain, too, lives on into adulthood, deeply affecting social and work relationships.
How children respond to physical abuse
Children whose parents subject them to physical abuse in the form of beatings, arm twisting, pushing them down forcefully or other forms of physical abuse are harmed not only physically but emotionally and psychologically way into adulthood. As adults, they may be easily cowed, find it difficult to ask for and stand for what they need, or stay distant in relationships. They may feel helpless and become deeply depressed. Or they may go in the opposite direction, flying into rages at those close to them or becoming physically abusive themselves.
How sexual abuse affects children
When children are subjected to sexual abuse, the very center of their being is violated. They may become people who are extremely helpless-because they actually were extremely helpless as children. Because it is actually impossible to be present while being violated at such a core level, child sexual abuse often creates people who learn to dissociate. Since, as children, they were forced to be physically present for the abuse, and they couldn’t escape, they learned to escape mentally and emotionally, numbing out, fading out, “disappearing” into themselves. This, too, continues on, and adults who have been sexually abused as children might endure being taken advantage of in many ways because they were not able to have a sense of personal boundaries as children. Or, because they learned that the way they are “loved” is to be touched sexually, they may later believe that the only way to be loved is sexually, and they may become promiscuous as adults. On the other hand, sex with someone they love and who loves them may be almost impossible because often people who have been sexually abused feel pain during sex.
Child neglect has long-term effects
Babies who are left to cry alone for hours, young children whose parents leave them alone at home to fend for themselves, children whose parents feed them irregularly or make them wait too long to eat also are deeply affected well into adulthood. Adults who have endured childhood neglect may feel that they are all alone in the world, that there is no one there for them when they need help. They may isolate and become depressed, or feel they have to do everything themselves and so subtly push away anyone who would help them. On the other hand, adults who suffered from child neglect when young may react to their needs being denied by becoming excessively needy and clingy, thus creating relationships where their partners may feel that they are a burden.
There are ways to change the patterns of thinking, feeling, reacting and relating that are created in dysfunctional families. If you are a person who grew up with childhood family dysfunction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect, psychotherapy, and specifically EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) can help you.