Facing the truth of one’s emotional child abuse takes a special kind of courage. But to be an emotionally healthy adult, the truth must be known, so that healing can begin, and the pattern doesn’t repeat.
An emotionally abused child who does not, as an adult, face the truth of their childhood is in great danger of repeating the cycle of emotional abuse with his or her own children.
“As long as [the experience of cruelty] remains hidden behind their idealized picture of a happy childhood, they will have no awareness of it and will therefore be unable to avoid passing it on. It is absolutely urgent that people become aware of the degree to which this disrespect of children is persistently transmitted from one generation to the next, perpetuating destructive behavior.” (Alice Miller, “The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for Self”)
Unfortunately, because emotional abuse is often tolerated or because the abusive parents are very secretive in their abuse (hiding their true selves when in public), emotionally abused children will assume that how they were treated at home was natural. They have no frame of reference. And so, the child will develop a skewed sense of what a healthy relationship is.
Emotionally abused children become adults with little or no self-esteem; a deep, pervasive sadness; problems bonding with others; and a tendency towards self-destruction.
Hope Is in the Truth
Emotionally abused children will not always become emotionally abusive parents, however. Studies indicate that the number of abused children perpetuating the cycle of abuse is far lower than previously thought.
“In a survey of such studies, Joan Kaufman and Edward Zigler, psychologists at Yale, concluded that 30 percent is the best estimate of the rate at which abuse of one generation is repeated in the next. ” (New York Times article, “Sad Legacy of Abuse: The Search for Remedies“)
The study shows that the denial of abuse can be the greatest indicator of future trouble. Hence, the abused child who grows up to be an adult who denies having been abused has the greatest risk of becoming an abuser. But adult survivors of childhood emotional abuse who awaken to the truth of their damaging childhood, and strive to do the opposite of what they have been taught will NOT emotionally abuse their children.
If the adult seeks therapy and healing from an abusive childhood, the adult child can break the emotional abuse cycle and not perpetuate the abuse with their own children.
Healing from an emotionally abusive childhood can be very difficult, but as Andrew Vachss says:
Adult survivors of emotional child abuse have only two life-choices: learn to self-reference or remain a victim. When your self-concept has been shredded, when you have been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or will not provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.
It’s time to stop playing that role, time to write your own script. Victims of emotional abuse carry the cure in their own hearts and souls. Salvation means learning self-respect, earning the respect of others and making that respect the absolutely irreducible minimum requirement for all intimate relationships. For the emotionally abused child, healing does come down to “forgiveness”—forgiveness of yourself.
How you forgive yourself is as individual as you are. But knowing you deserve to be loved and respected and empowering yourself with a commitment to try is more than half the battle. Much more.
And it is never too soon—or too late—to start.
Please seek professional help, read good books, turn to supportive friends, and don’t give up. Ever.
15 Tips for Adult Survivors of Emotional Child Abuse
An emotionally abused child usually continues being emotionally abused by the parents long into adulthood. The patterns have already been established since the child’s earliest years. The dynamics of the family have been set into place. Nothing is to drastically change it—unless the child grown up awakens.
Some adults experience a jolt, a sudden flash of memory, that is triggered by an event, a song, a movie scene, anything, really. Others remain asleep until the abusive parents become abusive grandparents—continuing the cycle of emotional abuse to the adult survivor’s children. Others will just reach the point where they cannot take it anymore; enough is enough.
And the abused child-turned-adult awakens, slowly realizing that not everything is as it has seemed. Everything is different now.
Taking the red pill regarding your emotionally abusive childhood leads to a very difficult path—but the important thing is that it is a path. You no longer remain stuck, wondering about the pervasive depression or sorrow.
Best of all, you can break the cycle. You can heal. You can reclaim yourself.
Here are some suggestions as you begin your path to healing.
1. Seek professional help from someone who understands emotional child abuse.
Before signing up for regular visits with a psychologist, have a preliminary meeting to gauge whether the counselor and you are a good match. So much can affect a counseling session—from the setup of the room to the type of therapy the counselor favors. Some counselors prefer a very aloof clinical approach; others are more inclined to Conrad Baars school of thought.
2. Create some distance between you and your abusive parent.
You will find it difficult to put your new thoughts in perspective if you are still immersed into your parents’ lives. So, you need to create some space. Let them know that you need time to think about things.
“Adult children who have never spiritually and emotionally separated from their parents often need time away. They have spent their whole lives embracing and keeping and have been afraid to refrain from embracing and to throw away from of their outgrown ways of relating. They need to spend some time building boundaries against the old ways and creating new ways of relating that for a while may feel alienating to their parents.” (“Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No and Take Control of Your Life”, pg. 38)
In some cases, adult children will find healing, and they will eventually find new ways of communicating with their parents that is healthy.
However, do note that in many cases, especially when dealing with narcissistic parents, your saying you need space will be seen as throwing down a gauntlet. In some extreme cases, narcissistic parents will sense that their adult child is beginning to awaken and the abuse will increase (and even get outrageous).
3. Don’t give up! Stay awake, stay vigilant.
Give yourself space in which to think.
“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.” (Boundaries book, pg. 38)
Again, in the case of narcissistic parents, they are never going to get it. You should talk to your therapist about that fact and about toxic relationships.
4. Take your time.
As you awaken, you will find yourself with all sorts of emotions rushing through you. Emotionally abused children usually do not have a great gamut of emotions, so many of these feelings will be uncomfortable, difficult to stand, inspire guilt. For example, you will feel anger towards your abusive parents—and then, you will feel guilt about thinking such terrible things about your parents. That’s natural. You’ve been set up your entire life to only think of your parents’ feelings and not your own… but that’s going to change. Take your time, explore different emotions, go to therapy regularly.
The adult child will have a hard time slowing down, at first. The child within them is used to jumping to serve the abusive parent and reacting quickly without thinking, for fear of punishment. But you no longer have to fear your abusive parent. Take your time. Take all the time you need… as long as you move away from the abuse and toward healing.
5. Educate yourself about emotional child abuse.
You’ll be going through myriad emotions, so you should read to better understand how healing is a process and will not happen overnight. You can find a starter’s recommended readings here.
In the book “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No and Take Control of Your Life” by Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, the clinical psychologists discuss the severe impact of being raised without boundaries and its affects into adulthood. Also, look at the various sites here for information about emotional child abuse and healing.
6. Be patient and loving with yourself.
This merits repeating. Many adult children who awaken grow furious at themselves for having taken the abuse for so long. Be kind to yourself, however. The emotionally abused child that you were had no understanding that the abuse was not normal. The emotionally abused child was raised in emotional captivity—how could she or he know about anything else? View the fact that you have emerged from such captivity now as a miracle. Be grateful that you are awakening.
7. Surround yourself with good, supportive friends.
Humans are social creatures. We need others. We need community. The awakening to one’s abusive childhood can make the adult child feel like they have no one in the world… but they do. Turn to good friends (some friends may share their own similar stories). If you don’t have friends who can relate to you or offer the emotional support you need, consider online forums for help. (Just make sure the fit is right. You want healing and resources for healing with healthy doses of ranting—not constant nonstop ranting.)
“Fear of being alone keeps many in hurtful patterns for years. They are afraid that if they set boundaries, they will not have any love in their life. When they open themselves up to support from others, however, they find that the abusive person is not the only source of love in the world and that they can find the strength through their support system to set the limits they need to set… The other reason we need others is because we need new input and teaching.” (Boundaries book, pg. 39)
8. Understand you may lose friends and family members—but let them go.
When an adult survivor begins to process his abusive childhood, he will start becoming a different person, a more authentic self. The mask of “the perfect upbringing” or the “happy childhood” is stripped as the adult comes to understand that what happened in childhood was neither normal or healthy. Some people in the survivor’s life will have a huge problem accepting what is happening.
If your abusive parents were a great part of your life, your social circles may overlap. Word of your “needing space” will spread through your social circles. If your parents are particularly destructive, they may spread terrible rumors about you and do everything they can to convince mutual friends and relatives that you are mentally ill, that you are a liar, that you are somehow suffering a breakdown. Narcissistic parents will tear down their child to save themselves and their positive image; they will even claim to not know what is happening or why you are not happy in the relationship.
Know that, if your abusive parents are abusive in secret, most people will take their side. If your parents are charming and “pillars of the community,” you will find yourself alone in your truth.
Don’t cave in. Go to therapy. Educate yourself. Hold fast to the truth. Better to be alone in the truth than in the company of liars and their followers.
You may also find some of your closest friends not believing you and turning from you. They remember you as a happy person, always compliant, always talking about how wonderful your childhood was… They will have problems understanding that you were raised in a dictatorship, that you always used the wording that those in charge made you use, that you knew all the dictator’s slogans about being happy—and yet, deep inside, you were dying emotionally. Some friends may reject the hurting you because they do not want to either look at their own childhood, look at their own parenting, or look for a truly caring relationship.
Let the people walking away from you go. Let them go. True friends, good friends from the heart, will come and replace them in time.
“The problem with friends and family is that they know us as we are. They are invested in maintaining us as we are. The last thing we want is to remain as we are… With some exceptions (God bless them), friends and family are the enemy of this unmanifested you, this unborn self, this future being. Prepare yourself to make new friends. They will appear, trust me.” (author Steven Pressfield, “Do the Work“)
Remaining steadfast in your pursuit of an authentic life will be difficult—but you will not regret it. Your heart will hurt. You will feel sad. But you will also feel a deep sense of empowerment and self-respect—new feelings to the abused child.
9. Keep a journal.
Write down what you are going through. Don’t stress about proper grammar, punctuation, etc. Just write whatever you feel. Get it out. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” you must write your true feelings.
- Memories that come up (Don’t edit yourself. Let it all out.)
- What pisses you off and what pissed you off (Your journal will never tell you to stop ranting. It will never tell you to just let it go.)
- What is happening in your relationship with your abusive parents.
- Good advice that you may have received.
- Epiphanies that you may have had
- Whatever you want to write about
- Quotes that inspire you.
- Your side of arguments.
Don’t forget that you can also use the journal to draw your thoughts, sketch things, and even clip out magazine articles and glue them on pages.
The journal will prove a worthy companion on your road to healing. It will show you the places you’ve been and the progress that you have made.
10. Be mindful of your relationships.
In awakening, the adult child may realize that many of his/her relationships mirror the same destructive pattern as the one they have with their parents. The adult child, not knowing any better, may have friends who treat them with the same abusive language and attitude that they have had in their youth. If you come to this realization, again, be gentle with yourself. You didn’t know. In captivity, you made friends with captors of different sizes and colors and shapes. But now, you can change this. You can choose your relationships.
11. Pray or meditate.
Praying to a higher power can help you focus on the ultimate relationship. It also helps you reach beyond yourself, beyond the human relationships, to find the love that does not fail. However, some abused children have had their religious faith or beliefs used against them by their abusers. Know that the abuse comes from people, not God. Talk to your priest, minister, rabbi, etc. to discuss your conflicted feelings. It’s all right.
12. Let yourself receive love.
If you have a good circle of friends, if you have a spouse who understands what is happening, let yourself receive that love, support, and understanding. The adult survivor can find it hard to be loved. (“How can anyone love me if my own parents didn’t?”) But know that your parents’ failure to love you is a failure in them—not you. You are lovable.
13. Accept change.
Your life will change in both enormous and very tiny ways once you awaken to the truth. Holidays, Sunday dinners, etc., will be different once you have distanced yourself from your abusive parents. At first, you will feel a crippling loneliness… but then remember the truth of how those holidays or dinners were. You may have had some beautiful moments in your relationship with your abusive parents—but be honest with yourself. How many good moments did you really have? How wonderful were those events really?
You now have the opportunity to make your own traditions for holidays and events and Sunday dinners. You no longer have to abide by rules and decrees put into place by your abusive parents.
You get to be the adult. Embrace that fact.
14. Find a creative outlet.
Take up running, knitting, drawing, sailing, sewing, woodworking—anything. Your mind and heart will be going into overdrive as you awaken. You need to find something that can be a healthy balm on your frayed nerves and fragile heart.
15. Don’t give up.
Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Rest, sure. Take a little time to just lose yourself in music or TV or books for a little while… then continue on. DON’T QUIT. Don’t stop on your path to healing. Sometimes, the sorrow will be biting and cold—but don’t quit.
Know you are worthy of love, of respect, of kindness, of happiness, of dignity.
Know you matter.
Know that your life does make a difference.
Just waking up to the fact you had an emotionally abusive childhood? This 92-page PDF can help you during this difficult time. For just $7.99, you receive What Really Happened: Finding Out You Had an Emotionally Abusive Childhood (and Tips for Healing).
Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.