Often in my work as a therapist I hear questions and statements like:
“Well, he never hit me. He would just lock me up in my room when I was misbehaving and then not talk to me for a few days. So that’s not abuse is it? That’s just Dad.”
“My mom was never abusive! Yes, she yelled at us a lot and she used to talk about how much I smelled in front of her friends when they came over and yeah, that sucked, but she wasn’t abusive.”
“Abuse is what happened to those kids who were beaten by their parents! My parents weren’t perfect and, sure, I don’t remember all of my childhood, but I don’t think I got beaten. So all those other memories couldn’t have been abuse, right?”
Unfortunately, collectively, we as a society seem to believe that the “only” kind of abuse that “counts” is physical. And that if something else happened to you as a child beyond being physically harmed, this “couldn’t have been abuse.”
And that’s not true. It’s a big myth about childhood abuse.
And it’s frankly not helpful to believe in the course of your own personal healing work.
I really do think it’s important – painful yes, but important – to talk about and to recognize exactly what abuse is because many, particularly those who grew up in dysfunctional or chaotic family homes, may, in fact, have a history of abuse but are unwilling or unable to identify it as such.
But when we do, when we can accurately confront and validate our personal history, we allow ourselves opportunities for healing as adults.
So today, I want to dispel the myth that there’s “only” one kind of abuse and share information and examples with you about what also counts as child (or adult) abuse in the hope that you may be able to see and validate yourself and your story more clearly, and use this information to support your own healing process.
What exactly is abuse?
So what is abuse, anyway?
Seems like an obvious one, doesn’t it? But formal definitions of abuse are rather vague. Take, for instance, Merriam Webster’s definition:
“1: a corrupt practice or custom; 2: improper or excessive use or treatment: misuse; 3: language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily; 4: physical maltreatment; 5: a deceitful act: deception.”
“1: a corrupt practice or custom;
2: improper or excessive use or treatment: misuse;
3: language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily;
4: physical maltreatment;
5: a deceitful act: deception.”
The fact that physical maltreatment gets its own line in the definition might account for why some or many of us automatically link the term abuse to physical abuse.
And while we know today that physical abuse is wrong and cause – at least for mandated reporters like myself – to contact Child Protective Services, the idea that physical abuse of children is wrong is relatively new.*
“Spanking”, a euphemism for what’s objectively corporal punishment of children, has long been normalized as “a part of parenting.”
(Just watch Mad Men and try and get through without cringing at how Betty Draper’s kids are treated.)
And even today in the State of California, though I object to it personally and professionally, open-handed “spanks” that don’t leave a mark are permissible. Anything else that leaves a mark is not.
So physical abuse, legally and definitively, is relatively “clear cut” but it’s certainly not the only kind of abuse there is.
If abuse isn’t just physical, what else can it be?
Frankly, I think online dictionary definitions of abuse fall flat and prefer instead to heed what the World Health Organization defines as child abuse or child maltreatment:
This broad definition feels appropriate to me as a clinician because I firmly believe that childhood (or adult) abuse is not “only” physical, but it can and does include emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse and neglect as well.
Any kind of treatment that intentionally or unintentionally undermines and puts at risk a child’s health, welfare, or dignity is, in my professional opinion, a kind of abuse.
Examples of non-physical abuse a child might experience includes:
- Being intentionally abandoned or left in a public or private setting alone so the parent can “make a point”.
- Being yelled at, screamed at, or having derogatory or cruel comments made to or about the child in front of the child.
- Being locked in a room and having food, water, or other basics withheld.
- Being “gaslit” by a parent, having them deny the child’s reality and experience with the intent of psychologically confusing and undermining the child.
- Being blamed, accused, insulted, and threatened by a parent.
- Being criticized, mocked, belittled, humiliated, and otherwise eroding the child’s self-esteem.
- Being given little or no affection, having a child’s displays of attention go unreturned, or a child being told they’re unwanted or unloved.
- Being isolated from peers and loved ones and not allowed to play with or socialize with other children or adults.
- Being denied or not given healthy food and drink, safety and shelter, preventative medical and dental care, weather-appropriate clothing, and/or having no one support good hygiene and just generally neglecting and not supervising a child.
- Being exposed to violence, including domestic violence.
- Being kept from school or not provided with adequate homeschooling instead, being allowed to have excessive tardiness, being encouraged or supported in truancy, being prevented from receiving needed special education allowances and services.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examples of what can be considered non-physical child abuse. I’m sure you could generate a half dozen more examples on your own after reading this list.
So what’s the point of asking or exploring this?
If you read my last blog post on why therapy is a lot like The Matrix, you will recall that this work – therapy or therapeutic reading – isn’t necessarily comfortable and, truly, I think there are few topics out there such as inviting someone to confront a possible abusive childhood (or current relationship) that can be as discomforting.
But it is still so deeply important.
The “point” of asking or exploring potential abuse that may have happened in your past is, metaphorically, the same point as Neo taking the Red Pill: to “wake up” to our reality more, to see things more clearly, and in doing so, have more choices about how we want to support ourselves as adults who are no longer powerless children.
To use a trite but apt therapy line: we cannot heal what we cannot feel.
And we cannot feel what we do not or can not acknowledge in our past.
The “point” of asking or exploring whether or not child abuse existed in your own personal history is to help you begin to make sense of your memories and to give you the opportunity to heal from it if it did in fact happen.
When we swallow whole the belief that the “only kind” of child abuse is physical abuse, when we fail to see what may have happened to ourselves clearly, we deny ourselves the opportunity to heal and grow from it.
Believe it or not, the point of this article or the inquiries I’m about to provide is not to demonize parents.
This is often a bad rap that therapy gets, assuming that the whole point of therapy is to blame parents of the therapy client. But it’s not.
The point is to help you, if you did have a history of childhood abuse, be curious and clear about how it may still be impacting you today and then, give you CHOICE about how you decide to get yourself support around this so you can move forward and make a beautiful life for yourself no matter what your early beginnings held.
Healing tasks for recovering from an abusive childhood.
While there is no one linear, prescribed path from recovering from an abusive childhood, some of the key steps along your journey may include:
- Educate yourself. Whether this is through articles like this one, inquiries (see my list of questions below) or through professional support, you will likely need to begin learning about what child abuse is, how it may have happened to you, and what the possible impacts of it can look like. The first step in any healing process is bringing awareness to what is, and I find that psychoeducation about childhood abuse can be deeply illuminating as you begin to make sense of your past.
- Confront your personal history of childhood abuse. I strongly recommend working with a therapist or other trained professional as you begin to remember, talk about, and make sense of your past. Bring the list of inquiries I provide below to your therapy session and begin to work through them, line by line.
- Grieve what you did not receive. Inevitably, in the course of educating yourself and confronting your past, you will need to grieve what you did not receive which, essentially, was a chance to truly be a kid. This grieving process may take quite some time, it can, at times, often feel endless, but it’s so valid and necessary to your healing process.
- Work through the developmental milestones you may not have achieved. Often for those who experienced child abuse, you don’t fully get the chance to be a child or teen with your own identity, needs, wants, and preferences. You may also have missed out on certain development milestones like lifestyle experimentation, dating, or even pursuing the education or career you wanted due to the impacts of psychologically unhealthy and abusive parenting. It’s therefore part of your healing work to begin working through any developmental milestones in conjunction with your personal history confrontation and grieving work.
- Setting boundaries. Particularly with the abuser(s) still in your life or with those you may be also in present-day dysfunctional or painful relationships with. Learning what healthy boundaries are and how to set them with others is critical for those recovering from abusive parenting.
- Seek out healthier, more functional relationships. At first, these may feel hard if not impossible to recognize and you may not trust yourself that you can actually draw these kinds of relationship into your personal life. That’s okay. Start with your relationship with your therapist (a trained professional whose job it is to show up in a healthy, functional way) and allow them to help show you what could be possible in healthier relationships. Over time, this may influence who you attract into your personal life.
- Focus your healing and recovery work on developing a more cohesive and stable sense of self. For most adults who were abused as children, your core healing work revolves around developing a more cohesive and stable sense of self, learning to love and value yourself for who you are, not for who you think you “should” be to win approval. A poor sense of self can impact every area of your life, from your physical and mental health, to your relationships, your career advancement, it can even impact your bank account. So focusing your work with your therapist on cultivating and developing a more cohesive and stable sense of self can be a wonderful way to focus your healing work.
- Inquiries to consider if you suspect you may have had an abusive childhood:
- Does it feel like the right time for you to begin reflecting on your childhood history and memories? Why or why not?
- In what ways did you experience abuse as a child?
- What memory or memories stand out to you in particular?
- How did you respond to these abusive moments as a child?
- What helped you cope with this abuse when you were a child? Did any behavior, person or thing help you get through those tough times?
- How do you feel in your body when you recall these memories even today?
- How do you imagine that the abuse you went through as a child may still be impacting you today if at all?
- What do you think would be different about your life if you were able to really truly look back at your personal history, grieve it, and heal it?
- What’s the cost if you don’t?
- What are the supports you have around you as you begin to face your past? What trained professional, dear trusted friend, or resource or program is available to you?
Bringing this to a close.
It is a myth and a disservice to children and adults to consider the “only” form of child abuse physical abuse.
It is a myth that I hope I dispelled with some additional psychoeducation in today’s article.
And I know that this particular post may not have felt very comfortable to read and I really want to commend you if you made it to the end of this article if you yourself have a history of childhood abuse.
It takes courage, bravery, and grit to face your personal history. If you would like support in this, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself.
Do you struggle with knowing what to say during challenging conversations?
I created this list of 25 scripts to help you feel calm and empowered when communicating with the difficult people in your life.