I have heard it said that the greatest fear that a child has while growing up is the fear of abandonment and rejection—that they will be left alone. Abandonment alone is a subject that there is a plethora of research written about and its association with mental health disorders, as well as, social and identity issues. If it is true that a developing child has an identity crisis occurring already– questioning how he/she fits into a social construct or asking how and where he/she fits into family—the world; then how does emotional, psychological, and physical abuse effect a child developing social identity?
The impact of abandonment, isolation, invalidation, and rejection brings a feeling that surfaces unexplainable and perplexing behaviors and contributes to an attachment pattern that is secure or insecure—reactive or maladaptive. Quite often, when we see children or adults that demonstrate perplexing behaviors — that we may not understand, there is something not seen. Unseen forces are at work creating a ricocheting pattern of emotional responses– events in life that bring a wave of peculiar behaviors that affect every area of life now and everything happening in the future. While some people may believe that their actions are independent and well thought out, the truth is that what is happening in life is inextricably connected to the experience of attachment and the concurrent developmental process.
Attachment and development are important to understand in how children develop, but when a child is subjected to factors that negatively affect normal progression, such as emotional abuse, healthy and normal development is altered. The impact of the environment upon a child are well noted in studies, but when there are multiple themes of abandonment, rejection, and invalidation; it is an unnatural occurrence that changes the outcome of development. A problem that many people are faced with is a lack of understanding about how episodes or solitary events are related to behaviors and events in life. A simplistic way this can be illustrated is that life is an organic event where everything has an effect in a systemic way upon development. As a result, the emotional quotient of all of the things that happen throughout life have an unrealized connection to how the lived experience of a child unfolds into adult life.
What happens to children when adults do not take time to think about how their behavior affects children? One week in the life of a child can have an effect for the rest of life. I listened to the story about a father who goes out of town and a family friend coming to visit and taking the unattended mother and the kids for a ride, it seemed innocent enough at the time. However, what seemed like an innocent event from child’s perspective, quickly turned into adults behaving badly. In addition to children being caught in the middle of an event beyond their capacity to understand clearly. It seemed an innocent event until the father came back after being away and the child shares the latest news. However, what happened afterward the conversation was not innocent. What followed was a anger, a mother being abused in an angry and violent dispute over what happened. Unfortunately, there are many times like this when the bad behavior of adults places children in a situation that they are not capable of understanding. The result is a child whose innocence is scarred by witnessing abusive behavior and a feeling of responsibility that arrests and inhibits normal development and social identity that can echo down through life experience. When a child is forced to take responsibility for the bad behavior of adults, the child does not know what to do or how to rationalize the experience, which results in fear. What adults do not understand is that when children are exposed to experiences like this, they are faced with another adult crisis: the child feels guilt, has to live in secrecy, and is forced to cover up for the parents acting out their problems. Obviously, events have an effect upon everyone involved, but what message is conveyed to the child and how does this affect relationships and the child’s development of future behaviors?
The answer is very complicated, but what happens throughout life and connects to everything else in life. Individuals always have a reason for acting as they do, behaving as they do and while it may not be clear to us at the movement, all behaviors are a product of systems at work.. One of the problems with behavioral issues is that a casual examination of what a person does—just seeing behavior– does not provide clear answers to why something is happening. For most people, unless they are in a crisis or unless it serves a personal need, time will not be taken to ask why, the behavior is judged on the merit of what is seen and branded with a label like “good ‘or “bad” behavior.
What seemed like a fun day for a child turned into a lifetime of problems in relationships? After, telling what happened and seeing the mother’s pain, the father’s anger, and trying to avoid and manawillge conflict—the interpretation of the child is that somehow this is his fault. For a child who is not mature enough to make sense of what happened, the result is emotionally damaging be cause the event is internalized with guilt, fear, and a feeling of responsibility for things that adults are doing without considering what effect is being placed upon the child. The child sees this a a personal failure and interprets the event and interprets this from “if should” reasoning. If I had done this, it would not have happened—I should have kept this a secret. Children think in terms of “black and white” concrete operational thinking (Jean Piaget). In simple terms, it means the child felt responsibility for what happened in the family on that day and accepted ownership for the emotional consequences of what happened. What a horrible thing for a child to have to own—responsibility, guilt, inferiority, shame, and rejection because adults did not think beyond their immediate needs and chose not to act responsibly. For a child, events like this are emotionally damaging and leave scars of the developing child which lead to a reflection of self and others that continues throughout life until they are understood.
While adults may not understand the effect of what they do or why act in certain ways, everything that happens in life is related to perception in the lived-experience of a developing child. Adult issues with depression, self-esteem, identity issues, relationships, perfectionism, as well as numerous other issues are related to attachment, socialization, and development as a child. A problem is that many people do not figure these things out until life is turned upside down and life falls apart. The importance of this cannot be understated for the developing child. A child is faced with enormous pressures upon life and when something goes wrong and development is scarred by emotional abuse, the child gets a life sentence. Erick Erickson said that developing children faces a social identity crisis in every period of growth that will have an impact upon how a child feels about self, acceptance in social settings, and the ways the child will interact with his world. Consequently, the developing child needs a clear sense of who they are and how they fit in the world, where they belong, as well as, being equipped to develop the necessary skills to engaged with life in a healthy way.
When children witness traumatic events, how will abnormal events affect development and impact the child’s ability to manage a complex adult issue of sex, marital fidelity, and emotional or physical abuse? The answer is clear, there is nothing that could prepare a child to understand or r manage these conditions: because it is an unnatural development. The scars created by intentional or unintentional emotional abuse predicts what will come in the future —a lifetime of guilt, perfectionism, feeling rejected, and emotionally abandoned.
What Can Be Learned From The Aftermath?
This story calls attention to the importance of what happens in childhood development, the cognitive map that is formed, and behavioral cues that indicate that something has happened that needs to be understood. In addition, when some people look at life diagnostically, they are looking for someone to blame for their pain, behaviors, or life experience. Blame, unforgiveness, and anger are not an effective approach, they only deepen the effect of abuse and does not bring solutions contribute to an effective life. For those desiring an healthy life, what will be of importance is not someone to blame, but understanding why behaviors occur as they do.
Obviously, many individuals cannot find the destination to healthy living, i.e., taking the appropriate steps toward changing life without an understanding of the core problems of childhood experiences. Thinking about the past is painful at times and you may not want to air all of your dirty laundry in public, but the fact remains that connecting events from childhood events, pain rejection, or abandonment, draws a picture that puts events, feelings, and behavior in a context to be understood.
Be Careful About Casting Your Pearls Before The Swine.
One of the problems with adult behavior is that when we share with others, not capable of understanding, a common experience is that invalidation, criticism, and more misunderstanding occurs. As a result, because we do not like that feeling, then we hide, deny, and cover up what is felt and deepen the pain in the act of denial. Unfortunately, you cannot hide from yourself for long and when you shove your feelings down for so long, they come out in health, relationship, and life problems. The problem creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that will predict how relationships will occur. Many times the problems of the past will perpetuate the very thing that is hated the most and we desire to change. When you are willing to accept responsibility for yourself and understand where the negative programming from abuse originates, change is possible. When the days of awakening comes the abused can realize that today is good day to start acting instead of reacting to life. Life will never be perfect, but life will be what you make it today, so enjoy the opportunity that you have in your hand today. “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning” (Albert Einstein).