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How Child Abuse and Neglect Plant the Seeds of Racism in Our Children

In the United States of America, it is a time of reckoning.  As a nation, as a people, who do we want to be?

Divided? Filled with hate and judgment of each other? We must decide.

In 2016, a reader commented on my blog, and it made me think deeply about anger, hate, and the harsh way that humanity judges and treats those who are different from ourselves. That reader’s comment inspired me to write this blog post on Psychcentral. Today, in 2020, it is still highly relevant. I have updated it and republished it here.

The Comment (Slightly Edited)

I’m a white working-class man. I was abused physically, sexually, and emotionally by people I trusted as a child.

The unquenchable anger from the white working class is not caused by a government or system or any other institution. It is caused by neglectful and abusive parenting. You simply can’t stay that angry, resentful, and cruel all your life if you grew up with loving people, no matter what government you have.

When people call others, like millennials, “pampered” what they are really saying is that they wish they had received that kind of care when they were young. When they brag how their toys and playgrounds were unsafe and they turned out OK, what they are really saying is that they wish someone had cared enough to put rubber matting under their own swings when they were growing up.

These people’s parents, guardians, and leaders deflected their own anger from the true target, their own parents, to “others” who did not look like them.

As a child, your parents really scare you when they spit out whatever nasty words they may have used to describe people who are of different races or creeds. You get afraid of these people, and because they don’t look nor talk like you they are very easy to spot. The working-class white people’s current anger is the flip side of genuine fear. A fear you were taught before you could form words.

A man stood on my street corner the day after the election and shouted to all of us, “Those ****” are going to get what’s coming to them now.” He looked like a 60-year-old teenage boy who can’t stop being afraid.

Neglect and abuse are passed down like a family heirloom and often go side by side. Parents will often go from one to the other as the day goes on.

As a trained therapist I believe you could provide much value by teaching people with this much hate how to break the chain of hate by raising their children with attention and love.

Anger

Truth be told, I felt somewhat stunned as I read this comment. It expressed in perfect prose some things that I know, with every fiber of my being, are fundamental truths.

Yes, anger is the flip-side of fear.

Yes. The way we treat our children shapes our world.

Yes. Of course. Childhood neglect and abuse are the root causes of anger, racism, and hate.

Anger is a fascinating emotion in many ways. It flows like water, touching and affecting all who are near it. One important way that anger differs from other emotions is that it always seeks a target.

Anger is not satisfied floating freely, like sadness or other forms of pain. Anger is built into us as a self-protective measure, so it naturally needs to be directed at someone or something.

So what if that “someone” who’s the true target is our parent? Our parent who is angry or scary, or inattentive. Our parent who has hurt or neglected us, but upon whom we are completely dependent for food, clothing, shelter, and all forms of care.

A child’s own anger seeks another, safer target; one removed as far as possible from our childhood home. The farther removed the target, the safer it feels for us. It’s a natural human process that is virtually wired in.

How You Can Help Break the Cycle

  1. Be aware of your own childhood-based anger. If you grew up ignored or in any way abused, you do have anger about it. And it’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy.
  2. Listen to the messages of your own anger. What’s it trying to protect you from now? Is it really people who are different from you? Or is your anger actually trying to protect you from the people who, for whatever reason, failed to protect you or nurture you, or even actually harmed you, as a child?
  3. Work toward the courageous act of directing your anger where it truly belongs. When your anger goes toward its true target, it will at first feel painful and scary. But this is a huge step toward your own psychological and emotional health. Your tremendous courage will pay off for yourself and for your children.

Here’s what I believe. Racism will never go away until we all face the true source of our own fear and anger. I hope that we can stop misdirecting our feelings, and have the courage to parent our own children differently than we were parented ourselves.

Let’s face our own pain, and work through it in a healthy way. It’s for the children. It’s for our country. It’s for our world.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test.  To learn more about how CEN affects relationships see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Warm thanks to Tyler, who authored the candid, thoughtful comment that inspired this article.

This article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.

How to Know if You Experienced Emotional Abuse or Neglect as a Child

What is Childhood Emotional Abuse?

Jack

Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with a dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Sadie

Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty, and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away.  “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.

While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.

It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are misused. In articles, in books, and even in the professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.

But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.

Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.

Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues, or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care, or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.

To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.

Jack

At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless, he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job, Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.

At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.

Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.

Sadie

At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work, Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says “no” to any request.

People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty, and alone much of the time. 

Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect.  Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s feelings. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.

What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost, and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage, or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.

And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.

5 Tips For Healing the Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or Abuse

  1. Accept that your childhood lives within you. There’s a legitimate reason why you’re not happier. It’s your childhood.
  2. The effects of the neglect are subtle and hide beneath the abuse. So it’s hard to see the neglect until you’ve addressed the abuse, which is far more obvious, visible, and memorable. It helps to work on the effects of the abuse first.
  3. If you grew up with emotional abuse, it’s important to work with a trained therapist. Almost everyone who experienced childhood abuse of any kind, in any amount, needs therapy to heal.
  4. If your childhood experience was pure Emotional Neglect, you may also benefit from therapy. But you may also be able to address many aspects of the effects on your own.
  5. Emotionally abused, neglected, or both: a huge step in your recovery involves learning to recognize, own, accept and express your feelings, and realizing why they matter.

And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept, and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, sign up to Take the CEN Questionnaire.  It’s free! To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book, Running on Empty

**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who would like to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and receive referrals from me, fill out this form to receive my newsletter for therapists and learn how. If you have read both of the Running On Empty books and taken one of my CEN Therapist Trainings, you can be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.

A version of this post was originally posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.