By Mechelle Cichy
Damn it, John, why can't you be more like your brother? Jim always makes the honor roll, he works hard on the football team, and he does his chores around here without being told to. His room is neat and organized and he's happy to offer to help when something needs to be done. Now, here you are with another D on your report card, your room looks like a hurricane came through and I had to beg you to help me bring the groceries in. What is wrong with you?
Hey, dummy! Get on over here and help me with the laundry. I'm going to smash the TV if you keep spending all your time in front of it. I need help around here. I work hard all day long. When I get home at night I still have laundry and cooking left to do because you never lift a finger. Do you act the same way when you go to your deadbeat dad's house?
Stop hugging me, Susan! Please go play with your sisters. I don't want you on my lap. You know it makes me uncomfortable when you get so clingy. I just want to sit here quietly and enjoy my show for a little while. You have toys to play with.
I don't know about you, but those scenarios made me cringe. I could feel the pain each of those children felt hearing the words of their parents. John isn't an athletic child. He preferred to concentrate on reading and brain work until he couldn't equal his brother in his father's affections. If the only attention he would get was bad attention it would have to do. So, he stopped doing things to please his father, knowing it would never be enough anyway. He allowed his grades to fall, and he got lazy around the house. His father noticed.
The “dummy” in the second scenario was afraid to move even to offer to help her mother because in the past she always did everything wrong for her mother. So, she waited for her mother to tell her what to do and give her explicit directions. Her “deadbeat dad” never demanded these things from her. In fact, he gave her a list of chores and praised her when she did them. She was glad to help him with the laundry when it needed to be done. It's no wonder he left her mother.
Susan just wants to be loved. When her daddy is watching TV, she crawls up in his lap to try to give him a hug to show how much she loves him. But, he is cold and distant to her. He doesn't want to show her any kind of affection, and even though he doesn't get angry in his words to her, she knows she has upset him. In time, she will give up trying to win his love and find someone else who WILL love her.
These are just a few examples of emotional abuse of children. It doesn't seem so dangerous, does it? We could easily picture ourselves in the role of the abusive parent after a rough day, a rough patch in our life, or even a rough life. Frustration takes over and we stop thinking about what we are saying. Verbal diarrhea can be contagious. When we speak unkindly to others, they learn to speak unkindly to themselves.
However, the examples above are dangerous to these children. Each instance of abuse decreases their level of self-esteem even more. They begin to feel shame and guilt. A sense of hopelessness may come over them because they can't see any way of pleasing their parent now, or in the future. Nothing they do is right. They may feel confused because the parent was nice one day, then abusive the next, and over the same type of incident.
In time, these non-physical acts of violence take a physical toll on the body. At first, there are just emotional reactions. The child may withdraw and become silent, afraid to speak and being yelled at for saying the wrong thing. Or, they become anti-social, even among their peers. They don't know who to trust anymore, so they don't trust anyone.
Later, as the child matures into adulthood, the abuse begins to show effects in a physical way. They may begin to develop illnesses and health conditions including migraines, arthritis, lung diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.
It is now known that ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, have a physical effect on our bodies. ACEs cause toxic stress on a person. They will affect the victim in multiple ways including their physical body.
On the ACE quiz there are questions about being often humiliated or put down, sexual violations, feeling unloved, growing up in a separated family, and family issues with substance abuse, among others. These things can all have a traumatic effect on us, even if we don't realize it.
A child may learn to live with these experiences if they happen often in the household. But, just because they are the new “normal” for the child, it doesn't make it right. They will exhibit signs that something isn't right. Teachers, coaches, and friends will notice the child hesitating to volunteer, or having a hard time excelling even in subjects they enjoy. They may feel uncomfortable saying something, but they will notice.
No household is without its own trauma of some kind. Life is filled with trauma-inducing events, including the death of a beloved family member, or the financial collapse of the household for various reasons. They will effect every member of the household. But a healthy household will work together to get through these unfortunate circumstances.
An unhealthy household is when one member is causing the trauma to another member. It might be a parent, a cousin or an older sibling who is the abuser. It might not be something that is noticed right away.
What is certain is that these actions have a lasting effect on the child who experiences them. It isn't quickly forgotten when the moment is done. The child feels the pain for hours after the initial occurrence, and for years after their childhood is gone.
As an adult, we know how these things make us feel. Even with all the life experience behind us, we don't like the feeling of emotional abuse. How much more must a sensitive child feel then? Are we considering the effect our words have on each other when we say them, especially to a vulnerable child?
It's time to think before we speak.
All of our writers are freelance and survivors of trauma/abuse