The Toxic Psychology of Parents Who Abuse their Children
“Hope’ is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops — at all“ — Emily Dickenson
Every child needs unconditional love, safety and support to thrive as a healthy human in the world.
For some children their needs are fulfilled and for others they aren’t so lucky.
I was one of the not so lucky.
As a survivor of child abuse and sexual violence I feel it is my duty to be an advocate for those who are still in the trenches of it.
One of the questions I often asked myself was “Why is this happening to me?”
Child abuse victims want so badly to have normal parents and a normal family.
We want to feel safe coming home to our family.
We want to feel supported and not in fear of being belittled, violated or abused.
We want to have a parent to turn to for guidance, love and direction.
It is emotionally confusing to love a parent who is abusive.
Often times we may not know what or how to feel towards them.
Understanding our parents can be a mixed bag of emotions from compassion, anger, love, sadness, violation or hope.
Shifting our mindset to view them from the outside can give us some powerful insight and lessons.
The psychology of an abusive parent.
Studies have shown that our childhood history plays a huge role in how we are as parents.
Parents who did not have their needs met as children may find it hard to meet the needs of their own children.
Research has also revealed that some parents who were mistreated as children may expose their child to abuse.
Environmental circumstances such as job loss, marital problems, or physical health concerns may contribute to mental health issues like depression or anxiety thus increasing family conflict or abuse in the home.
Many abusive parents are unconsciously repeating behaviors witnessed from their own family.
According to one German psychiatrist Alice Miller abusers have an “unconscious compulsion to repeat.”
“An intellectual understanding — that hitting or belittling a child is wrong, for example — may not be enough to prevent abuse, simply because the drive to repeat occurs on an unconscious level”, Miller says.
Other factors may play a role such as substance abuse problems or suffering from a personality disorder such as schizophrenia.
Despite these circumstances research has also shown that many children of abusers can overcome the odds and break the cycle in adulthood.
It was never your fault.
Many of us child abuse victims grow up believing it was our fault.
We were just “rebellious” or “bad” and therefore deserved the abuse.
Some of us will believe we were never abused but loved.
We will make excuses for our parent such as “Oh, she was a single mom so that’s why she acted like that”.
And some of us will compare our abuse to other horror stories and say it wasn’t that bad.
For many years I minimized my parents’ behavior and compared it to children being tortured and locked in closets.
I just thought I was the blame for the sexual violence, constant belittling and hitting.
Abusive parents can make us feel at fault for their actions.
They can make us feel guilty and responsible for how they treated us.
If we hadn’t done that one thing then they wouldn’t have acted like that.
The reality is that it is never your fault.
You were simply a kid responding to your environment.
Breaking the cycle starts with you.
For some of us the lingering trauma from abuse can interrupt our well-being and ability to create a healthy life as an adult.
For years I struggled with this.
I realized I was continuing the cycle of abuse that I witnessed with my parents.
It was heart-breaking.
After several failed relationships I realized I desperately needed help.
It wasn’t my environment that needed changing but my mindset.
I made a commitment to show up for my therapy sessions, not just half-ass them.
I made a commitment to get vulnerable about my struggles.
I started talking about the embarrassment and shame I carried about being an abusive partner.
Getting help to start to break the cycle of abuse can feel like you are climbing a mountain with many unexpected rock slides.
Every time you feel like you are getting somewhere you are brought back to the beginning.
Healing isn’t linear.
We can feel defeated by our own healing process.
We can feel like we will never “get better”.
Something I’ve learned is that breaking the cycle is about learning how to manage the symptoms of trauma in a healthy way.
It is about choosing a different reality rather than reverting to old patterns of witnessed behavior.
It isn’t a straight line.
I don’t think it ever will be.
But we can learn how to ride the waves of recovery with a deeper understanding and awareness of ourselves.
We can practice talking about our experiences and get support from people who can be guides in the process.
It is safe to say no, to take space, to give yourself time.
You are not alone on the journey.