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.

The Adult Survivor: Remembering the Truth vs Longing for What Could Have Been

Some of the best content on The Invisible Scar can be found in the comments section of the various blog posts. In reading them, I’ve seen myriad themes emerging. One of the most powerful ones is an adult survivor’s longing for a loving family vs the truth of what their family is really like.

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The desire to be part of a loving family; to have parents who are loving, supporting, and caring; to have siblings who love you and care for your well-being; to have family members who listen to you, who share themselves, who make your life happier by being in it (and who are happy in your being in their lives)…. All those are very human desires. Everyone wants those. Who doesn’t want to be loved well and loved for who they are?

However, as readers of the Invisible Scar can attest, not everyone gets that family. Yet abused children will do anything to convince themselves that, yes, they do have that family. Myriad children, for the sake of being able to survive to adulthood, have to convince themselves that their family is loving…. even if the children are being routinely cut into shreds emotionally. Abusive parents, knowing this on some level, often tell their abused children that they deserve such verbal takedowns, that the parents are only being honest or caring, that the parents need to correct their children, etc. The abusive parents often cling to an idea that they are fantastic parents and, as emotionally abused children often experience a type of brainwashing, children repeat what they hear. “We are a loving family,” a child will repeat, even if bearing emotional scars from distant, selfish parents. “My parents are the best,” a girl will say even if her mother is always making her feel fat, ugly, stupid, worthless. “My parents are great parents,” a boy will repeat even if he has been treated harshly and been abused routinely. The child’s mind needs to believe that the loving family is true… because the truth of the matter is very difficult for a child to accept.

But it’s also difficult for an adult survivor to accept the fact. However, an adult has the ability to break away from the abuse. And one way to make sure they stop engaging in relationships that are abusive is to remember the truth of the relationship. Remember the facts of what really have happened.

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Unfortunately, many adult survivors of emotional child abuse—-longing for family, longing for parents, hating how judgemental society is regarding estranged family members—hurry back to the fold almost as quickly as they told their abusers to stop it. The adult survivor’s deeply rooted desire for what could be makes them return to the fold in the very foolish, heart-breaking hope that everything will be different now…

As the brilliant authors of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Control of Your Life state…

“To continue  to open yourself up emotionally to an abusive or addicted person without seeing true change is foolish.

“You should not continue to set yourself up for hurt and disappointment. If you have been in an abusive relationship, you should wait until it is safe and until real patterns of change have been demonstrated before you go back.

How to Stay Focused on Your Healing… and Not Return to the Abusive Cycle

In that horribly rough, shaky, nerve-rattling stage of stepping out in the truth, many adult survivors will have strong physical reactions to what they are remembering or seeing in a new light. They will, in many cases, demonstrate the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have been locked in a false reality for so long…. they are bound to feel the physical pain, via headaches, stomach pains, panic attacks, etc. in looking at the truth of what is. (And all that is one of the many, many reasons we highly recommend therapy for all adult survivors of emotional child abuse.)

Unable to endure the headaches and that terrible feeling of guilt, of being orphaned, many adult survivors hurry back. A professional therapist, however, may tell them to hold on. Wait. Give it time. You don’t hurry back to the abusers to stop having headaches or feeling bad. In one case, we heard a therapist offer the following advice: “You’ve been living under a dictator for so long… You are bound to be lost right now. To feel that you’ve somehow betrayed your parents and family. But you are free now. And freedom takes some getting used to.”

To help you keep in mind the truth of what has happened in your childhood (and, in many cases, continued until adulthood), here are some ideas…

  • Go to a professional therapist. Even if you cannot afford regular visits, go when you can to the same one, who will know your history and will be able to guide you through everything. They will not be sentimental about what could have been and can remind you of what exactly you’d be hurrying back to.
  • Keep a journal. Write down all the memories of the most abusive moments you’ve endured. You’re not doing this to continue living in the past nor to keep yourself full of hate… but you are doing this to have a notebook to turn to in your weak moments. So, when you think, “I really  miss my dad…” you can pick up your notebook, read through it, and remind yourself that, you know what, that loving dad really never existed… and the one you have is not getting a chance with you until he’s proven, for a long period of time, that he has truly changed. (The importance of a journal will be tackled in another post at the Invisible Scar.)
  • Read about emotional child abuse. Learn the definition, read the stories, understand that emotional abuse is real. It is very real. We have some suggested books and the list is growing…  
  • Mourn your loss… Getting rid of the magical thinking—“I wish my parents had been loving!” or “Maybe my parents will love me this time!”—is a tremendous step towards becoming healthy once more. So, let yourself mourn what you didn’t have and mourn what you did have. You have the right to be sad. It’s all right. Let yourself be sad…. (Just make sure that the mourning doesn’t last for too long or become suicidal or hopelessness… Again, we recommend professional help to do this.)
  • Look to the present. Remind yourself of the gift that you’ve given yourself in facing the truth of your emotionally abusive childhood. You can no longer be held emotional hostage. You are free to be who God intended you to be, free to be your most authentic self. Instead of wanting to turn back to the past, focus on what you have today… and try and create a new life for yourself with friends who are emotionally healthy, loving, and kind… and be that to others, too.

Readers, do you have any tips to share?

Prepare Yourself for Backlash When Going No Contact [Advice for Adult Children]

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When the adult survivor of emotional child abuse decides to take a break (whether temporary or permanent) from the birth family, that decision may come to a shock to people in their social circles. From the outside of the family circle—and even within it, at times—everything has looked perfect, tidy, and loving. To all who gaze at the birth family, the portrait of a good and loving family is all they see.

In that light, the decision to take a break may seem out of nowhere. However, that life-changing, painful decision has not come lightly. Many adult children have agonized over the decision, discussed it with mental health professionals, and also gone back to analyze all the years of small events and large ones leading to this drastic measure.

And when the adult survivor of emotional child abuse separates themselves from the birth family, they often upset the family’s self-image, reputation, or order of business, which leads to a backlash from relatives, friends, and, at times, even spouses. (At The Invisible Scar, we’ve heard of all varieties of backlash that adult survivors have endured.)

Common Reactions From Mutual Friends and Family When an Adult Survivor Goes No Contact With Birth Family

Disbelief. The adult survivor finds mutual friends or family members not believing the adult survivor’s account of their upbringing. Typical comments include:

  • “No, you were always a smiling, obedient child! You never said anything about being abused.”
    (Emotionally abused children are very often difficult to detect for they are appear to be well-behaved, cheery children. Those children are often desperate for approval and love, which means they will be on their best behavior all the time in the hopes of winning their parents’ love.)
  • “Your parents always gave you everything. You never went hungry, had a roof over your head…”
    (Emotionally abusive parents may provide physical necessities to their children, but they starve their children of kindness, gentleness, understanding, the sense of belonging, the sense of approval, and the knowledge of being loved no matter what.)
  • “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
    (Emotionally abused children often do not make the realization of their abuse until they are adults. Psychologists say this is because the child must adopt a sense of denial in order to survive their childhood… For example, how could a child cope with the realization that they lack love, support, and warmth from the very people who are supposed to give them that? A child may have feelings of soul-crushing depression and loneliness, but he will bury those feelings in order to survive the day to day of their childhood.)
  • “I never heard your parents say anything bad about you. Ever.”
    (Abusive parents often are not abusive in the sight of others. In public, the abusive parent may seem the pillar of society, but in secret, the abusive parent unleashes the abuse on the child. In some families, even the other children may not witness the abusive. This is a form of self-protection from the abusive parent. Who will ever believe the child if no one but the child has witnessed the abuse? Plus, the abusive parent can also, through time, build up their reputations as great parents in the opinions of other people in their social circles. The abusive parent may always speak well about the child to others or cultivate the opinion that their child is a little bit mental, depressed, needy, or sensitive… All that cultivating comes in handy when the child grows up and shares the story of abuse; no one believes the adult child, for they’ve been listening to the propaganda from the parents for years.)

Guilt. The adult survivor may find friends and relatives badgering the adult survivor in continuing the relationship with the abusive parents. At The Invisible Scar, we do not wizard-of-oz-flying-equipment--425kk030210_largequite understand why that is but we’ve theories that, in some cases, the mutual friend or relative may have their own parental issues they are working through (or are denying) or the mutual friend or relative stands to lose something by the severed relationship (they may have social connections, a place of importance in their community, etc., that they deem threatened by the family riff).

Comments may include…

  • “Your parents worked so hard for you.”
    Children do not owe their parents anything. Repeat: Children do not owe their parents anything. Parents, by the fact that they are parents, should provide for the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of their children. Just because a parent did the bare minimum (and in some cases, not even that), the adult child does not need to continue to take any abuse from their parent. A good parent delights in being a parent and the enormous privilege of raising a child; a bad parent seeks in being consoled, comforted, nurtured, and supported unconditionally from their child.
  • “You’re just abandoning them over a silly old fight!”
    No. The decision to go No Contact may seem sudden, but emotional child abuse is a lifelong campaign by the abusive parent against the child. What a mutual relative or friend sees is not the complete picture. Never.
  • “Your parents are old. They’re not going to be around for much longer.”
    You reap what you sow. In most cases, an emotionally abused child has spent his childhood doing everything possible to win the love of the parent. We’ve heard adult survivors share stories of emotionally abused children taking on parental responsibilities. In other words, the emotionally abused child was given the role of the parent and forced to give the abusive parent unconditional love, support, understanding, etc., and the child received nothing back. Now that the adult child is grown, the adult child does not need to keep doing that. The parents have to deal with the consequences of having been abusive parents. They have to deal with the repercussions of having abused their children.
  • “Your parents did the best they could.”
    So? Just because an abusive parent didn’t mean to be abusive, that doesn’t mean the behavior wasn’t abusive. And it doesn’t mean the adult survivor needs to continue putting himself in the direct path of abusive. An adult survivor who goes No Contact is protecting himself from the abuse, whether the abusive parent was subconsciously or consciously acting.
  • “Your parents love you so much.”
    Whether an abusive parent loves his child is debatable. (Myriad heated arguments have arisen on psychology blogs, survivor blogs, and conversations regarding whether abusers can love, but we won’t take up that point here.) However, just because someone claims to love you that doesn’t mean you have to be in their lives. The claim to love an adult child does not guarantee the parent a right to see that adult child or have that adult child in his life. Newspapers are filled with articles of people who allegedly loved their victims.

Silence. The adult survivor may find mutual friends and relatives choosing a side—and they will choose the parent. That’s fine. Let them go. They deserve each other and can get entangled in their own web of lies, deceit, and secrets. But you, adult survivor, live in the light, live in the truth. Being in the truth alone is better than being in the deceit together.

How You Can Find Help

If you’re an adult survivor of emotional child abuse, you may find yourself feeling alone once you decide to stop taking the abuse. However, know you are not alone. Help is available via a mental health professional or even a phone call (check out the sidebar for counseling services).

Stay strong. Stay in the light.

What to Do About Father’s Day? (Ideas for Estranged Adult Children or Those With Late Abusive Fathers)

photo credit: Denise Avalone

photo credit: Denise Avalone

For weeks now, the Father’s Day holiday has been advertised in the United States. Images of handsome, strong, adoring fathers flash on television screens; people share photographs on social media platforms of loving fathers, godfathers, and grandfathers. But myriad adult children are estranged from their fathers or they have only painful memories of their deceased fathers.

So, how do you handle the holiday if you’re either estranged from your father or your late father’s memory is a painful one

Here are some ideas to help you through Father’s Day.

1. Remember that not everyone’s father/child relationship is like the ones you see on TV, the movies, or on social networks. Yes, some adult children have wonderful relationships with their fathers; yes, some people have loving, kind families. But perhaps you didn’t… and you should know that not everyone has. Your experience may be unique, but you are not alone in your hurt.

“Celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day presents many painful dilemmas to those of us who still have our abusers in our lives. For those of us who are no longer in contact with our abusers, there is the inevitable pang of sorrow for what we’re missing out on, and what we’ve always missed out on. No, it’s not fair. It’s sad, and it’s depressing. And there are millions of us out there, who are going through exactly the same heartache.” (Luke 17:3 Ministries)

2. Ignore the holiday.

You can choose to not celebrate the holiday. After all, in the US, the holiday wasn’t even officially proclaimed until 1966. Most of the resistance in it becoming a national holiday was due to folks believing the holiday was being created just to cash in. (That was a reasonable concern, especially in light of the promotion of Father’s Day being pushed by the Father’s Council, a group of men’s wear retailers.)

Unplug from the internet and social media platforms for the day, and just remind yourself that you don’t celebrate every holiday. Consider all the ones on this list that you don’t celebrate—really, Log Cabin Day?

3. Create your own tradition.

Maybe ignoring the holiday is too difficult. In that case, consider creating your own tradition. Maybe you can make Father’s Day be the day that you do a movie marathon; work on your Christmas cards list; do spring cleaning (not as fun as a movie marathon but needed); enjoy a fun day trip; etc. Most of all, do something that makes you feel good about the day (and doesn’t hurt your heart).

4. Celebrate your husband’s role as a father.

If you’re married, you can instead focus on your husband’s role as a father. Think about what an enormous blessing it is to have a good man as the father of your children. Shower him with extra attention and affection, not because a holiday mandates it—but because your heart wants to celebrate this man in your life and will enjoy any occasion to do so.

5. Reach out to someone who played a good fatherly role in your life and thank them for their positive influence in your life.

If you were fortunate enough to have good uncles, loving grandfathers, or other kind men in your life, you may want to let them know that you appreciate all the good things they brought (or bring) to your life. Let them know that they matter or that their positive influence mattered.

6. Quickly write what you’d really say in a letter… but don’t send it.

Maybe you’d love to send a real Father’s Day card to your father—to make up for the years of holidays in which you made yourself buy sappy cards or wrote overly fawning letters in a sort of wishlist (as if writing about a fantastic father would somehow make the reader become one). So, go ahead and do it. Get a piece of paper, fold it up, and write the sort of card that you’d want to send… but don’t send it. Let’s repeat that: Do not send it. 

The reason you should allow yourself to write such a letter is not to reach out to the estranged parent, not to change their personalities, not to somehow make your point for the hundredth time, nor wrangle an apology. The reason you should allow yourself to write such a letter is because doing so can be cathartic and you are entitled to your emotions. So, write down your thoughts. Get it out quickly. (Do you really want to spend an entire day focused on their wrongdoings? No. That’s not good for your soul.) And then move on with the day!

7. Build in extra support for the day.

If your estrangement with your father is new or your father recently died, you may still feel vulnerable during the holiday. If you’ve already been feeling deeply bluesy in anticipation of the holiday, don’t be alone on the actual day. Find some friends (without their fathers in tow) to spend time with. Go to the movies with some friends; hit the beach with pals; shoot pool.

Just don’t let yourself wallow in the sadness. At The Invisible Scar, we know that feeling sad and hurt is absolutely understood and even expected… but we always recommend professional help, especially if the sadness becomes crippling or far too lingering.

And remember, no matter how bad, a day is only 24 hours long. The holiday will be over before you know it.