In this article I would like to discuss some of the ways in which children experience psychological abuse and how this may manifest itself in adulthood. Throughout I will be presenting the experiences from the child’s point of view, not as an exercise in blaming parents, but to emphasise the sensitivity and receptivity of the child’s perception of its world.
Like other forms of abuse, emotional child abuse ranges from extreme and overt to subtle and insidious. Abandonment is one of the most severe forms of abuse. It can be caused by the death, separation, illness or depression of the primary care- giver, usually the mother. Sometimes abandonment is due to tragic circumstances outside the control of the parents, but at other times it is avoidable, for instance in the case of hospitalization. Until John Bowlby’s (1) pioneering work on this subject, it was believed that hospitalized children would eventually “settle down” if the parents kept away. In a series of documentaries, Bowlby filmed the reactions of children abandoned in this way. They showed three stages in the child’s mourning: hope, anger and despair. At first the child kept its hope alive, expecting the parents to walk through the door at any moment. When they failed to materialize, the child became angry and disruptive, and finally gave up all hope, “settling down” into a state of despairing emotional numbness. The child never recovered from the trauma of the parents’ betrayal, becoming withdrawn and inhibited after the experience. In later life, crises and times of transition may activate these abandonment traumas, and the person can be left feeling desolate by seemingly trivial rejections or setbacks. Many adults in therapy have been able to trace their fears of intimacy and chronic depression to hospitalization in early childhood.
There can also be more subtle forms of abandonment caused by a dysfunctional primary carer, usually the mother. In the first six months of the infant’s life, it depends absolutely on the mother figure, not just for physical but also for psychic survival. Her main functions now are those of containment and of organizing external and intrapsychic reality. (2) In other words, the mother carries the baby’s ego till it can perform those functions. The infant’s feelings of rage, frustration and anxiety are so strong that they are literally unbearable. The mother, by her empathy with her baby, gives it a safe place to put these feelings, processes them and gives them back to the baby in a manageable form. If the mother cannot perform this function, the infant will have nowhere to put its burning emotions and so feels that he or she will be annihilated by them. Even more terrifyingly, the baby feels that its rage will also destroy the mother, and then “chaos is come again”. In times of stress, adults who have not experienced this early containment will often re- experience psychotic anxieties in the form of fragmentation, alienation and personalization. They will often have frightening dreams of cataclysmic earthqu akes, nuclear explosions or falling through endless space.
Mothers who are depressed or who have not had their own narcissistic needs met as children would find it difficult to perform these containing and mirroring functions for their own children. The situation is sadly compounded by the fact that the process of giving birth reactivates the mother’s own unresolved childhood problems and can result in postnatal depression. At such times, another person, such as the father, may step in provided they are consistent and devoted. Winnicott often stressed that the ordinary mother performs all these functions naturally and instinctively. He also stressed just how devoted a mother needs to be in order to make all her attention available for her baby’s needs.
When the mother is under external pressures, it is no longer possible for her to be completely devoted to her children. Many adult patients come from large families, where they were one of eight or ten with a mother who was exhausted from childbirth, childcare, financial worries and often an absent or alcoholic partner. The children unconsciously felt deeply rejected because their arrival was another nail in their mother’s coffin, with the mother often wishing for a miscarriage or accident while carrying them or even trying to abort them. Such an early rejection is particularly poignant because instead of being welcomed into life and the world, the baby has felt hated and resented. This leads to life-long feelings of being rejected, never having the right to be here and therefore deserving nothing on the conscious level, masking unconscious rage and an insatiable greed for life.
Many adults bear the scar of being the wrong sex child for their parents. They feel rejected at the core level of their gender identity, picking up their parents’ disappointment and knowing that no matter what they did they would still be wrong. Abused adults will often feel ill at ease about their physical appearance and their bodies.
Children may be abused when they are used to fulfil their parents’ own narcissistic needs instead of being loved for themselves. The saddest examples of this can be seen in middle-class families where the parents invest vast amounts of money and effort in bringing up the child “correctly” and in giving it “the best education”, encouraging it to read at an early age, all ostensibly for the child’s benefit but unconsciously using the child as a narcissistic showpiece. Such children are often pressurized into being good, tidy, obedient, to do well at school, with tremendous pressure at school leaving age to get the right points to become a professional.
The child’s own personality, talents and needs are trampled upon. As adults they may appear successful and to have done well but the false system they are operating from catches up generally in a severe mid-life crisis or breakdown, when their real self demands to be heard. These adults can also suffer from a whole range of personality disorders under the general category of “false self” disorders. The false self, composed of the values, ambitions and ideals of those in authority, gradually covers up the “real self” which holds unbearable pain of suppressed feelings, but also spontaneity, wholeness and a creative perception of life.
The rejection of the real self in childhood is such a violation that it is experienced by the psyche as murder. Adults who have experienced this abuse may have dreams of babies being abandoned, lost or mutilated, or injured and lost pets and animals, of starving or frozen birds or butchered animals; or of being kidnapped and held to ransom, or of being held a prisoner. All these dreams are distinguished by their very strong feeling tone.
Some children react to the murder of the real self with a hopeless depression, becoming withdrawn and silent. Their compliance is more acceptable to the parents, being approved of as “good”, “not giving any trouble”; but the reality is just that their spirits have been broken. This kind of depression can be seen in children of even a few months old.
Children can be abused when they have responsibility prematurely thrust upon them, like looking after younger siblings, doing housework, covering up for an alcoholic parent or trying to manage a parent’s moods. Surrounding adults praise the child for being so grown-up, but there is no-one to affirm the child’s own sense of resentment and rage at missing out on childhood and sharing activities with its peers. The tension of an unhappy marriage can have devastating effects on a child who may feel that the task of holding the parents together rests on its shoulders, or that the parents’ unhappiness is due to its own badness.
It is not only overt tensions in the family which are picked up by children. They are extremely sensitive to the unspoken, unconscious messages in the family. When dealing with patients who failed to produce dreams, Jung would ask for their children’s dreams because he felt that the child was finely attuned to the unconscious of its parents. Jung wrote, “Nothing influences children more than the silent facts in the background of the home.” They can be negative although consciously the parents give the impression that the child is accepted and loved. This places the child in a particularly difficult situation, a double-bind where it cannot believe in its own perception of reality. It ends up bewildered and unable to trust its own gut feelings because its loved parents must be right. This is one of the reasons why it is so helpful for the child to have access to adult friendships where its own reality can be affirmed by other adults, enabling it to realize that its own feelings are valid and also that its parents can be wrong. This can bring great relief for the child.
One of the commonest ways in which parents unwittingly abuse their children is through their unresolved sexual repressions. Since they have not come to terms with their own sexuality, they cannot tolerate the sexuality of their growing children. They may punish a toddler for its natural curiosity about its own or others’ bodies. Parents can be particularly threatened by the emerging sexuality of the adolescent youngster. At a time when the adolescent needs all the help it can get in trying to cope with frightening sexual urges, the harshness and fear of its parents can be very destructive. They may never feel at ease in their bodies, even to impotence or frigidity. Women are often the worst victims of parental inhibition since patriarchal morality has been founded on equating sexuality with sinfulness and Woman is seen as the temptress who lures man into uninhibited eroticism. This might seem more obvious in Islamic cultures where women are seen as so dangerous that they have to be shrouded. In Irish society the way women have been forced to go against their own sound instincts is seen best in the area of motherhood.
A very large number of Irish women have felt unable to enjoy the sensuous experience of breastfeeding their babies because they felt so uneasy about their bodies, and about the reactions of their friends, relatives and even their husbands. Some women admit to feeling revulsion at the thought of this intimate contact with another body. The victim here is not only the mother but her baby too, who will be denied the crucial intimacy necessary for a secure start. And so the cycle goes on.
We need to abandon our crude adult criteria of trauma in order to appreciate just what a child goes through and what it will do to itself to cope with emotional abuse. Children have such a strong need for their parents that they will do anything to retain their love and approval, even destroy themselves in the process. This double-bind makes it very difficult for victims to admit even to themselves that they have suffered at the hands of their parents. Most often they will use two defences against the pain of an unbearable childhood – denial or idealization. The denial consists in forgetting large chunks of their childhood, sometimes not recalling anything at all of the first several years. The other defence is to believe that one had a very happy childhood with sunny memories of a loving home and parents. (4) This too should alert the therapist to some form of abuse in childhood.
The effects of emotional child abuse are quite similar to those of sexual child abuse. This has important connotations in therapy, for it warns against making blanket interpretations of sexual abuse where none might have been present, the feelings of depersonalization, splitting off, repression, anger, betrayal, fear of intimacy, of being unloved, lonely, ugly, “turned in on myself, “it’s all my fault”, ”I hated myself”, of being penetrated, of violation of mind and body are as much symptomatic of emotional as of sexual child abuse. When mild sexual abuse has caused inordinate trauma it is always because it has reactivated earlier emotional betrayals. Dreams too require careful interpretation as images of sex and incest are often symbolic and should not be treated literally. Dreams of incest for example, can point to an unresolved Oedipal complex, and sexuality can be symbolic of other forms of trauma caused by inappropriate psychological fusion.
In treating victims of emotional child abuse I have found it most useful to work with dreams. Dreams lead us to the real self by fishing up symbols from that deep, unconscious layer of the psyche where the real self has been carefully protected. These symbols gradually give access to ever greater areas of the real self by pointing to pockets in conscious life. This could be a favourite pet, a special garden, a childhood game, a favourite relative, an inspiring book or any activity undertaken for its intrinsic sake. The dream reminds us how good these make us feel. Often these activities have remained in a split-off fantasy realm because the false self rejects them. Accepting the real self also rescues creativity from this dead realm and makes it available for our active use.
Dreams reveal memories of childhood states of being (rather than doing) when an alive, happy and content relationship to oneself and the world was experienced. Even if these moments were fleeting, properly nurtured and cherished in therapy they will tip the balance in favour of the real self. Then the inner child becomes alive again, restoring to us the potential, imagination, wonder and capacity for play that we rightly believe to be the true birthright of the child.
1. John Bowlby: Separation (Vols I and II) 1973
2. D.W. Winnicott: Home Is Where We Start From, 1986
3. C.G. Jung: Man and His Symbols
4. Alice Miller: The Drama of Being a Child, 1983
Jasbinder Garnermann is the Director of the C.G. Jung Institute.