From the Mailbox: Smear Campaigns, Spreading Awareness, Maintaining Relationships With Abusive Parents, and More

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[photo credit: Kat]

As managing editor of The Invisible Scar, I’m always open to receiving your emails and comments. Sometimes, I get a flurry of emails on a theme or that have answers that benefit more than one person. I tackle those questions in a monthly post called From the Mailbox.

Here’s a look at the emails that hit my inbox and questions that led folks to The Invisible Scar this month. I’m jotting my thoughts regarding those questions, but do keep in mind that this site is not a substitute for professional advice. (For that, please find a good therapist you can trust.)

Here’s what’s on readers’ minds this month:

“How can I spread awareness about emotional child abuse?”

Dispel the silence. Let people know that emotional child abuse is real. It exists.

To paraphrase the writer Baudelaire, the greatest trick of the devil is to convince you that he doesn’t exist. That lack of belief in its existence allows evil to flourish. Evil flourishes when no one speaks against it.

You can spread awareness in many ways:

  • Write about emotional child abuse and share those articles online.
  • Write about your personal story in a blog. Many people do this under pseudonyms to protect their private lives. Be aware that writing a personal blog does open you up to receive negative comments because trolls exist on the Web.
  • Use your social media platforms to share information about emotional child abuse. Are you on Facebook? Share articles about emotional child abuse there. On Twitter? Tweet about it. You need not be the Debbie Downer of your social network, though; share articles about emotional child abuse and good parenting, tips for parental time-outs, how to speak to one’s children, etc. At The Invisible Scar, we focus solely on emotional child abuse because that’s why we’re all gathering here. But on your social networks, vary the content for your audience.
  • Be honest about your childhood when discussing it with friends and family. You don’t have to corner people at parties and go painstakingly through every detail, but be honest and brief in discussing it.
  • Reach out to people who are hurting. One of the greatest pains of suffering emotional child abuse is the feeling of being isolated, unwanted, and not understood. When possible, reach out in love and kindness and listening to those hurting. Just listening to someone who hurts makes an enormous difference in a person’s life.
  • Mindfully step in when you hear someone being mistreated.  You can speak up for others without attacking the parent; just be kind and subtle. A true story: Years ago, I was in line at the grocery store and minding my baby girl when a lady and her preteen daughter stood behind me. The lady looked at my baby girl and said, “Oh, she’s so cute! They’re adorable at that age. And then, they become THIS.” And she pointed to the preteen. I replied, “Every age is a good one. And how awesome that you have a girl who you can chat with and do fun things with.” And the lady said, “Hm, I guess” and grew quiet, and the preteen gave me the loveliest big smile.
  • Pray for survivors of emotional child abuse. People always use prayer as a last resort. “It’s the least we can do.” No, it’s the most. Prayer is lifting our hearts to God, and we can lift survivors of emotional child abuse in our prayers. The prayers may not change the abusers—God gave everyone free will—but the prayers can help those who hurt. Know that I keep all readers of The Invisible Scar in my prayers. Please keep me in yours.
“How can I maintain a relationship with an abusive parent?”

You can’t.

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse want to be able to have healthy, loving relationships with their parents… but their parents are toxic people.

That longing is a scar that adult survivors of emotional child abuse bear. It exists. The scar shows that the adult survivor was wounded. But it cannot be undone.

However, an adult survivor can make sure not to put himself or herself in a situation to receive yet even more scars from the toxic parent.

Of course, only you can decide whether to remain in a relationship with abusive parents. But at The Invisible Scar, we encourage No Contact with abusers. (The author of Cutting Ties: Knowing When It’s Time to Walk Away at Luke 17:3 Ministries has questions to help you make that decision.)

“Why is my mother emotionally abusive?”

The short answer is that no one knows for sure.

Some psychologists talk about a cycle of emotional abuse. A child was emotionally abused by a parent who was once emotionally abused by a parent who was once emotionally abused by a parent, etc. But if that cycle cannot be broken, then why is it? Why do some adult survivors end up not emotionally abusing their children?

Some scientists mention that it could be genetics. But then that doesn’t quite make sense either. Alcoholism makes sense due to the physical component of alcoholism. But how can there be a gene for being a horrific parent?

You can look at the specifics of your own family tree and perhaps get to a mild understanding of how this abuse has emerged.

But for the sake of healing, it’s best to not focus on the why.

“What can I do about smear campaigns against me?”

A smear campaign is more than someone just saying something rude about you. It’s the systematic shredding of someone’s reputation by spreading lies, accusations, and insinuations.

“False Accusations, Distortion Campaigns and Smear Campaigns can all be used with or without a grain of truth, and have the potential to cause enormous emotional hurt to the victim or even impact their professional or personal reputation and character,” states Out of the FOG.

“[Smear campaigners] hide behind a cloak of upstanding heroism and feigned innocence in an attempt to make as many people as possible think their efforts are based not on their vindictiveness, but on upstanding concern,” writes Light on her blog.

So, what can you do about it?

You may feel inclined to do some or all of the following:

  1. Defend yourself  by confronting the smear campaigner
  2. Defend yourself to every person who has heard the smear campaigner’s accusations
  3. Take the smear campaigner to court for slander
  4. Launch a smear campaign against your abuser in retaliation
  5. Ignore the smear campaigns
  6. Talk to your closest friends about the smear campaigns, the truth regarding them, and ignore the smear campaigner

Every situation is different. Only you can decide whether to do 1 or 2; that may depend on your relationship with other people who know your abuser. In a family situation, you may have some relatives who you still want a relationship with, and you may want to discuss the reality of the situation with them.

Option 3 requires that you talk to a family lawyer about the situation. As I am not a lawyer, I can’t offer an expert advice on this matter. Option 4 sounds like a terrible idea, which will only escalate the situation. I strongly urge you not to retaliate. Options 5 and 6 seem to be the best options.

As painful and terrible as a smear campaign is, it will weed out the false friends and lukewarm relatives from your life. Anyone who knows you and loves you will not listen to the reputation-shredding gossip. You will be presented with a very clear view of the battlefield, of who is on your side and who is on the side of the abusive parent.

Your army of friends and relatives who stand beside you may be very small. You may even find yourself alone on the battlefield, with the corpses of old relationships all around you. But you will not be shredded. You will still be standing, you will be alive in the truth. You will be stronger than you ever thought possible because you didn’t let fear or other people’s opinions of you determine who you are.

* * *

Living in the truth and light can be so hard at first for adult survivors of emotional child abuse. They’re used to live in a hazy, nebulous reality created by their abusers. Adult survivors are accustomed to trying to find value in who they are by seeking the approval of others and adapting who they are to others expectations.

But in awakening to the reality of the emotional child abuse, adult survivors can start moving towards a life in the light and truth. They can start extracting themselves from the entanglements of abusive relationships. They can begin to understand that it’s better to be seemingly alone in the truth than to be surrounded by liars.

Why did I say “seemingly”? Because you are not alone. You’re here among others who share similar experiences. And you matter.

[via Sarah Joy]

[via Sarah Joy]

 

 

Five Ideas for a Peaceful Thanksgiving

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Advertisers during the Thanksgiving season present an exaggerated image of the simple holiday. Sumptuous feasts bring together far-flung relatives. The coolness of the weather chills past arguments and lets bygone be bygones.

Moreover, people perpetuate this unreachable ideal by promoting glittery, heavily edited holiday images on their social networks.

Unfortunately, the expectation can be so high during this season that people who are estranged from their families of origin or those who are far from them due to military or business reasons can get very low-spirited this week.

“There’s this idea that it’s supposed to be perfect, and if it’s not, the person asks, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”  states Elaine Rodino, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist.

Expectations for the perfect holiday are sky-high, which triggers myriad issues related to mental health. However, statistically, the number of “traditional households” in this country is not in the majority, Rodino adds.

To help you lessen that stress and to embrace the true spirit of the holiday, this post will offer ideas for immersing oneself in a spirit of thankfulness.

After all, the holiday name itself tells you what its focus is: giving thanks.

1. Celebrate Thanksgiving with your family-from-the-heart

During Thanksgiving, you may feel that everyone in the United States is celebrating the feast with all their relatives. However, you’re not alone. Some of your friends may not have relatives nearby for the holiday or you may know other folks estranged from their kin. If you want to share the day with special friends, invite them over for Thanksgiving.

No rules exist for the feast. You don’t need to be related by blood. Invite relatives and friends whose company you enjoy. Give thanks for the good people in your life, whatever role they play in your life.

(This concept of celebrating with friends has been picking up steam lately. Do a Google search for Friendsgiving, and you’ll find oodles of ideas for celebrating.)

2. Celebrate the hidden treasures in your life

As an adult survivor of emotional child abuse, you may find yourself focusing on the darkness in your life rather than the light. And whereas there’s nothing wrong with self-reflection, one must balance it out by looking for some goodness, something of hope in one’s present.

A holiday can make finding that hope difficult. You may just focus on loss. Where are the relatives? Why couldn’t my family be normal for the holidays? Why does everyone get a real Thanksgiving except me?

But remember that you are a wonder. It’s a tremendous blessing that you were able to see the emotional child abuse for what it is and now head towards a life of healing and light. That’s a huge blessing.

YOU are a blessing.

Then also think about the beauty in your life and focus on all the neat treasures tucked into your day that you may overlook or even feel silly about being grateful for them. On Thanksgiving, celebrate those treasures, no matter how big or how small.

“Today, I am grateful for… my awesome purple-framed glasses that help me see better, for listening to new music on Spotify for free, for Cary Grant movies, for art supplies and the hope and expectation in blank sheets of paper, for Cupcake Red Velvet wine, for the crunch of autumn leaves when I go on a nature walk, for the graceful silhouettes of geese against the gray sky…”

Give thanks for the world around you and all the beauty within it, even if you have to dig for it sometimes.

3. Indulge in a hobby… with all this uninterrupted time

What hobbies or activities are you often putting off because of important commitments? If you’re spending Thanksgiving by yourself, indulge yourself in the pleasure of that hobby without interruptions. Want to paint? Practice your music? Work on your karate skills? Try a new recipe?

Do it.

Be grateful for this gift and use it to your heart’s delight.

If your hobby is watching movies and analyzing them, go for it. Just steer away from holiday-themed movies, as they can trigger nostalgia and longing on this day.

4. Reach out to other people

“Help others,” recommends Laurie Stoneham in her article 10 Things to Do If You’re Alone on the Holidays. “Volunteering at a mission or shelter for the homeless will help you feel connected.”

You can find those places to volunteer online, check your newspaper or church bulletin, or check your city’s message board.

5. Treat the day like any other day

“Not everyone is down with holiday events,” writes blogger Kat Dawkins at Psych Central. “And that is perfectly OK.

“Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty or weird about not participating in the Thanksgiving holiday. We are not all interested in that type of thing.

“If the day is a trigger for you, make sure you surround yourself with others in a positive environment. Keep yourself busy your mind off negative things as much as you can.”

Have any tips for a peaceful Thanksgiving holiday? I’d love to hear them. Just drop a note in the Comments.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Movie ‘Tangled': Mother Does Not Know Best

Editor’s Note: Upon reading this post, some readers may say, “Oh, ‘Tangled‘ is just a movie!” Indeed, “Tangled” is a movie, but not just one. Stories, whether in books or movies or television programs, teach us about ourselves, about what we value, about what we love, about what we hate. No “real-life Rapunzel” or “real-life Mother Gothel” may have existed, but for the myriad daughters with NPD mothers, the story itself is not too unlike their own stories.

* * *

Quick, name the cruelest Disney villain… Did you name Mother Gothel? As a parental figure with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), Mother Gothel rates high on the list for her twisted, abusive and relentless treatment of her “adopted” daughter, Rapunzel.

I recently re-watched “Tangled” and took note of the destructive NPD characteristics demonstrated by Mother Gothel. (Spoilers abound from this point on.)

19 NPD Traits of Mother Gothel

From the back story narration at the start of the film, the viewer learns that an ancient woman named “Gothel” has been using a magical plant’s restorative powers to maintain her beauty and youth. When the infant princess in the kingdom where Mother Gothel dwells is dying, the castle guards retrieve the legendary plant to heal the princess, and it does.

1. Mother Gothel isolates her child

Movie: When Mother Gothel finds out the plant is gone, she sneaks into the castle tower to steal the plant. Not finding it, she kidnaps Rapunzel (whose hair has the same restorative powers when a spell-song is sung) and whisks her away to a tower.

Flash-forward to the present… Now, Rapunzel is a teenager. She has spent her entire life so far in isolation. Mother Gothel comes and goes from the castle as she wishes (though uses Rapunzel’s hair like a fire-escape rope through the tower window to do so), but Rapunzel cannot. She must never leave the tower. No family. No friends. No one else in her world except her so-called mother and a chameleon pet that she has anthropomorphized.

Real-life equivalent: NPD parents make it difficult for their children to form bonds outside the family unit (and often even within members of the immediate family). They do not put the time, effort, and energy required to take their children to sports practices, school events, or play dates, all of which make forming friendships exceedingly difficult for their children.

NPD parents want to be the sun to their children, so any outside influence is banned or severely limited. If the child manages to make a friend, a NPD parent will make fun of the friend, mock the friend, twist the child’s image of the friend, all in small phrases here and there in time, so the child will find him/herself either giving up the friendship or maintaining a secret one.

2. She presents a false image of herself

Movie: Mother Gothel assumes the role of a mother (albeit an abusive one), never letting Rapunzel know that she is the lost princess. Mother Gothel pretends to care about Rapunzel’s well-being; she only keeps her hidden because bad people will want to steal her magic hair!

Mother Gothel pretends to be a loving mother, but she insults her daughter, does not listen to her, keeps her isolated, does not properly clothe or feed her, keeps her intellectually starved (the poor kid has three books on her bookshelf), lies to her, berates her, mocks her, and so forth.

Her real self is cruel, self-centered, violent, destructive, vain, and scheming. Rapunzel sees all that in flashes, but having been brought up in isolation, she has no basis for comparison to truly loving behavior.

Real-life equivalent: NPD parents are not the same in public as they are in private. They often portray themselves as loving, caring, and concerned parents to people that they know.

In some cases, they talk about their children in glowing terms, so that all who hear assume the parents talk to their children in the same loving way. (They are wrong; NPD parents will shred their children’s self-esteem in private though they praise the children in public.)

In other cases, NPD parents talk about how concerned they are about their children’s depression, moodiness, etc., setting up the parent as a martyr while casting the child as troubled or disturbed. (That will come in handy when the adult child decides to break free the NPD parents; the NPD parent can then say the child has always been troubled and disturbed. Poor parent!)

The NPD parent is a master of manipulation and wearer of many masks. Only the scapegoat child knows the naked truth.

3. She presents a false view of the world

Movie: In the song “Mother Knows Best,” Mother Gothel presents a frightening view of the world:

Real-life equivalent: The child of NPD parents is taught that the outside world is scary, cold, and hate-filled. To go into the world and try to make friends, be educated, get a job, have a romantic relationship, and so forth is to risk doom. Only by following the family’s code of behavior will the child be “safe.”

If the child or adult child does manage any achievements outside the home, the NPD parent will be sure to attribute the success to good parenting or to spoil it by making fun of it or adding so much pressure that the child grows weary and exhausted by his/her efforts and abandons it.

4. She plays the martyr

Movie: In the above song, Mother Gothel rattles off a dozen things then says, “Stop, you’ll just upset me” even though the whole song is her trying to frighten Rapunzel.

Rapunzel initiated a conversation with her mother to discuss what Rapunzel would like to do for her birthday. However, the entire conversation is derailed by Mother Gothel who turns it into a song about how scary the world is and how all Mother Gothel wants to do is protect her daughter from it.

When Rapunzel tries to steer the conversation back to the original point, Mother Gothel gets all self-pitying. “Oh, now, I’m the bad guy… sniffle.”

Yes, Mother Gothel is.

Real-life equivalent: Any action that an NPD parent does is an act of great sacrifice. Made dinner for the child? The poor parent had no energy and no desire to do so yet somehow struggled in an act of great love to make it so just to feed the child! Gone to work? The poor parent had a headache or hates his/her job or would rather be home, and yet somehow managed, out of great and tremendous love, to go to work all for the child!

NPD parents make everything they do “for the child” a huge deal.

Also, any attempt by the child to forge an existence outside the parent is seen as an act of rebellion or an act of condemnation against the parent… after all the poor parent has done! The parent has “sacrificed” so much for the child. Everyone knows so!

5. She threatens her daughter

Movie: Mother Gothel sings a threat that is bone-chilling: “Don’t forget it; you’ll regret it.”

Real-life equivalent: The child of an NPD parent is conditioned to do what the parent wants or ELSE. The “or else” can be the withdrawal of affection, the silent treatment, grounding, physical abuse, or very often, more emotional abuse (so much that an act of perceived rebellion will not be worth even attempting).

6. She views Rapunzel only as an instrument for her personal use, not as a person

Movie: She calls Rapunzel “my flower” because that’s all she sees in Rapunzel: the magic, healing flower, not the person she is.

When she kisses Rapunzel, she kisses her hair.

When she touches Rapunzel, she touches her hair.

The only thing that Mother Gothel sees when she looks at Rapunzel is her hair.

An NPD parent does not see her daughter for who she really is; that’s apparent from the “Mother Knows Best Song.” She considers Rapunzel chubby, vague, naive, clumsy, fragile as a flower, etc. As demonstrated by the rest of the film, none of those labels are true. Rapunzel is pretty, resourceful, smart, strong, and graceful.

But Mother Gothel has never cared enough to listen to her child. When Rapunzel talks, Mother Gothel does this:

Real-life equivalent: An NPD parent does not know his or her child, whether the child is still young or an adult child. The NPD parent may be able to rattle off facts about the child (such as the kid likes a show, the adult child is a dentist, etc.), but the parent will not know the child. The child may have a keen intelligence, a wonderful sense of humor, a fondness for growing flowers, a generous heart, etc… but the NPD parent will not acknowledge or even register mentally who the child is.

NPD parents cannot see beyond themselves to see their children nor can NPD parents see beyond who they want their children to be.

7. She puts down her daughter’s looks, personality, and abilities

Movie: Mother Gothel sings about how Rapunzel is ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties of life: “fragile as a flower,” “still a little sapling, just a sprout,””sloppy,” “underdressed,” “immature,” “clumsy,” “they’ll eat you up alive,” “gullible, naive, positively grubby, ditzy and a bit vague,” and “you’re getting kind of chubby.”

Other insults are scattered throughout the film.

Real-life equivalent: Same. Without the singing.

8. She pretends that love is making her sound critical when the opposite is true

Movie: Mother Gothel says the reason she rattles off all those perceived traits is “I’m just saying ’cause I wuv you.”

Real-life equivalent: For the most part, the slights and insults from an NPD parent to a child are subtle… and they work together, one cut at a time, to bleed the child’s heart dry. However, sometimes (and later in life, the NPD parents grow more obvious and rougher in their comments as they age), the insults are obvious.

The NPD parent will always say that the comment comes “from love.” The comments are not meant to hurt the child, but to let the child know the truth of the matter. An NPD parent will say such things as: “I’m only saying this so you know the truth,” “I’m telling you this because I love you,” “I just want you to know what everyone is thinking,” and “I don’t think this, but other people do.”

“Love” is the NPD parents excuse for being hateful towards their children. But love is not like that. Love is gentle, love is kind. Remember that.

9. She prevents her daughter from sharing her gift with others

Movie: Because of Rapunzel’s gift (when Rapunzel sings a certain song, her hair glows and magically restores youth and vitality to people who are old and injured and in contact with her hair), she could work wonders for the people in the kingdom.

Judging from the horses and clothing of the movie, this takes place during the medieval period, the medicine and understanding of the human body was limited, so any illness must have been devastating. Rapunzel’s gift of healing could have saved myriad people in the kingdom, but, because of Mother Gothel’s self-centeredness, Rapunzel was unable to use her gift for others.

Worst of all, Mother Gothel makes Rapunzel think that her gift is something that people will hurt her for. Mother Gothel takes something beautiful inherent to Rapunzel and turns it into something shameful.

Real-life equivalent:  The NPD parent’s focus is and will always be him/herself.

Always.

And for the child of an NPD to have any special gift or talent, a lovely personality, a gentle heart, etc. will not be tolerated by the NPD parent. The NPD parent will mock or shame the child for “trying to be special” or for “wanting to stand out.” Or an NPD parent will ground the child for showing such a gift or even take away the child’s art supplies, music, etc. as punishment. Unless the NPD parent can glean some attention from the child’s gift (“Oh, I have such a talented child!”), the parent will not support the talent.

Moreover, an NPD parent will make fun of the gift or belittle it to the child, making the talent, gift, or personality trait something despicable, ridiculous, and insignificant. (“But really, does anyone care about the flute? It doesn’t save lives, does it?” “Oh, so you can do math in your head? Well, can you make money from that?”)

10. She wants to one-up her daughter whenever possible

Mother Gothel presents herself as prettier and smarter than Rapunzel. She looks in the mirror and says, “When I look in the mirror, I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady…. Oh, look, you’re here, too.” She also cannot let Rapunzel’s declaration of love go without trying to do her one better.

Rapunzel: I love you.
MG: I love you MOST.

Real-life equivalent:  The unspoken rule in the household of an NPD parent is that the NPD parent is the bright shining light. Everyone else must revolve around the parent. No child would dare outshine that parent.

11. She conditions her daughter to serve her

Movie: When Mother Gothel asks Rapunzel to sing for her and then they’ll talk, she is setting conditions for Rapunzel and the exchange that needs to happen for Mother Gothel to pay attention to her. It is suggested that Mother Gothel would not listen to Rapunzel if she did not sing for her.

Mother Gothel wants what she wants FIRST.

Real-life equivalent: The children of NPD parents are conditioned, as infants, to bend their will to the will of their parents. What matters is not the child’s own needs, dreams, hopes, friendships, studies, job, lives… but the parents’. When an NPD parent asks for help, the child will jump to serve. When an NPD parent complains, the child is quick to ease the parent’s suffering. When an NPD parent expresses a desire, the child leaps at the opportunity to fulfill that desire. The child, even long into adulthood, often will not know better, will not know that they have their own person to care for, their own lives to life.

The child has been conditioned to serve and to serve quickly and to serve the NPD parent at whatever cost.

12. She gaslights her daughter

Movie: Every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, candle-lit lanterns are released by everyone in the kingdom as a symbol of hope that the missing princess would return. Rapunzel sees them from her tower, and she mentions wanting to see them to Mother Gothel. Her captor scoffs at her saying they are not lanterns at all.

Real-life equivalent:  An NPD parent plays mind games. (Here’s a deeper look at gaslighting.)

13. She puts her own needs above those of her daughter

Movie: Mother Gothel has fashionable clothes, fantastic make-up, and a life outside the tower, judging from her comings and goings. However, Rapunzel wears clothes that do not fit her and doesn’t even have shoes. She is also ridiculously skinny.

Rapunzel only has three books in her tower. She needs more art supplies (she’s run out of room on the walls). She sews a dress for her chameleon but the material is from dress. She doesn’t have any furniture. Her wardrobe is empty. Her sewing dummy doesn’t have materials.

Real-life equivalent: An NPD parent doesn’t think about the needs of his or her child. NPD parents may maintain the basics (food, shelter, and clothing) but even those may be done poorly. And the child is conditioned to not ask for anything.

14. She neglects the emotional needs of her daughter

Movie: In addition to everything else on this list, Mother Gothel is a soul-killer, for she fails to feed the natural talents and very basic emotional needs Rapunzel has. Mother Gothel is irritated by Rapunzel’s mentioning of her birthday (“I distinctly remember you had a birthday last year.”), ignores Rapunzel’s obvious exciting news when Mother Gothel comes back from getting hazelnuts for that soup, breaks into song about herself rather than focusing on Rapunzel, and abandons the conversation when it no longer suits her. (Considering they are the only two people in the tower, Mother Gothel does precious little to engage in conversation with her daughter, especially after being gone for a long time.)

Real-life equivalent: NPD parents do not build up their children. They neglect to provide the unwavering love that growing children need (or that even adult children need from their parents).  They do not support their children in their endeavors nor understand the difference between encouragement and nagging.

NPD parents do not listen to their children or allow them to express the myriad emotions that make up the human heart.

15. She attributes great meaning to small matters in her life and little meaning to great matters in her child’s

Movie: Mother Gothel makes a big deal about that hazelnut soup…. but she doesn’t care about Rapunzel’s upcoming birthday. Typical of an NPD parent, she has a distorted view of the importance of events.

Real-life equivalent: A child will seldom know what is a big deal and what isn’t a big deal in the eyes of the NPD parent.  A flicker in the child’s eyes can unhinge an NPD parent. However, anything important in a child’s life will be seen as no big deal. 

16. She abuses her daughter in secret

Movie: Mother Gothel spies on Rapunzel and Flynn in the camp, and in typical NPD fashion, she confronts her daughter in secret rather than in front of others.

Real-life equivalent: NPDs are notorious for showing their true sides to the abused child and hiding all the abuse behind a false pleasant self in front of strangers.

17. She belittles her daughter for wanting to have her own life

Movie: When Mother Gothel speaks to Rapunzel, she belittles her for asserting her independence and mocks her for assuming Rapunzel can decide what is best for herself.

Real-life equivalent: Same thing. An NPD parent cannot handle the idea, let alone the reality, of his or her child having a life that does not revolve around the parent.

18. She makes her daughter feel like no one could possibly love her

Real-life equivalent: The NPD parent will belittle those who love her child. In some cases, the parent may express bewilderment that anyone would love the child. In most cases, the NPD parent is adamant that no one will love their child. “How could anyone love a child who [fill in the blank]?” “Why would anyone love someone who is so [fill in the blank]?” “No one could ever love someone who [fill in the blank]!”

19. She kills what her daughter loves

Movie: She also takes what Rapunzel loves and attempts to ruin it. She mocks Rapunzel’s growing feelings for Flynn (“A wanted criminal? I’m so proud.”) and then sows seeds of disinterest in Rapunzel’s heart. This distrust will lead to the capture of Flynn and an impending execution.

Real-life equivalent: NPD parents will destroy what a child loves or use that loved item or person as a weapon to be wielded against the child. A relationship will be poisoned by the hand of the NPD parent. A task will be tainted by the NPD parent. An item that the child loves will be “accidentally lost” by the NPD parent or withheld as punishment.

This behavior, like all those mentioned on the list, extends from the child’s early years and into the child’s adulthood.

* * *

Watching the movie “Tangled” can be exhausting or triggering for the adult child of emotional child abuse (especially abuse by an NPD parent). Even though the movie is geared towards children, however, much can be learned by those adult survivors:

  • You can escape the tower. Really. You need not be locked up forever by the parent. You’ve always had the ability to escape your enslavement. Take that opportunity now.
  • You will be conflicted once you’ve left… but it’ll be all right. Rapunzel was torn between returning to the tower and her alleged “safe” life and the freedom of life outside the castle. That conflict is normal for adult survivors of emotional child abuse.
  • You are stronger and smarter than you think. Even in captivity, Rapunzel was able to forge some talents and develop her inner strength. You may have been held emotionally captive by your NPD parent, but you can move forward. You are braver, better, stronger, smarter, kinder, and more lovable than you can possibly imagine.
  • You are worthy of love. You really are. You can be loved for who you really are… (Don’t expect that love from NPD parents, though; they can only “love” themselves). But you can be loved by good friends and the new family that you forge from friendships.

Onward.

The Mind Games of Gaslighting [Types of Emotional Child Abuse Series, Part 2]

Photo: John Irving, "Ingrid Bergman"

Photo: John Irving, “Ingrid Bergman”

When you look up the definition of emotional child abuse, it includes different kinds of emotional child abuse. In our Types of Emotional Child Abuse series, the first post discussed the silent treatment. In this post, we’ll explore gaslighting.

The Dark Art of Driving Someone Who Trusts You Crazy

In the 1944 film “Gaslight,” pianist Gregory Anton launches a secret campaign to drive his wife, Paula, insane—and to have people in her life also believe she is crazy. He dismantles her sanity through subtle manipulations of their home environment and little changes in the details of their conversations.

Because Gregory portrays himself as calm and reasonable when Paula grows upset at those discrepancies in her life, she assumes he is the clear-headed one of the pair. Paula then begins doubting her perception of reality and her own sanity.

Gregory’s gaslighting of Paula is slow, steady—and very subtle. No one in their household, especially the maid with whom Gregory flirts, would suspect he is slowly driving his wife insane. No one in their social sphere would ever accuse the golden-voiced, sophisticated Gregory of being insane. And because he spins stories in public about poor nutty, fragile Paula (while he keeps her isolated at home), their social circle favors him.

At home, Gregory continually hammers away at her sanity. He makes her believe she is mentally unstable and a kleptomaniac. He makes her doubt her memories, her behavior, herself. He is the worst sort of villain. He is a soul killer.

Definitions of Gaslighting

The psychological term gaslight comes from this movie. When Paula is left alone in the evenings, she sees the gaslights in her room dim for no reason, but Gregory, when told of them, tells her she is imagining such things. Throughout the movie, Gregory continually presents himself as a loving, nurturing, attractive and talented husband; Paula starts out seeming beautiful, talented, and sane, but her husband’s mind games wear away at her, so she begins to break down, even in public.

The mind games that Gregory plays are familiar to psychologists, who use the term gaslighting to explain them.

“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity.” (Theodore L. Dorpat, “Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis“)

Emotional abusive parents use gaslighting to break down their children’s perception of reality.

“Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse. It makes victims question the very instincts that they have counted on their whole lives, making them unsure of anything. Gaslighting makes it very likely that the victims will believe whatever their abusers tell them regardless as to their own experience of the situation.” (Natasha Tracy, “Gaslighting Definition, Techniques, and Being Gaslighted“)

The cruelest part of gaslighting is how it slowly erodes at the mind of the abused child.

The abusive parent makes a child question himself:

  • Did this really happen?
  • What did my parents really do?
  • What did my parents really say?
  • Did I hear them incorrectly?
  • Did I not remember that right?
  • Did I misunderstand something?
  • Was I not paying attention?
  • Why am I always getting everything all mixed-up?

To make a child rely on the memories and the telling of events from the abusive parent instead of himself is the ultimate triumph for the abusive parent.

“Gaslighting occurs when a person you trust to tell you the truth about reality, is, in fact, bending reality with lies. When this happens consistently over a period of time it causes you to question your sanity.” (Anna Valerious, Narcissists Suck)

Moreover, because the gaslighting is a slow erosion, an abusive parent often gets away with it. If an adult survivor of emotional child abuse calls the parent on such an occurrence, the abusive parent can say such things as:

  • “I don’t remember saying that.”
  • “You remembered that wrong.”
  • “You aren’t getting your facts straight.”
  • “No, I never said that.”
  • “No, I never did that.”

Because people don’t go around habitually recording their conversations, the adult survivor cannot prove that the gaslighting happens. And because the adult survivor has been conditioned by years of abuse from their parents, he or she is apt to believe the gaslighting parent rather than his or her own recollection of the event.

Examples of Gaslighting

In my conversations with adult survivors of emotional child abuse, I’ve heard myriad accounts of gaslighting. The following are a few examples.

  • A gaslighting parent makes a dinner appointment with an adult survivor at 6 p.m. at the child’s house, but then the parent does not go over until 8 p.m. When the adult survivor mentions it, the abuser says that the child said, “8 p.m.” The adult survivor says, “No, it was 6 p.m.” The abusive parent denies it and even adds the comment that the adult survivor’s memory must be going.
  • A gaslighting parent makes a cruel comment to her child. The child later mentions the comment in the hopes that the abusive parent will apologize for the comment. The gaslighting parent denies the comment was ever said, and he gets furious when the child says that it really did happen. The gaslighting parent denies it over and over again.
  • A gaslighting parent asks a child if he wants to go to the movies during the weekend. The child says she would love that. That weekend, the child mentions going to the movies. The gaslighting parent tells the child that he had said he didn’t want to go to the movies. The child says, “No, no, I said I’d like it.” The gaslighting parent says, “No, I remember you saying you didn’t.” The child cannot prove what he said.

What comes through in the recollections of the adult survivor is how the abusive parents changed details just slightly, enough to almost be right. (For example, in the third story, the parent did keep the element of asking the child about the movie and the plans for the weekend, but changed the child’s “yes” into “no.”) Also, the abusive parents will always deny the occurrence, even if told the conversation verbatim.

The adult survivor starts to feel that he is losing his mind, his ability to trust his own memory.

Are You a Victim of Gaslighting?

If you suspect you are a victim, check out the signs of gaslighting. Among the signs that psychoanalyst Robin Stern mentions are…

  • You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” repeatedly throughout the day.
  • You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
  • You’re always apologizing to people in your life.
  • You know something is horribly wrong, but you can never express exactly what’s wrong, not even to yourself. 

If you come to the realization that you are a victim of gaslighting, first be grateful for the awakening. Though the realization is difficult, at least you now know. Then, as always, we recommend seeking a therapist or mental health professional to help you identify other signs of it and get the resources you need to start rebuilding your mental health.

In finding the right therapist, take the time to research the therapist, get to know what his or her areas of expertise are, and take time to do an initial interview to see if you two are a right fit. If not, keep searching for one; don’t give up.

Onward and upward.

From the Editor’s Mailbox | Signs of Emotional Abuse, Links, and Parental Alienation

photo credit: Bjorn Giesenbauer

photo credit: Bjorn Giesenbauer

I tackled my mailbox this morning and saw several repeated questions, so I thought I’d share the answers in a post. Here are the most recent questions from various folks.

How do I know if I’m being used? Am I being abused?

I get a lot of mail from folks sharing their personal stories and asking me if they are being abused. In almost all cases, I do see signs of emotional abuse, but I always recommend that people go to counseling, whether through their church, free counseling at their local college, help lines, pro bono counseling from charities, etc., and share all the details there with someone who can guide them to an answer and, most importantly, resources to awaken from the abuse and get on the path to a healthier emotional state.

If you cannot afford counseling or if  you do not wish to start counseling until you do some research, I’d suggest reading about emotional child abuse and seeing whether you see the signs of it in your own upbringing or signs of the affects in you as an adult.

Some people think that it’s best NOT to read about it because “you can incorrectly self-diagnose” and they equate that situation to reading about diseases and thinking you have them.

I don’t agree with that mindset at all.

In my experience, adult survivors of emotional child abuse find it extremely difficult to awaken in their realization of what has happened (and continues into their adulthood). Most adult survivors of emotional child abuse would rather not wake up to the horrible reality of the abuse… So, there’s little danger of someone reading about emotional child abuse and recklessly thinking, “Oh, this is me.”

If anything, an adult survivor of emotional child abuse will research a great deal to find out the truth of what has happened.

If you are wondering whether you were an emotionally abused child (and an adult child of emotionally abusive parents), I suggest reading this page and checking out these resources.

Also, please know that I always think about and pray for those folks who do send their stories to me… I keep you in my heart.

Parental alienation

That was not so much of a question, but I’ve received emails from readers discussing the “phenomenon of parental alienation” and wanting me to share information about it.

No.

The most I will do is to define it and explain why this site will not address it.

Parental alienation is “a social dynamic when a child expresses unjustified hatred or unreasonably strong dislike of one parent, making access by the rejected parent difficult or impossible. These feelings may be influenced by negative comments by the other parent or grandparents, generally occurring due to divorce or separation. Characteristics, such as lack of empathy and warmth, between the rejected parent and child are other indicators. The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves.”

The main two reasons I won’t be addressing it on this site are…

  1. “The term does not apply in cases of actual child abuse, when the child rejects the abusing parent to protect themselves.” The Invisible Scar is about actual child abuse…
  2. The term itself is vague and not widely accepted.

Can I link to your website? Can I link to an article?

You sure can. I mentioned in my copyright section that I don’t want entire articles lifted from The Invisible Scar without express written consent, but a link to an article here or the website is just fine. Can’t spread awareness without sharing links, am I right? If you’ve a question about it, please drop me a line at theinvisiblescar[at]gmail.com.

Where are you?

The Invisible Scar has not been updated since April (well, until I publish this post), but I’m back. As I’ve mentioned before, The Invisible Scar is run by just one person, and I was pulled in several directions for the past few months. The dust has settled, though, so I will be getting back to a regular publishing schedule. Thanks for asking!

* * *

Thanks for all your emails, both with questions, comments, and stories.

We’ll be back to posting regularly beginning this month.

Onward and upward,
the editor of The Invisible Scar

How to Handle Your Critical Inner Voice: An Interview with Psychologist Lisa Firestone

lisa-firestone2At The Invisible Scar, we’ve received myriad emails and comments regarding how to deal with one’s harsh inner voice, which hounds adult survivors of emotional child abuse.

To answer questions from readers, we turned to Dr. Lisa Firestone for her professional insight.

Lisa works as the director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association and a senior editor at PsychAlive.org. She has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), and Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003).

1. What’s the correlation between emotional child abuse and the critical inner voice?

The critical inner voice is not only correlated with emotional abuse, it is also correlated with, and is the result of all forms of child abuse, neglect, and other traumatic events we experienced in our childhood. We treat ourselves in much the same way we were treated [or mistreated] as children. The critical inner voice controls the ways in which we mistreat ourselves as well as the negative stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, and about the world.

In Compassionate Child-Rearing (1990), Robert Firestone (my father) described how “all children, to some extent, suffer trauma and rejection during their formative years. They incorporate an internal parent in the form of a destructive thought process or ‘voice’ and carry it with them throughout life, restricting, limiting, and punishing themselves.”

Another source of the critical inner voice can be found in some of the lessons we learned from our parents about their defensive ways of coping with life—their negative prescriptions for living. The critical inner voice also reflects many of the negative attitudes our parents held toward themselves, which we internalized and took on as part of our negative self-image.

2. What are the long-term effects of emotional child abuse on one’s inner voice?

One particularly damaging long-term effect of child abuse on a person’s critical inner voice is that it contributes to the formation of the negative self-image and feelings of low self-esteem that many survivors of child abuse still struggle with. All forms of child abuse, have the effect of creating a sense of being bad in children. Yet children typically blame themselves for the emotional pain they are in rather than seeing weaknesses or shortcomings in their parents. Unfortunately, as adults, many of us continue to view ourselves, often on an unconscious level, as bad or undeserving of love.

Emotional, physical, and sexual child abuse, and neglect have many other long-term debilitating effects. According to Robert Firestone (Compassionate Child Rearing), these experiences impact one’s “personal relationships, lead to a condition of general unhappiness, cause pain and anxiety in one’s sexual life and interfere with and stifle development of career and vocational pursuits.”

The severity of these effects are proportional to the cumulative number of “Aversive Childhood Experiences”[ACEs] that people encounter during their formative years, the age at which the abuses occurred and the duration of the abuse. In general, the more abuse children suffer early in life, the more they will be subject to voice attacks as adults, and the more their behavior will be under the control of the critical inner voice.

3. How can an adult survivor of emotional child abuse overcome that critical inner voice?

First, recognize that the emotional pain you feel is valid. The experiences you had in growing up made it necessary for you to develop defenses, including the critical inner voice, and these defenses and voices now limit you in pursuing your goals in life. Understanding this important point can help you develop compassion for yourself, which is a strong antidote to the critical inner voice. The more you strengthen your real self and develop feeling for yourself, the weaker the inner voice will become and the less influence it will have over your life.

Second, read Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and work through the journaling exercises in the chapters related to the areas that you are struggling with. These exercises are designed to increase your awareness of the inner voice, to understand its origins, and to challenge its control over your life. In addition, there are many articles and blogs available on www.psychalive.com that can empower you in overcoming this destructive thought process.

Third, if you believe that you could benefit from additional help, you may want to consider psychotherapy or you might want to use therapy as a tool for further personal development. You could look for a psychotherapist who is familiar with the critical inner voice and who applies the techniques of Voice Therapy, a cognitive/affective/behavioral method for accessing, identifying, and challenging the voice, in his or her practice.

Fourth, become more aware of the times you start attacking yourself in your mind. One way is to be aware of changes in your mood. Did your mood slip from optimistic to pessimistic in the last few days? Did you wake up this morning in a bad mood? Think about what you might be telling yourself, in terms of the critical inner voice, that is negative and affecting your mood.

Become more aware of when you start to attack yourself. It is also important to recognize the events, people, and experiences that trigger your self-attacks. Whenever you notice that you’re attacking yourself, simply take note of the fact, “Oh, I’m attacking myself again.” Recognize the attack for what it is, part of a destructive thinking process that is opposed to your best interests and your well-being. You may not even need to identify the specific voices at that point to return to your own point of view and a better mood

Most important, strive to maintain an accepting, compassionate, and loving attitude toward yourself in all the situations you encounter in your everyday life. Loving kindness mediation has been shown to be effective in helping people develop more self-compassion.

4. Most adult survivors of emotional child abuse have a tendency to bash themselves all the time… What are some steps they can follow to create a kinder inner voice (if that’s possible)?

Positive self-affirmations are a form of self-parenting, they are still a part of how we evaluate or judge ourselves. It’s impossible to effectively replace the critical inner voice with a “kinder inner voice” if you try to tell yourself positive things about yourself in this way.

Positive self-affirmations are very different from developing feelings of compassion for yourself. In Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, we emphasized this crucial point. Self-parenting, whether it consists of soothing ourselves with positive self-affirmations or punishing ourselves with negative self-statements, is part of a defense that we developed early in life to compensate for what was missing in our environment. “People tend to parent themselves as they were parented, both soothing and punishing themselves in a manner similar to the way their parents soothed and punished them.”

It is very important for you to develop compassionate feelings or attitudes toward yourself. Strive to adopt Dan Siegel’s attitude of COAL, that is, be Curious, Open, Accepting and Loving toward yourself. Think of it this way, you would probably never treat a close friend the way you often treat yourself when you are under the influence of the voice. Learn to befriend yourself, be as kind to yourself as you would be toward your friend.

Dispense with all judgments or evaluations of yourself and practice being kinder to yourself on an emotional level. Even in situations where your critical inner voice accuses you of something that has some basis in reality, don’t castigate yourself for a mistake you made or for something you disapprove of in yourself.

* * *

Thanks, Lisa, for taking the time to answer questions for The Invisible Scar.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Understanding the Different Types of Emotional Child Abuse

dismissive-parents-smEditor’s note: To mark the one-year anniversary of The Invisible Scar, we are running a classic (and popular) post.

When emotional abuse is shown in movies or TV programs, the abuser is often a huge, ugly, fierce-looking adult. On TV, the abuser never looks like the kind-faced person next door. The abuser is never an ordinary person, never someone known to his neighbors, never someone who shops at the local store, has friends, or keeps a regular job. The abuser is easily to spot. The abuser might as well carry a sign for all people to see.

In real life, however, abusers aren’t always that obvious. They might look huge and fierce—but they can also look gentle and meek. In real life, emotional child abusers can be far sneakier. In some cases, no one but the abused child will know the adult is an emotional child abuser.

And the weapons used for emotional child abuse don’t rely on strength and bulk; the abuser relies on words and emotional warfare.

Though emotional abuse does include outright screaming (called terrorizing), people who watch such movies or TV programs may think, “Oh, I yell at my kid sometimes. Who doesn’t?” What they fail to realize is that—unlike normal bursts of temper—emotional abuse is long-term… and the shouting is part of a long series of shouts.

Emotional abuse is systematic.

“Psychological abuse of a child is a pattern of intentional verbal or behavioral actions or lack of actions that convey to a child the message that he or she is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value to meet someone else’s needs.” (Samantha Gluck, Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel article)

How emotionally abusive parents tear at the child’s sense of self varies.

Here are some examples of the different types of emotional child abuse.

Giving the silent treatment

“No discussion of emotional abuse through words would be complete without including the absence of words as a form of abuse. This is commonly known as the “silent treatment.” Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger, frustration, or disappointment.” (Dr. Gregory Jantz, “Portrait of an Emotional Abuser: The Silent Treatment Abuser” article)

The abusive parent will withhold attention and affection until the child caves in and apologizes for whatever the abuser perceived as a slight or insult. Through a series of silent treatments, the abused child will learn to be silent, to be docile, to never speak against the parent—because if the child does, he will not be loved or spoken to or even acknowledged as a human being.

Ranking children unnecessarily

In emotional child abuse, children are placed in pecking order. A parent continually compares his child to another (a sibling, a neighbor’s child, anyone who is a peer to the emotionally abused child) … and the abuser will always find his child to be lacking. The ranking can be for anything as sitting still during dinner to doing chores; anything is cause for comparison. The abused child will never rank high. Never.

Being condescending

Abusive parents treat their children as if the kids are beneath them.

Bunny boiling

This type of abuse destroys something that the child cherishes.

“Bunny Boiling is a reference to an iconic scene in the movie “Fatal Attraction” in which the main character Alex, who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, kills the family’s pet rabbit and boils it on the stove. Bunny Boiling has become a popular reference to how people sometimes exhibit their rage by behaving destructively towards symbolic, important or treasured possessions or representations of those whom they wish to hurt, control or intimidate.” (Out of the FOG website)

Whatever the child treasures, an abusive parent will take away or destroy.

Gaslighting children

Abusive parents will play mind games with their children. It involves saying or doing something then pretending it never happened or happened differently from how it really happened.

“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity.” (Theodore L. Dorpat,”Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis“)

Parents will say or do things then deny them or change the details consistently, so the child ends up doubting his or her memory. The parents will often also set up the child as being mentally deficient or “fragile,” so that other people who know the child will think that the child is either lying or incapable of recalling things correctly. Again, the abuse is a lifelong campaign, a consistent theme in the child’s life.

Scapegoating

“Scapegoating is a serious family dysfunctional problem with one member of the family or a social group being blamed for small things, picked on and constantly put down. In scapegoating, one of the authority figures has made a decision that somebody in the family has to be the bad guy. The mother or father makes one child bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, but most often imagined) that are wrong.” (Lynn Namaka, “Scapegoating“)

Often, the emotional child abuser will encourage, through his or her actions and treatment of the scapegoat, the other children to also pick on the scapegoat, so that the scapegoat has no allies in the family.

Sabotaging

An emotional child abuser will sabotage a child’s calm and peace. For example, if a child looks forward to a television program, at the last minute, the emotional child abuser may deliberately set forth a ridiculously long chore list to be done before the child can watch the show. (Think of the evil stepmother in “Cinderella,” who set up Cinderella to fail by giving her too long a list of items to do before the ball.) Or the father will deliberately schedule a family meeting at the same time that a child had planned ahead of time to attend a friend’s birthday party. Like all forms of emotional child abuse, sabotaging ruins a child’s sense of security.

Favoritism

The opposite side of scapegoating is favoritism.

“Favoritism is the practice of systematically giving positive, preferential treatment to one child, subordinate or associate among a family or group of peers…. Favoritism becomes dysfunctional when actions and opportunities, resources and liberties are systematically denied or applied inequitably for no logical reason and without just cause.” (Out of the FOG)

An example of favoritism is when an emotional child abuser will let one child get a car ride to school with friends, but the other child must walk or ride a bicycle to school even though that child also was offered a ride by friends. Or one child has a completely different set of rules to adhere to while the other child has less or more relaxed rules.

Triangulation

An emotionally abuse parent will maintain a sense of power of his children by creating conflict between them. The children will be manipulated into conflicts with one another.

For example, a father will talk to Child A about Child B and say how he is upset with Child B because Child B said some terrible things about Child A. Child A will then be angry with Child B for both hurting her feelings and also for making the father sad. Child A and Child B will rarely discuss the incident because the parent has set up the children to distrust one another. Another example: a mother will vent her feelings about Child D to Child E, describing that child as taxing and irritating and whiny… then Child D will start viewing Child E in that light. Child D trusts the parent and will take her side. Meanwhile, the parent will talk to Child E about Child D.

Pathological (or compulsive) lying

“Compulsive Lying is a term used to describe lying frequently out of habit, without much regard for the consequences to others and without having an obvious motive to lie. A compulsive liar is someone who habitually lies.”

An emotional child abuser will often lie to his child. The lying will often go hand in hand with gaslighting, so that the parent will deny the lie. For example, a parent will tell a child, “If you get straight A’s this quarter, I will buy you an iPod Touch.” When the child gets straight A’s, the parent will deny the statement. “I never promised you an iPod Touch!” The combination of the lie and then the outright denial, if it’s habitual and consistent, will cause the child to begin to question his memory and, in some cases, sanity. The child becomes increasingly self-doubting.

Smearing

Smear campaigners carefully and strategically use lies, exaggerations, suspicions and false accusations to try destroying your credibility. They hide behind a cloak of upstanding heroism and feigned innocence in an attempt to make as many people as possible think their efforts are based not on their vindictiveness, but on upstanding concern.

Because emotional child abusers wage lifelong campaigns against a child, a smear campaign often begins in a child’s early years and throughout the child’s adolescence and even into adulthood.

For example, an emotional child abuser will emotionally abuse a child then tell his friends that his child is “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggerate.” Even if the abuse is terrible and obvious, the parent will downplay it to the child, telling the child that he is “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggerate.” Whenever possible, the emotional child abuser will refer to that child as “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggerate.” Friends, relatives, neighbors and, in some cases, siblings, will begin forming that perception of the abused child. Because the abusive parent has set up that child to be seen in that light, the abused child will often have no one to turn to for support or help… and if they do, they are not believed and told that they have always been “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggeration.” Worst of all, the emotionally abused child will be conditioned to take abuse but not speak up or expect anything better because they view themselves as “overly sensitive” and “prone to exaggeration”—though if they related the facts of the events to an outsider (who has not been conditioned for years), the outsider would see the obvious abuse.

Ignoring

Parents ignore the significant events in the child’s life. They ignore the child in general and refuse to discuss any interests or activities that the child may have. They seem bothered by the existence of the child. The abusive parent will cut short conversations, interrupt the child, mock the child for his/her interests, and treat the child as if she is a nuisance.

Corrupting

Parents teach the abused child to be a racist and bigot. They encourage violence and anger, and they advocate bullying. The parents reward the child for substance abuse or bigotry; promote illegal activities; and/or reward the child for such behaviors as lying, stealing, etc.

Terrorizing

This behavior is what people first think about when they think of emotional child abuse. Parents threaten the child verbally; they yell, scream, or curse. The parents swing from rage to warmth to rage, ridicule the child, and/or force the child to watch inhumane acts. The abusive parent keeps the child on edge, jumpy, nervous about meltdown. Emotionally abused children often end up extremely attuned to the parents’ tone of voice, slightest movements, nonverbal cues, in order to try to avoid a blow-up.

Isolating

Parents leave the child unattended for very long periods of time. They keep the child away from family, friends, and peers, etc. They punish the child for engaging in normal activities choresand make the child become a misfit. They force the child to do excessive chores or excessive studying to keep them isolated. The child will not have the same opportunities as his or her peers to engage in social interactions but be forced to constantly sacrifice his childhood for the sake of the parents’ demands.

Inappropriate control

Parents exercise overcontrol—which robs children of the opportunities for self-assertion and self-development. Or parents show a lack of control—which puts children in dangerous situations or at risk to be in them. Or parents show inconsistent control—which leaves the children feeling anxious and confused.

* * *

Though difficult to detect and substantiate from the outside, the child is abused… and the emotional abuse leaves deep-rooted, invisible scars in the child’s psyche that can “impede their intellectual, social, and emotional development.”

If you are an emotionally abused child or are an adult survivor of emotional child abuse, please know hope for healing exists and seek out a mental healthcare professional for guidance.

The Silent Treatment [Types of Emotional Child Abuse Series, Part 1]

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When you look up the definition of emotional child abuse, several examples are listed: giving the silent treatment, ranking children unnecessarily, being condescending, bunny boiling, gaslighting children, scapegoating, sabotaging, favoritism, triangulation, pathological (or compulsive) lying, smearing, corrupting, ignoring, corrupting, terrorizing, isolation, and inappropriate control. 

To better understand the different facets of emotional child abuse, we’ll be exploring one trait per post.

In this post, we’ll look more closely at the emotionally abusive form of child abuse called “the silent treatment” (also “withholding”). It is also used in adult relationships, but for the purpose and focus of The Invisible Scar, we’ll study the silent treatment as it relates to children.

No discussion of emotional abuse through words would be complete without including the absence of words as a form of abuse. This is commonly known as the ‘silent treatment.’ Abusers punish their victims by refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their presence. Through silence, the abusers loudly communicate their displeasure, anger, frustration, or disappointment.” (Dr. Gregory Jantz, “Portrait of an Emotional Abuser: The Silent Treatment Abuser article)

Examples of the Silent Treatment (or Withholding)

  • A parent stops talking to a child because the child did not anticipate the parent’s needs. Perhaps the parent expected the child to do a chore or a task without being told to do so and, when the child fails to meet that expectation, the parent will not talk to the child for a long time.
  • A parent who did not like what a child said will withhold as punishment. For example, a child may have not liked dinner and called it “gross” or “disgusting.” The parent will then no longer talk to the child for a long time.
  • A parent will ignore a child who did not show the proper amount of support, attention, or enthusiasm for what the parent deemed importance. For example, the parent may have mentioned something that happened at work, and the child did not react with the attention or enthusiasm that the parent demand. The child will then be ignored.

Note that all the above examples cite regular behaviors in the children…. A child does forget to do chores, a child will call something gross and refuse meals at times, a child will not care very much about what happens in the workday of the parent. The child is behaving very much like a child; unfortunately, the parent is not behaving to his/her appropriate maturity level.

The parent, in all those examples, is demanding for the child to meet the emotional needs of the parent. However, a good parent offers unconditional love and support; an emotionally abusive parent demands unconditional love and support from his/her child.

The silent treatment then is the parent’s punishment of the child for not giving that unconditional support and love.

How the Silent Treatment Hurts Children

The result is intense pain for the child.

In their minds, you have disappeared and all attempts to get you to reappear are not working.  They have no idea why this has happened.  It is terrifying because a child cannot survive without a parent or caregiver.  The silent treatment sends a message to your child that they are not safe in the world, that their provider may or may not be available to them at any given time, for no apparent reason. (Is It OK for Parents to Give Children the Silent Treatment? by Elyn Tromey, Boulder Counseling)

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Is There a Difference Between a Time-Out and the Silent Treatment?

Sometimes, children are sent to their rooms (in a “time-out”) to think about what has happened (if the child behaved in a way that hurts, either emotionally or physically, another member of the family). That is not a form of child abuse if it’s a cooling-off phase.

“Do not confuse the silent treatment with something known as the ‘cooling off period.’ The cooling off period is where one person is so angry or disgusted by the other person that they just cannot deal with the situation in that state, and need time to calm down before they begin speaking to this person. That’s normal and should be allowed in a relationship. But purposely ignoring and refusing to hear or talk to a person is wrong, intentional, manipulative, and demonstrates extreme calculation and cruelty on how to hurt another person or even drive them crazy.” (Dove Christian Counseling website)

The difference between a time-out and a silent treatment is explained well on a chart on this Out of the Fog page.

Do Something You Love in the New Year

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Survivors of emotional child abuse who awaken to the reality of their past often talk about “finding out who I really am” and “becoming who I was meant to become.” It’s in that spirit, that I urge survivors of emotional child abuse to come up with a resolution this year to do something (healthy and legal, of course) that will make you happy—even if there’s no practical application to it.

Loved to draw as a child but were told you were awful? Ignore the voices of the past. Be the voice of the present... and draw!

Longed to go back to college and get your degree in anthropology or Russian literature? Find a way to do it.

Want to help train dogs for the blind? Make it so.

Have always wanted to collect seashells and create art with them? Do it.

Amid all the resolutions people make of what not to do or what they need to do, we should take some time to do something fun and sweet, something that makes our hearts happy.

Give yourself permission, in this new year (and beyond), to find something from your children that still delights you—or take an idea from your “someday” list—and do it this year. 

Feel free to share some ideas of what you will be doing this year in the combox. Your idea may inspire another person!

Ask the Therapist: Steven Stosny on Fading Negative Voices, Recognizing the Emotional Abuse, and Getting on the Path to Recovery

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At The Invisible Scar, we’ve recently received questions that made us seek out the advice of a mental healthcare professional to answer them. Because this site is run by a layperson, I turned to Steven Stosny, Ph. D, for a brief but informative interview.

Stosny is the founder of CompassionPower in suburban Washington, DC. His most recent books are Living and Loving after Betrayal. How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It: Finding Love Beyond Words, and Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One.

TIS: How can the adult child of an emotionally abusive parent ever get rid of all the negative voices inside their head? All they hear is their parents’ abuse…

They may never ‘get rid’ of them, but they can learn to focus on creating value and meaning in their lives, which will give the old voices ‘white noise’ status, like an air conditioner in the background.

Focus is a skill that must be practiced. Whatever we focus on, amplifies and magnifies neural connections in the brain. Repeated focus forms habits. In time, more beneficial habits can develop by choosing to focus on what is most important to and about you as a person, partner, and parent.

TIS: How can spouses of adult children of emotional abusive parents help their spouse see that they are being abused?

Be compassionate and supportive, but never use the childhood experience as an excuse for accepting bad behavior, which will only further deteriorate the self-value of the adult child. Ultimately, we heal by giving compassion, not by getting it. Be open about your own vulnerabilities, and that will invite compassion from your partner, which is really the only way he/she can heal.

TIS: Can adult children ever have a healthy relationship with their parents? [Editor’s note: The question was not about whether a healthy relationship can exist with NPD parents but those without a personality disorder.] In other words, can the relationship between an emotionally abusive parent and an adult child ever be fixed?

In many cases, but the timeline varies greatly and is highly individual. Focus on healing before repairing. Without healing, adequate repair is impossible. Once you heal, you can decide whether you truly want to repair and what kind of emotional connection you wish to have. Then the decision will be positive, based on your values, rather than an attempt to avoid guilt or shame. 

TIS: How can adult children of emotionally abusive parents begin the path to recovery?

Focus less on how you feel about the past and more on how you want to feel in the present and future. When we focus on how we feel, we bring into implicit memory past instances that evoked similar feelings, creating an illusion that it’s always been that way and, by implication, always will be that way. If the feelings are painful, the brain must interpret, explain, and justify them. This whole process serves to habituate them, i.e., make them habits that will recur under stress. When we focus on how we want to feel, the brain comes up with ways to get there. Doing so systematically creates beneficial habits.

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A hearty thanks to Dr. Stosny for taking the time to answer questions from the inbox and combox.

If you are a mental healthcare professional, please consider an interview with The Invisible Scar. We often receive questions that merit professional advice, and we’d love to talk to you about them.