Many adults wonder why they feel anxious, depressed, lonely, struggle with addictions or troubled relationships, are self- critical, have low self-esteem and just don’t have a life that they expected to have. Oftentimes these same adults will dismiss what they experienced as a child. They say things to themselves like, “that was in the past”, “it wasn’t really that bad”, “I am over that stuff now” and fail to realize that as children, we are programmed by what we experience and what is modeled. When things happen to us or we see them through our child’s eyes, we make decisions that end up as core beliefs about who we really are and what our value is. If you have grown up in an abusive or neglectful home, you have deep messages that can be addressed and changed to greatly enhance your life. The first step is to recognize what is an abusive family.
A client states, “Whenever my Dad would go on a rampage, all of us were hurt and frightened and didn’t know what to do. Mom would always come up with some reason for his behavior: he didn’t get enough sleep; we were too noisy and should keep it down, etc. At the same time she would be crying herself, saying that she was just fine.”
This plays out as the parent telling the child that what you felt, what you saw, and what you heard was wrong. So you learned to lie, pretend, and deny your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. The unspoken rule becomes, “Don’t talk, don’t feel, and don’t trust”
Lack of Empathy
Empathy is the ability to be sensitive and responsive to another person’s feelings. Mary gets hit by her older brother and comes crying to tell her mom about it. “I wanted a turn and Bobby wouldn’t let me. When I asked him again he just hit me” Mom says, “Oh honey, I bet that makes you angry. I don’t see a mark, but I am sure that hurt.” She kisses her cheek, puts her arms around her and hugs her until Mary is ready to leave again.
In an abusive home, parents likely do what was passed down to them and often become uncomfortable with feelings. They react on an unconscious level and perpetuate the abuse likely given to them when they felt powerless. “Oh quit your crying, you cry baby, or I’ll really give you something to cry about.” The child feels completely alone with no one there to soothe the pains, kiss the hurts, and never learns to self-soothe as an adult because it wasn’t modeled to them.
Inconsistency and Unpredictability
In a healthy home, parents are dependable and are there when expected. The parents are there for them physically and emotionally. Children receive consistent reactions to their behaviors. There are routines and family rituals.
In an unhealthy home, you never quite know what to expect. Would mom be home when you got home? Would she be raging and drunk or calm? You were unable to predict whether Dad would be there for you emotionally or physically. You might not be picked up from school or you might have been left home before you were old enough to care for yourself. No one was there for you consistently so you began to rely on yourself.
Lack of Clear Boundaries
Physical boundaries, with body and possessions, are intact in a healthy family. Dad is tickling Brett and it has gone too far. Brett needs a break so he tells Dad, “Stop Dad, I mean it” so Dad stops immediately. Mom hears the girls in the back room arguing about Sally using Bridgette’s crayons. Mom comes in and says, “Sally, leave her crayons alone and use your own.”
Psychological boundaries, although invisible are just as important. These include the sense of “self” as being separate from another and also owning the “space” around you. Putting someone down, calling someone names or not honoring their personal space violates these boundaries.
In an unhealthy home, boundaries are disrespected when someone comes into your room without asking when the rule is to knock first. Also when someone gives away your possessions to punish you, tickles you or hits you with no regard to the pain it causes you or gives little notice even to the offense, or by forcing you to hug Aunt Martha when you didn’t want to.
Confusion over Parental Roles
Asking a young man to be “the man of the house” when Dad is not capable due to a physical absence or addiction issues; sharing intimate details, relying on a child for emotional support or physical affection; asking or assuming that the older child will “parent” the younger ones are all examples of unhealthy behavior in a family. This process creates “little adults” that don’t get to experience their childhood in appropriate developmental phases that slowly increase responsibilities according to age and maturity.
Many adults remember the phrase, “We don’t share our dirty laundry with outsiders.” Secrets were encouraged; there were few ties with the outside community; many didn’t bring friends home because they didn’t know what to expect or were ashamed. As a child, this also transfers over to not letting anyone into your private world as well. The conclusion became, it is better not to let anyone into your world and the secrets of your family. It would be more painful than keeping people out.
Mixed Messages and Unhealthy Conflict
In healthy families, communication between members is reasonably straightforward and clear. The words match the body language and tone. In unhealthy families, there are many messages that make a child doubt what they see and hear and they learn to become careful watchers of body language as if they have to “guess the message.” You walk into a room that is tense and silent and can tell that your mom has been crying; you ask what’s wrong and hear “nothing at all, I am fine.” You father spanks you hard and says he is doing it because he loves you and it hurts him more than it hurts you.
Children who grow up in homes where they never witness conflict, but can feel the cold silence or experience extreme conflict or raging and fighting never learn how to handle conflict in their adult life while still remaining attached to a loved one. In a healthy home, children learn appropriate ways to handle conflict and learn that disagreements happen and can be worked out.
If you recognize your family in this list, then you likely have some distorted beliefs, unresolved hurts, and could use some help to untangle this. While you might feel like you have escaped your childhood, if you suffer with low self-esteem, depression, lack of trust, difficult relationships and tend to avoid feelings, you just might be carrying it with you still. Seek help from a professional who will guide you out, you are not alone!
Lori Hunter, LMFT specializes in working with families, co-parenting and those high conflict couples struggling with relationships. She helps couples build intimacy, teaching effective emotional processing techniques that directly improve thoughts and behaviors.