Kids who grow up in abusive environments with psychologically damaged parents often have similar issues to battle when they become adults. Silence can be one of the most dangerous — but most common — ways of coping.
Painful experiences suppressed or silenced can eat away at our mental health, lead to depression and prevent us from living full lives. But here is what I've learned: talking about what happened to you is the only way out from the dark hole of abuse — even if you only talk to one person.
My mom was an alcoholic and my dad pretended she wasn't. My parents made it seem like they'd be better parents if my sister and I were better kids. As a child immersed in this family dysfunction, I didn't fully understand what was going on.
Looking back now there are things I wish I could have expressed to someone. I wish other children who have suffered abuse could say these things, too ...
1. I feel trapped.
When I was in high school, I was often scared to come home from school. I thought I could control what would happen when I opened our front door by spending my time on the bus trying to manipulate my expectations: if I expected it to be bad when I got home, then maybe things would be good?
Years later (in counseling), I found out that this was a coping strategy. If I had realized, as a child, that I had no control over my home environment, I might have felt even worse. So I coped by believing I had some control. I wanted someone to rescue my sister and me and fix things, so I tried to control things myself.
When you are just a kid and your own parents (adults) shape your reality, you feel powerless and trapped. Acknowledging this wouldn't have solved the problems, but would have helped me feel less responsible for my own abuse, which itself became a painful burden.
2. I take the blame when it isn't my fault.
Kids who are abused have a tendency to apologize constantly, often unnecessarily, and take the blame for things that aren't their fault. Most often, this comes from growing up in an environment with parents who inappropriately blame their kids for their own abusive behavior. Children learn to apologize in hopes of keeping the peace.
Often, they continue this apology habit into adulthood because they believe they are at the root of every problem. Healing begins when you stop taking responsibility for things that aren't your fault — including how your parents treated you.
3. I don't have a role model for normal.
Children who survive abuse often don't have families that can function as a role model for normal and healthy relationships to create for themselves in adulthood. They've only been exposed to relationships defined by bad habits.
To move away from your childhood family dysfunction and create a healthy family as an adult, you have to find healthy role models: a neighbor, a friend, or another family member. Unfortunately, many abused kids grow up and get stuck in cycles of abuse as adults, often choosing partners who replicate the childhood family dysfunction.
When you do the hard work to repair yourself and gain a true sense of what is normal and healthy for your life, you can choose healthy relationships.
4. Please believe me.
My parents were all about appearances. We had a nice house. My dad had a white collar career. When my parents dressed up, they looked elegant. When my mom was sober and my parents weren't arguing or screaming at us, we appeared like a typical family of four.
Abuse doesn't always look like the abuse you see on the news. The external didn't match the internal — what was going on behind closed doors. Kids in abusive environments live with adults they cannot trust, so they often need a healthy adult to believe in them.
5. My story matters.
Many people out there had it far worse than me. But it doesn't mean I don't have to heal from my abusive past. Abuse isn't about comparing war stories. Every abused child needs compassion to recover and it starts with self-compassion. As an adult, you have to mourn your childhood and that means owning how bad it was for you.
6. I didn't choose my family.
I dated a guy once who told me he wanted to be with a girl from a good, close-knit family. My psychologist jokingly asked me if I punched him for saying that to me. I think his exact words were: "Do you know how much empathy this guy lacks to say that sentence to you?" I didn't fully get it at the time, but I get it now. I didn't choose my parents. I shouldn't lose points in someone's eyes because I didn't have the Brady Bunch for a family. I would have liked to have a happy, close-knit family, too.
When kids are encouraged to express themselves authentically, they can begin the process of healing and recovery.