Breaking the Generational Child Abuse Cycle
We often hear that people that abuse others experienced abuse and bullying as children. Is it possible to break this generational cycle of abuse? Yes! Adults who were abused can break the cycle of abuse and maltreatment in their families.
Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrates that people who were physically, verbally, or sexually abused, and/or endured neglect can overcome the negative effects of maltreatment in childhood and avoid becoming abusers themselves. The biggest factor in their recovery is positive, encouraging relationships.
As a survivor of a dysfunctional and abusive childhood, I can identify other factors that helped me on my road to recovery.
Child maltreatment is a significant problem. The CDC estimates that 1 out of 10 American children experience some type of abuse or neglect. When I was a young adult survivor of childhood maltreatment, the prospect of having children terrified me. However, a number of factors helped to prevent me from being an abusive parent to my child or being physically and emotionally abusive others.
Developing healthy coping skills
An "Adverse Childhood Experiences" study examined people who grew up with emotional, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or lived with parents who are substance abusers. The researchers found that abuse survivors had a 4 to 12 fold increased risk for drug abuse, alcoholism, depression, and suicide attempts. These sad statistics show that many people seek to escape the pain they experienced as maltreated children instead of dealing with it. Although substance abuse or depression offer some escape, they cripple people's ability to parent effectively.
There are better coping methods for abuse victims that can help such as counselling, confiding in a friend, or pursuing goals that make them feel good about themselves. For me, my faith in God, wonderful friends and wise counselors helped me overcome many of the negative side effects of the abuse I suffered. The people around me provided wonderful examples of loving relationships and functional families.
Negative consequences of maltreatment
- an inferiority complex
- low self-esteem
- poor self image
- high anxiety and nervousness
- fear of punishment and pain
- fear of authority figures
- unexplained phobias
- extreme anger and frustration
Recognizing the abuse
Sometimes people don’t realize that they have been abused. Perpetrators are master manipulators who want have power over and control their victims. One way to do that is to shred their victims’ self-esteem. They will try to convince their victims that the victims don't have the intelligence or skills to make it out on their own without the perpetrator. When people are isolated and totally beaten down, they become dependent on the abuser.
Victims end up defining themselves by the twisted image presented to them by their abuser. They blame the abuse on their own inadequacies instead of the perpetrator.
For a long time, I believed that I was an inferior being who deserved to be punished. There must be something radically wrong with me. I thought I deserved a tongue-lashing or physical punishment. I couldn’t move on from the hurt and the pain of abuse until I admitted that I had been mistreated.
I had to face the fact that the people in my life who were supposed to protect me and love me chose to abuse me. They constantly told me I was stupid and could not do anything right. I was also a convenient punching bag. They actually had no right to treat me the way that they did. When I stopped listening to the voices of my abusers, I could redefine myself as a valuable person who deserved to be loved and treated with respect.
Absolving myself of blame
Once I could admit that I had been abused, I could stop feeling guilty and ashamed about it. The maltreatment happened to me because the perpetrators had anger problems, post traumatic stress disorder, or were cruel and mean. I had not done anything to deserve being verbally or physically abused.
I came into a new state of freedom. I was fine. The abuse was not my fault. Guilt and shame disappeared. It was the perpetrators that had a problem. It took some time for me to recognize that I did not deserve to be abused. I had to deliberately work on seeing myself as a person of worth. Fortunately, I had many good people around me who were good examples of how families can be functional and have lots of love and caring.
Processing the pain
I had to sift through my relationships with the people that hurt me and think about the things they said. I challenged the lies that they told me such as saying I was ugly, stupid, and deserving punishment. This is an ongoing process for me.
Resolving anger issues
When I was in my twenties, I had uncontrollable rages. I was not a fun roommate because I could erupt at any time. I had an almost irresistible urge to belittle others because I was hurting so badly inside.
My temper and mean words constantly got me into trouble and damaged my relationships. I had to face the fact that I had been treated badly and that people had been cruel and unfair. I deserved to be angry, but had to get past the pain to overcome it.
Forgiving the perpetrators
The main way I could let go of my pain and outrage was to forgive the people who abused me. I could put the pain behind me, although if those people were still in my life, I would not necessarily forget what they did. I was wary and on guard to avoid being hurt again and took whatever they said with huge grains of salt.
One of my deepest fears as I approached my twenties was that I would be a personal wreck and an abusive parent to my child. I am glad to say that I was not. Sometimes I did have to deal with something that reminded me of the abuse in my past, triggering an emotion reaction such as a bout of low-self esteem, but I feel I have the tools to overcome these challenges. With a combination of mindfulness and positive people in my life, I can live a full and happy life and my daughter can, too.
There are many helpful books available about overcoming the effects of child maltreatment. Some have deeply touching personal stories. One of the stories that inspires me is the story of David Pelzer, who wrote the best-selling book “A Child Called "It" about the horrific physical and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. He has written several books since, and is both successful and a family man.