The Impact of Abuse - it depends on how it happens
All abuse is damaging and will lead to life-long dysfunction unless the resultant impairment is addressed. However, there is difference that will influence the way the dysfunction is expressed; it depends on how the abuse is executed. For some kids, each episode of abuse will be the same, for others the form of abuse is varied, almost random and for some it is some mixture of the both.
To understand how the difference caused by the manner in which the abuse is delivered, we need to examine the real behaviour variation as seen at the boundary between the child and others; that is, how the child deals with stressful interactions will reflect the manner in which they were abused.
When a child is raised in an environment where the abuse is predictable, that is there is a repetitive pattern, the child can develop behaviours that address this abuse in an attempt to minimise the impact. For example, one type of subtle, consistent abuse I have seen during my time as a football coach has been the unreasonable sporting demands of a parent on their child. For example, a small, immature for their age child has every right to feel scared of the physical contact expected in the sport and when he hesitates or ‘misses a tackle’ the father verbally abuses him in front of his peers.
The thing is there is a persistent pattern to the abuse and so the child can learn a behaviour that either avoids the abuse or minimises the damage. In the example of the football parent, I see children throw themselves into positions where they are certain to be hurt. However, the physical pain is preferred over the abuse and rejection of the father.
In contrast to this patterned abuse is the abuse that is unpredictable, that is there is no clues in the child’s environment that allows them to anticipate their parent’s actions and make an adjustment to their behaviour to avoid, or minimise the resultant ill-treatment. This sort of environment is most common in families where substance addiction or psychotic mental illness is prevalent. How the parent treats the child is linked to how they feel and how they feel is dependent on what part of the addiction/psychotic cycle the parent is on.
This inability to predict what will happen develops a sense of hopelessness in these children, that they have no control over their life and so their behaviour becomes erratic with no apparent purpose especially in times of stress.
The difference between these two extremes of response to abuse can be illustrated by examining how they relate to the following characteristics:
The children from unpredictable environments feel:
- Less Than – These kids, through their sense of worthlessness and shame never feel they are really entitled to have their fair share of life. When they are rejected, or by-passed, their response is not to stand up for their rights but say what they think ‘it doesn’t matter’ because they think they don’t matter.
- Vulnerable – They are unprotected from unwanted boundary intrusion, at any level as well as lacking the ability to get their own needs met through establishing healthy relationships.
- Bad/Rebellious – Remember it is their sense of self that shapes their reality and because they have felt their abuse was because they deserved it, they were bad and so they feel this way. Then, in some act of defiance they confirm this opinion by their actions. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘so you think I’m bad well I’ll just show you how bad I am’!
- Dependent – Because they have no sense of competency, no belief they can do anything properly, because of their toxic shame, kids with no protection of their ‘core’ depend on others to make decisions for them. It is an extreme example of them having an ineffective boundary.
- Out of Control – This is the result of the inconsistent life they have lived. How could they have a sense of control when the have never experienced consistent consequences for their actions. When they make decisions, they have no prior knowledge about what will happen and so they make their ‘best guess’. In lots of cases these kids watch what their friends do, unfortunately the only kids that hang around them are those who exploit them and have the same deficiency in decision making for the same reason.
These ‘out of control’ kids are easy to recognise, in fact they demand our attention. Their behaviour destroys the environment for others as well as themselves. The kids without boundaries, or extremely soft boundaries will act impulsively and with dysfunctional behaviours, learned in their dysfunctional homes.
At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have been abused in a more consistent manner. They display the following characteristics:
- Better Than – Because they had to be just what their parent wanted them to be even if this was not to complain, getting the decision on how to act was important, it had to be ‘just right’. They effect this need to be right, or more probably the danger of getting things wrong made it important for these kids project a successful image.
- Invulnerable – The inflexible boundaries function to stop others from ‘getting in’, that is finding out how they really feel. Regrettably, this emphasis on preventing authentic contact with others limits opportunities to get their own needs met. This being locked in makes them appear and feel invulnerable but the cost is isolation.
- Good/Perfect – Much the same as ‘Better Than’ this characteristic is also a result of the earlier need to make no ‘mistakes’ when dealing with their abuser. Part of the features of an abused child is hypervigilance and so these kids are well aware of how to avoid behaving in a way that will give the other person an excuse to punish them.
- Independent – Because of the walls, the rigid boundaries they have built around them, they really don’t feel they have access to the support of others. There was no ‘help’ when they were young and abused and so they never risked depending on another person.
- Total Control – It is no surprise that these kids don’t take risks, it is too dangerous if you make a mistake and so they take control of their life. The tragedy is that the behaviours they use to ‘control’ their environment are the ones that deny opportunities to satisfy their own needs.
It would be a mistake to think abused kids will be exclusively down one side or the other. There is a tendency but you need to think of this as a matrix where a child could be a mix across five continuums. For example, a child might have the following profile:
For the child who fits this profile you could expect to be a bully. Even though we can make a judgement about these kid’s behaviour remember, this is not we think about them but how they think of their self. Bullies, unless corrected during their childhood remain bullies all their life. This profile, with the ‘Dependence’ and ‘Out of Control’ could portray the profile of members of extreme groups such as the white supremacist or out-law bikers.
The characteristics described above are, of course a crude attempt to have something to hang our discussion on when describing these children’s sense of self which in turn defines their reality. It is never as simple as these five and of course every individual varies.
It is tempting to conclude that the middle ground is where a healthy individual’s sense of self should be. It seems right that:
- No one is less or better than anyone else, we are unique, have our own DNA and experiences and so comparisons are a waste of time.
- Should we never make ourselves vulnerable to others? Many be in intimate relationships we may need to trust another to expose ourselves. But the cost of being hurt is great. If we are invulnerable then we miss out on the intimacy that requires trust. So, again the ‘middle ground’ is a tempting rationality.
- No one is good or perfect just as no one is bad or rebellious, we can all do bad things or good things but we are not our actions even though others will define us by those actions.
- We are social beings and so we do depend on others to get our needs met; society is set-up to share. Therefore, we can’t survive if we are totally independent.
- It is tempting to commend a totally in control position. This work has always had the aim of teaching these kids to control their behaviour. But, that is to the extent that they are coming from a position where they don’t understand they can control their life. If and when they do develop a functional suite of behaviours then it is time to expand their knowledge and to do so they need to try new things, they need to take risks, they need to let go of their control.
The truth is there is no proper position of the characteristic continuums presented but for every situation there will be a ‘best spot’ from which you can act. Sometimes it is suitable to be independent and others dependent when to take that position or the infinite variations between these extremes depends of the situation you are in. The question ‘what is really going on’ is the key and is the key to setting functional boundaries.