Unsettling questions about emotional abuse

Having my parents visit always stirs up lots of crud.  Like scraping a stick along the bottom of a lake.  Some of the crud I recognize and have processed, but there’s always plenty of new crud for me to think about.

This visit I’ve been thinking about emotional abuse.  Not long ago, I came across the blog The Invisible Scar, which is all about emotional abuse.  Reading through the descriptions of the various kinds of abuse I realized there were several things that resonated with me.  I’ve also been reading Running on Empty: Overcoming Childhood Emotional Neglect.  I feel pretty confident in saying that there was emotional neglect in my childhood, but the question of emotional abuse is tricky for me.

[At this point I just want to say for the record that when I use the word “abuse” in regard to my childhood, I realize that it is nothing compared to the real atrocities committed against thousands and thousands of children.  So while I may struggle with understanding my childhood and how it has affected me, I’m not equating myself in any way with people whose childhoods were completely stripped of any joy and innocence.]

Back to my wandering thoughts.

I know that my parents did their best.  And I know that they never set out to destroy my self-esteem or encourage such harsh criticisms of myself.  And yet, these things happened.  And they happened as a result of how I was parented, and how I was discouraged from having feelings.  But they didn’t know any better…so does that mean they have less or no accountability for what happened?  I’m not sure how to answer that or even if it’s a fair question to ask.

In a way I know it doesn’t matter whether you call it emotional neglect or emotional abuse or emotional crapola.  I take full responsibility for my life as it exists now, regardless of how I came to have the struggles that I do.  So the name doesn’t really matter…except that it does somehow.  I think if I were to say that it wasn’t abuse, because they didn’t know any better, then I might be more accepting of their same behavior now.  I might have more sympathy for them – for my mom in particular.  But if I were to decide that it was abuse, then there’s a whole other train of thought that’s set off.  One that I think involves more standing up for myself, and less acceptance of their current behavior toward me.

I feel like I’m not thinking this through clearly or expressing it clearly – both of which frustrate me.  So I apologize that this post is so ill-formed.

The next thoughts that stir are very hard to put out there in the world.  Very, very hard.  I know that people tend to parent the way that they’ve been parented.  Certainly in my parents’ case, their lack of tolerance for emotions was something that they learned well from their parents.  My mom never felt loved as a child, just as her mother didn’t.  My mom’s sister died in her early twenties and my mom was told not to talk about it much because it would only upset her further.  Talk about emotionally unhealthy.  As for my dad, his father was an alcoholic who died when my dad was a teenager.  There’s a mountain of emotional stuff to be processed there, of course, but not only wasn’t it processed, my dad was discouraged from even talking about his dad.  Again, very emotionally unhealthy.  So they have reasons for how they came to parent the way they did.

That brings me to the difficult part.  Is it possible that I’m emotionally abusing my kids?  When I read through the different forms of emotional abuse, there are some things that I’m scared that I’ve done with my kids.  Like making my oldest confused about something as a toddler so that I didn’t have to admit to being wrong.  It makes my stomach churn to even write that.  And what if there are things that I don’t yet understand enough to recognize them as unhealthy?  Maybe I’m passing those things on to my kids just as my parents passed them on to me, and their parents passed them on to them.  Sure, I like to think that I’m more enlightened than my parents because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, and countless hours discussing them in therapy.  But I live in almost constant fear of the things I haven’t realized yet – the things that I won’t know until too late that they had adverse effects on my kids.  The kind of stuff that I imagine breaking into a sweat over at some ripe old age when I realize just what the consequences were.  I might try to make myself feel better by saying that I didn’t know any better…but does that take away whatever emotional abuse I may have passed on?  Of course not.

All of this was floating around in my head last night and I hoped that maybe it was just one of those things that seems worse at night for some reason.  But it was there again when I got up this morning, and I don’t know what to do with it.  So I share it with you.  At least that’s something.


25 thoughts on “Unsettling questions about emotional abuse

  1. Eek, I really relate to your fears about having passed the crud on to your kids. I know I’ve done so with mine. Not in the openly hurtful form that I got from my parents–mine was more subtle, such that even I was unaware of it. We both know it, have talked about it extensively, and it doesn’t make it any better for either of us. He does verbalize that he sure is not going to do the same with HIS children, when he has them–and I say good luck to you, for we are not aware of these things when we do them. Otherwise we would not do them! I started into therapy when I was 5 months pregnant with him, in a panic that I might otherwise pass on the generational abuse that has plagued our family for countless generations, passed down from parent to child with a diligence that would be admirable if it was a positive trait, but no–it has to be this subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) whisper of, “you are not worth my time and energy. Go away.” I very much hope my son is in fact able to break the cycle. I know I did better than my mother did with me, which was horrible. I also know I was a neglectful parent, often unavailable because I treated my bipolar pain with “workaholism.” He does have some good role models in his aunt and uncle, who managed to balance work and parenting, and have raised some amazing kids. Ah, time to stop ranting now. You have raised a lot of issues close to my heart in this post. Good job!


    • It’s comforting to know that you can relate, although of course I wish none of us had to think about these things. I appreciate your sharing that you and your son have talked about it – and I especially appreciate your honesty in saying that it doesn’t make it all better. I wish that it did, and I have to believe that it helps in some way, even though it can’t erase the past.

      I guess maybe on some level I have to accept that yes, I’ve likely passed on some of this abuse to my kids, and continue to do so even now. Deep sigh. I understand rationally that you can’t change a dynamic like this in one generation. I believe that each generation, with knowledge and motivation, can change it less or more – but no one generation can remove it entirely. Does that realization help? In one sense, yes – I can’t put this pressure on myself that I have to eradicate all of it in one fell swoop. In another sense, though, it’s tough to look in the mirror and realize I’m still going to be part of this pattern. I feel like I have lots of knowledge and lots of motivation…and it’s hard to accept that I will still be part of the cycle. I want to start a new cycle, damn it!

      I love your point that the diligence with which these insidious behaviors are passed down would be admirable if it were something positive… so true!


      • It’s a complicated thing, for sure. To be honest, my son had a complete meltdown starting when he was 13, and from 16 to 19 he was in a therapeutic boarding school. We had 5 days of family therapy every month. It bankrupted me, but it saved his life. We are much closer for it, but we have a deep distrust that I doubt will ever go away because it started really when he was two, on both sides. Can you imagine? Neither can I. I can only hope that lessons learned will help his generation of parents to benefit from everyone’s mistakes, and that I will have grandchildren to dote upon and be a good grandparent, and hopefully fix some of the brokenness in the coming generation.


        • Thank goodness that your son had you there to help him through his teenage years. The fact that you saved his life through what was obviously a difficult time is a tribute to the dedication you have as a mother – even though the early years were less than ideal for you. I have to believe that the lessons learned will help his generation, and the generations to come. Thank you for sharing. 🙂


  2. Glad you shared. Expressing your doubts, thoughts, etc is a form of letting out your emotions. As far as passing negative stuff on to your kids, you probably did, but you also gave them lots and lots of good stuff too, and I think, we people from troubled childhoods are much more sensitive about our actions. My book is called Breaking the Cycle (not published), and it addresses this very issue: how do you parent well when you weren’t parented well, and documents the cycle of dysfunction that exists in my family, as you so well describe. It’s interesting that you made the same connection that I did. Try not to be so hard on yourself. I’m positive you’re a great mom!



    • Just realized that I didn’t reply to your reply originally…here it is again.

      Thank you for the kind words. This whole issue of parenting well when you weren’t parented well – that’s a really tough one for me. I often get paralyzed by it. I’m trying to figure out my own stuff, sorting through the pieces from my childhood, and building self-esteem and confidence where there wasn’t any before. At the same time, I’m supposed to figure out what emotionally healthy kids should receive, and give that to them and to myself at the same time?!? WHAT???

      Sometimes it spins me into a tornado of over-analysis, and I can’t figure out which foot to move forward first. Other times I’m exhausted by the magnitude of it, and resort to my defaults, which I know aren’t healthy. And during all of this, I have three astute kids soaking up every little bit – there’s so much pressure.

      Your book sounds like a fascinating read. Do you have a tentative publication date? What a tremendous accomplishment to have written an account of your experience!


  3. Thank you for the kind words. This whole issue of parenting well when you weren’t parented well – that’s a really tough one for me. I often get paralyzed by it. I’m trying to figure out my own stuff, sorting through the pieces from my childhood, and building self-esteem and confidence where there wasn’t any before. At the same time, I’m supposed to figure out what emotionally healthy kids should receive, and give that to them and to myself at the same time?!? WHAT???

    Sometimes it spins me into a tornado of over-analysis, and I can’t figure out which foot to move forward first. Other times I’m exhausted by the magnitude of it, and resort to my defaults, which I know aren’t healthy. And during all of this, I have three astute kids soaking up every little bit – there’s so much pressure.

    Your book sounds like a fascinating read. Do you have a tentative publication date? What a tremendous accomplishment to have written an account of your experience!


  4. It’s hard to write about the difficulties we have with our fear over our parenting style. I refused to be like my mom, and at times it took all I had. It’s not important to analyze that part of my life. I have worried about my kids and how I may have scarred them. My kids are 19, soon to be 23, and 25. All of them have told me how happy they have the parents they do. Follow your heart.


    • What tremendous validation to hear from your kids how happy they are to have had you as parents!! I can only hope for the same.

      “Follow your heart” – There’s a lot of truth in that. I think the analysis of all of this is important, to make sure you’re not repeating mistakes, but sometimes over-analysis creates more problems for me. I like the idea of listening to my heart even though it will take some practice. In the end that boils down to having confidence in myself and in my instincts as a mother.


          • Haha! I shouldn’t use the stinkin’ iPad to respond. It sticks in words that I didn’t mean to say. The word Islam should simply be, *is. We are not Islamic, and I wonder how the heck that word got in there. Not that it matters, and I’m happy the word wasn’t something offensive. 😀


  5. Sorry for the baggage you are having to deal with as a parent and adult. Parenting, it might be the most difficult experience one can have. To be responsible for the outcome of another life is scary! If there is one thing that is obvious from the way you speak about your children and parenting, it is that you love your children. You also sound very aware and conscious of your actions. No doubt you are a great parent. You won’t get it perfect, but something tells me you are doing a great job. Trust yourself a little. 🙂


  6. Have you come across the Philip Larkin poem on this theme? It won’t cheer you up but it does show that you’re not alone in this worry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRp3MfTScds
    Maybe this is a more positive way to send you, do you know this blog? http://purplepersuasion.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/together-supporting-a-loved-one-through-my-own-mental-health-difficulties/

    It’s ironic isn’t it, that worrying about how you look after your kids is a good sign (I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t worry about such things, I could only think such a parent could exist if they didn’t give a fig about their kids, which wouldn’t bode well for the kids) and that it can potentially stop you from doing what you need to do because you’re paralized with worry, or at least, preoccupied, rather than living in the moment and getting on with parenting.

    I’m fairly certain that your kids wouldn’t swap you if you had the chance. You sound like a great mum to me, what with your Brown Food days and overcoming your fear to have lunch at school with your daughter and all the other things you mention. Good luck getting your Inner Critic to shut up on this one so that you can enjoy the summer with your kids a bit.

    One last link for you, blog of an Australian child psychologist with lots of articles I find a sensible http://www.happyfamilies.com.au/#sthash.eptKzlOp.dpbs

    And what are you doing to maintain your kids no 1 resource this week, you? (Apart from breathing of course.) Look after yourself.


    • I have to butt in here and comment that I was raised in a house where “children should be seen and not heard.” I was used as a servant, handing out the hors d’oeuvres at their cocktail parties, cooking and washing up; and ran away when I was 16. I recently tried to process this with my parents who are now in their 80’s, and when I opened the subject of my running away, they both shouted, “You deprived us of your childhood! You stole your childhood from us!” Go figure. So no, I don’t think they worried about how they were raising me, except maybe how they could get more out of me.


      • Laura – Your parents sound like something out of a terrible movie. Like the commenter above, I’ve never met a parent who really didn’t care about their kids’ welfare. I guess I’ve been living in more of a bubble than I thought. I can’t even imagine your reaction to your parents’ outrage that YOU had robbed them. Amazing.


    • Love the poem even though it is completely devoid of positivity. 🙂

      Yes, the Inner Critic needs to take a vacation. So far I think it’s working overtime and that’s not helping any of us.

      I realized yesterday that I have been doing precious little to maintain ME. I need to get better about that because when I’m depleted, I may struggle with the same thoughts but I can process them better and manage life with less angst. Thank you for pointing that out. 🙂


  7. I’ve been thinking along the same lines lately. There was emotional abuse in my childhood, along with alcoholism on the part of my father and physical abuse by my mother. And I really struggle with my feelings about that. But at the same time I didn’t have a completely horrible childhood and I know that my parents loved me and did the best they could. My dad’s father committed suicide a year or two before I was born, among many other things. And they were young. A normal age to become parents at the time, but it blows my mind to think that at the age I am now, they had raised a teenager and pre-teens.
    The only thing I could think of in my teenage years was moving far away as soon as I finished high school. I did, and I’ve kept that distance. I was always closed to the thought of having children, as I was sure I could not be a good parent. I didn’t know what one was.
    But I’m starting to reconsider. If I am conscious that I did not have the emotional support I needed growing up and that I would not want my children to feel the same, I think that is perhaps a key ingredient to being a good parent. The understanding of how much they need to be loved and the effort to be my best.
    That’s where my thoughts are now. Yes, there were problems in my childhood, but I am aware of them and have done my best to eradicate them from my life. I’ve had therapy, I try to be compassionate in how I interact with others. I am a fantastic mother to my cat! 😉 Maybe I do have something to offer.
    I understand your worries, but your caring and nurturing comes through in your blog and I’m sure you are a wonderful mom! xxx


    • Thank you. 🙂

      I think it’s important to understand what happens in one’s childhood and the abuse that you endured. For a long time I felt guilty placing any responsibility on my parents because my childhood wasn’t *awful* – but whether it’s really awful or slightly awful, it’s important to acknowledge the things that were missing and the things that could/should have been different.

      I have no doubt that you have “something” to offer – even more than that. Your cat can attest to it! 🙂 I’m glad that you’re reconsidering the thought of kids down the road sometime. I think that being aware, and working through these things in therapy, is a big part of the solution in not passing these things on to your kids. My posts aren’t always the most inspiring in this regard 🙂 but I do believe it’s true.


    • The blog post is exactly right. There’s SO much pressure to parent “perfectly” – even the implication that there is such a thing as “perfect” is damning. I was a wreck when I was a new parent because I was convinced that I wasn’t doing anything that I should be doing. I’ve grown out of some of that – but clearly not all. 🙂


    • I’m sure you meant well with this comment/link, but sorry, doesn’t hold water. How many of those billions of children are beaten, starved, sold into every imaginable kind of slavery (and some most Westerners can’t even imagine,) used as sex objects by their own families, genitally mutilated….all by their “loving”, parents? Now let’s add on the layers of less subtle kinds of abuse, the ones where children are told they’re worthless, good for nothing, whores, made into domestic servants, “daddy’s little helper,” children should be seen and not heard….and let’s shut it all up and keep it wrapped in a cheerful”perfect family” silence, especially on Sundays. I suppose I ought to sign off now. But just one more thing: the very concept of turning a blind eye to other people’s “parenting styles” causes thousands of deaths in the United States alone, as mandated reporters such as school teachers, bus drivers, social workers, and, yes, even pediatricians turn away, leaving abused and neglected children to die on the outside. Meanwhile, how many of us, our children, and our children’s children are dying on the INSIDE from the subtleties of intergenerational emotional abuse?


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