The Impact of Emotional Abuse & Emotional Neglect


A lot of the work I do in my practice is helping others sort through childhood hurts. Often a client is unaware that the emotional abuse or emotional neglect that they experienced in childhood is just that – abuse and neglect. They see themselves as “bad”, “failures”, or what I see so often – have the belief that they are “not good enough”. These ideas can be based on relationships with their parents. They were told directly that they were not good enough, or through the parent’s behaviors they were told indirectly. This could have been through manipulation, comparison to siblings or cousins, overall poor boundaries, parentification, triangulation, and/or putting too much adult responsibility on them. Children of emotional abusive or neglectful parents often feel like they have to protect or make excuses for their parents. I see this sometimes in my practice – where clients defend their parents, or minimize the hurt that they felt. “They did the best they could” is something I might hear.

A story that I heard at a training on trauma (yes, emotional abuse and neglect are traumatic!) plays in my mind at times. The presenter, a therapist working with trauma survivors, told this story about a client who felt the emotional abuse by her mother was much worse than the sexual assault she had experienced as a child. He first described her experience with gang rape. Walking home from school, the young girl (oldest of four), noticed that a group of older boys were following them. She started to feel uneasy and had the suspicion that they were in danger. Crossing through an open field, they followed. No where to hide or sneak away, she told her younger sisters to run home as fast as they could. In order to protect her sisters, she sacrificed her own safety. Though this was a horrific experience, she was able to make sense of it and process the trauma where it no longer deeply impacted her as an adult. Emotional trauma inflicted by her mother was a different matter. She told the therapist, among other memories, about a time when her mother acquired seven fur coats. They didn’t have much money growing up, so it was a huge deal when this happened. The client broke down in tears describing how what happened with these coats was so representative of how her mother treated her. Her mother gave one coat each to her three younger sisters, kept two for herself, and then gave the remaining two away. She said that she would have been alright with there only being enough for her sisters, or if their mother would have sold the other coats for money for the family. But instead of giving her one, the remaining two were just given away. She cried as she spoke to the therapist about never feeling good enough, that she didn’t matter to her mother, and that she never understood why.

I felt myself becoming tearful when I listened to this story at the training. I could really hear and connect with this woman’s pain in the belief that she didn’t matter. I thought of experiences of my own, and experiences of my clients. With or without any sexual or physical abuse, emotional abuse cuts us so deep. Much like the woman from the story, I have heard from clients that the emotional trauma they experienced was far worse than anything physical or sexual that happened to them.

It makes me think – why are we so dismissive of our emotional abuse? Why do we protect and make excuses for our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, or whoever it was that was abusing?

I’d like to share with you an article I have come across on this topic: 10 Huge Misconceptions About Emotional Child Abuse at The Invisible Scar. I refer people to this website who are struggling with trauma issues related to parents and family. They also have a great post about how to cope if you have made the decision to become estranged from your abusive family: Prepare Yourself for Backlash When Going No Contact (Advice for the Adult Child). I see clients try to set boundaries with abusive family with varying degrees of success (unfortunately it is mostly unsuccessful). Total estrangement is sometimes what a person needs in order to heal and breathe from the abusive parent or family. I also like on this website the information on identifying & coping with having a narcissistic parent.

What can you do? Whether the abuse still goes on or has mostly resided in your childhood, whether you still have a relationship with the abused parent or have decided to cut them out of your life, please take good care of yourself! Think of self-care, from the basics of nutrition and sleep to having healthy relationships to treating yourself in some way on a regular basis. It’s possible that you have denied your own wants and needs due to the belief that you don’t matter. It only makes sense that if we believe we are not good enough and don’t matter, there is no need to treat yourself well. Please try to challenge this belief. There is no reason to emotionally abuse or neglect a child, and this includes you! Becoming aware of your own abuse and neglect will be the beginning of your healing. Seek help through therapy if you are not already doing so. Do something today to treat your mind, body, and spirit well.

Surviving the First of the Holiday Triad

To those of you that celebrate, let me wish you an upcoming Happy Thanksgiving! The hoiidays remind me to live mindfully and to take time to enjoy myself – how about you?

For over a month now, I’ve see Christmas decorations in almost all of the stores I shop at. Since the end of summer, marketers have been pushing you to think about, buy, and plan for the holiday season. I went looking for some Halloween decorations (hoping to find them on clearance for next year) toward the end of October, and they were cleared out! Now, the Thanksgiving and fall decorations are long gone even though it isn’t even December.

Take time to slow down and enjoy the holidays, whichever ones you celebrate. Make your holiday your own! I think that too often we feel pressured to live up to the expectations of others, and of the media. Spend time with yourself, with your family & friends. Limit your time with the family that make you crazy. You work hard, don’t torture yourself on your day off! After not celebrating last year after my father’s passing, it is important to me to create new traditions for this year and the years to come. Scott and I will be having a Rocky marathon on Thursday, and dinner for some of our self-made family on Friday.

As any other time of the year, remember to live mindfully and to set boundaries. Find a balance between living in the moment without judgment, and setting aside time to plan for the future. You will get done everything that needs to get done. And what doesn’t wasn’t meant to be. Sit down, reflect on gratitude, and have a great holiday!

Prompt: What am I thankful for this year? How can I make this a holiday that I will enjoy – how can I balance my needs with the needs of my family?

Ohana (Means Family)

“Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten”. – Lilo & Stitch

I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Interpersonal problems are often at the focus of my work, what my clients are experiencing. What I am often experiencing in my personal life as well. It affects us all. “No man is an island” is a quote that sometimes comes to mind. Although it may sound lovely at times to exist on that island alone, I believe the quote to be true. Throughout our day we are interacting with other people – our family, friends, strangers, co-workers, managers, customer service representatives, etc. I hear most often about the problems that arise at work and at home.

I’m a big believer that we have become who we are by way of our family of origin. It is not a life sentence. It is not impossible to change who we become. But it makes sense that we would view and react to the world through the influence of who was around us in our formative years – parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, and friends. I see it so often, how much pain and suffering we hold onto from incidents that have occurred and relationships we have formed during our childhood and adolescent years. Often we struggle most with the relationships (or lack of relationships) with our parents. Our parents are supposed to love, support, and care for us. They are supposed to be there no matter what we do, or who we are. At least that’s what our culture tells us. So what happens when they aren’t? What happens when parents or care-givers abuse and/or neglect us as children? What happens when they aren’t there for us as adults?

I’m reminded of something that was said to me a few years ago by a good friend who is also a therapist. She reminded me that you can’t go to the refrigerator and expect to pull out a hot meal. It’s not that the refrigerator has something wrong with it; it’s just not possible. That’s what dealing with people can be like. Especially with our families, we want to be seen and heard. We want to matter. We want love and attention. And we deserve it. But there may be some people in our lives that are never able to give us that hot meal. It’s just not possible. And that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with us. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that something is wrong with them. It just is.

As adults, we can choose who we have in our lives. We can choose the people who get to be in the inner circle. Blood relatives do not get a free pass. If someone is your life is abusive or neglectful, or if someone in your life causes you more pain and suffering than happiness, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the relationships. How close are they? How much of a priority are they to you and you to them? Relationships can not always be completely equal, but if you are feeling exhausted by someone most of the time you are dealing with them then it’s not even close. Surround yourself with people who stimulate you, bring you joy, and feed your soul. Create space and boundaries with the people who do the opposite. Create your own family! One of my favorite movies is one I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post – Lilo & Stitch. Besides Stitch being adorable, it’s a very heartwarming story about how we create our family, and how that doesn’t always fit the stereotypical mold. Watch this movie, especially if you have kids!

Journal prompt: Who is in my inner circle? Am I receiving as much as I am giving? What would my relationships look like if this was true? How would my life be different if all my relationships were reciprocal?

Resources: The Invisible Scar (blog/website regarding family) & Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry (highly recommended reading for dealing with many kinds of difficult people!)