Reflections on Psychological Abuse in Childhood

It happened because both of my parents were abused as children. It happened because they were young, incompatible and immature. It happened because they both had undiagnosed mental health problems about which they were both in a chronic state of denial. It happened because they had two small children, one of whom was severely autistic. It happened for many, many reasons. But the fact is that I was viciously and continuously psychologically abused throughout my childhood and early adult life.

Psychological or emotional abuse can take many different forms. It is also underestimated, misunderstood, overlooked, undocumented and unrecognised by society as a whole – from the general public, to the media, to health and education professionals and law enforcement authorities. Yet its impact, especially on a child, is every bit as damaging as sexual or physical abuse. The effects of it, if undealt with, last a lifetime. And it is invisible. Because of this, even the victims are often unaware of what is going on. Psychological abuse can take many forms. Let’s consider some.

1. Being or feeling rejected

For me, it started with rejection. I was an unwanted baby. I was told that I was an unwanted baby repeatedly. At the age of six my Mother threw my photo across the room, smashed it and said “You’re not my daughter. I don’t recognise you”.  I didn’t experience hugging until the age of twelve when someone at school gave me a hug. My Father simply wasn’t there most of the time. Later in life I found out that he, too, didn’t want me because as he stated“we didn’t have enough money for another child”. Both of my parents felt as though the other partner had put them under pressure to have a second child, which just goes to show how messed up they were.

Now, mine is an extreme example but it should be stated that even withholding affection from a child, refusing to talk or interact with them and wishing you hadn’t conceived them in the first place – even if you never actually tell them that verbally – are forms of rejection that can scar them for life. It may sound shocking to say it, but I see parents every day in the city centre who try to shut their children up or speaking to them as though they’re a burden. It is terrifyingly common.

Children are sentient beings: they feel, think and see. They take in everything you say and do. Withholding love and affection shows them that they are not worth loving and they take that belief with them into adulthood.

2. Emotional dependence on the child or “Identity abuse”

Another form of mental abuse which I have dubbed “identity abuse” guises itself as emotional dependence by the parent on the child. It seems to be particularly common between abused or single mothers and their eldest daughter. In my case, I began witnessing physical violence and loud, cruel arguments between my parents from as soon as I was old enough to understand it. That itself is traumatic. But pretty soon my Mother started to use me as the emotional depository for all of her woes.

Now, most children who grow up in dysfunctional situations feel a misplaced sense of responsibility in one way or another. They will try to care for a younger sibling or look after the hurt parent. A good parent will prevent this from developing as far as they can. But too often the adult her/himself doesn’t realise it or is in too much distress to care.

I was just four years old when my Mother started to depend on me emotionally. By the age of six I had turned into a full blown counsellor and human punch bag. Further down the line, when I was thirteen and my Father left us because, in his words, my Mother’s mental health problems “almost killed” him; I effectively turned into a pseudo-husband for her. Being totally unable to satisfy that need, of course, led to further abuse and a deeply embedded sense of failure and self-hatred. This is why I call it “identity abuse”: a child is not designed in any way, shape or form to take on the role of carer, parent, spouse or counsellor. In using me this way my Mother exploited the natural child’s tendency to want to heal a parent’s hurts and bound me to her with chains of guilt so intense that I was unable to socialise, have friends, study, work or even go out for a walk without her. Further abuse would result if I dared to try it. You can imagine how this affected my young adult life. By the time I left home at the age of twenty-six, her dependency on me had grown to such an extent that without me there she simply couldn’t survive. She and my brother, who is severely autistic, both almost starved to death after I left. It wasn’t until that late stage that the authorities finally stepped into a situation which had been in the making for more than twenty years.

Let’s be clear at this point, in many ways my Mother was just as much of a victim as I was. She was a victim of a mental health illness which she couldn’t control; of a past that she couldn’t face or deal with; of a society which didn’t notice, didn’t care or else was totally unequipped to deal with the situation in any realistic way and of my Father who was at best cold and remote, at worst verbally abusive and physically violent. He bears just as much responsibility for what happened during those years as she does, if not more so. Nevertheless, this should never have happened.  And yes, here again my example is an extreme one, but it is one which I see echoes of all around me. Children are designed to be children and healthy relationships in childhood lead to healthy relationships in adulthood. As a parent, you may forget that at your peril (and theirs).

So far I have concentrated on types of psychological abuse which, in diluted forms, are fairly common. Now I am going to delve deeper and talk about some crueller, more deliberate ones. If you have experienced psychological abuse yourself or have a sensitivity to it, you may wish to stop reading at this point.

3. Being falsely accused and unjustly punished

My Mother suffered from some kind of delusional and obsessive depression which was never properly diagnosed even after she was sectioned and assessed by a psychiatrist. Her abuse towards me generally used to revolve around her belief that everything which I did, said, thought or felt, or which she imagined I was thinking or doing, was a direct and vicious attack against her and that she had to defend herself. This was the underbelly of her emotional dependency on me. When I was in my early school years, between the ages of six to ten she went through a phase during which she was convinced that I was stealing things at home and telling lies about her at school.

This being the case, if anything at all went missing in the house, I would get the blame for it. Or, indeed, if I made a noise at the wrong time in the wrong place, or put something away in the wrong place or spoke out of turn, I would be punished for it. The consequences of such crimes, whether they were real or imagined, were always the same: repeated physical violence – usually by hitting me on the head, or digging her nails into my arms until blood ran, or even, on rare occasions, biting me – and a near-constant tirade of loud, compulsive and hysterical verbal abuse which could go on for days or weeks about each of my wrongdoings. This would always involve a cyclical assault of accusations against my character such as “slanderer”, “coward”, “wimp”, “bitch”, “liar” and so on. I think almost everyone knows that verbal abuse has a very damaging effect on a person’s psyche and a child has no defence against it – especially when it comes from their parent. A child will automatically start to believe what they are being told. So deeply implanted were these lies that it wasn’t until two years ago that it began to dawn on me that I am, in fact, a courageous person.

4. Guilt-tripping

Even more pernicious than that, however, were the guilt tactics. If she imagined that I had stolen something, for example, she would – as part of the verbal tirade – plead with me to tell her where it was, tell me how much distress my “lies” were causing her and even, at times, self-harm in front of me (by hitting herself on the head and biting herself until she was badly bruised) and tell me that it was my fault and that I was doing this to her. Sometimes she would hit me repeatedly, saying that she would stop if I was “sorry” or if I “stopped crying” or if I told her where the “stolen” object was – which of course I often couldn’t do because I didn’t know. (And quite frankly, on the occasions when I did know I was either too terrified of the consequences or too stubborn to give her what she wanted).

All of these techniques, especially when used incessantly, are a form of mind control and they are methods of torture used to extract confessions and so on in countries where such things are still legal. It has been shown that torture can leave an actual physical imprint on a person’s brain. Can you imagine the impact it has on a child when such treatment comes from their own parent? Unless you’ve experienced it, you probably can’t. Can you imagine enduring this at home and then going to school every day and trying to pretend to be ‘normal’? Again, probably not.

Who should protect children abused at home?

The question is, where were the authorities in all of this? What were the teachers and the social workers doing whilst all of this was taking place? Well, for starters, the term “young carer” didn’t exist back then and child safeguarding training – if there was any such thing – would have been a lot less prolific than it now is. Even so, there were signs that something was wrong. At primary school, in year two, a friend once found me crying in the playground and when she asked why I said “Nobody loves me”. She went and told this to the headmistress who called me in to her office for a chat. I told her everything. And then she called my Mother in for a chat. I don’t remember what happened afterwards, but I never spoke about the situation to an adult again.

At secondary school, from year eight onwards – around the time my Father left us and I started caring for my brother as well – my Mother began to keep me at home one or two days every week because her dependency on me had got to the stage where she couldn’t deal with me even going out to school. Clearly, I began to miss quite a lot of my education. My behaviour while I was at school didn’t tie in with these absences: I was quiet, I did my homework, I passed my tests. It wasn’t until year ten that someone took notice of my atrocious attendance record. The only thing I ever heard about it, however, was when my form tutor took me to one side and told me that if the absences continued a truancy officer would be brought in. No effort was ever made to find out the cause, let alone to solve it.

Obviously, this is appalling. But I can’t blame the authorities completely. In her book Tainted Lives, author Mandasue Heller writes that “the most dreadfully abused children were also the most vehemently loyal. Especially when the abuser was the parent”. And this is very accurate. The thing is that you can’t experience serious abuse of any sort without gaining an understanding of how your abuser’s mind works. And that includes their vulnerabilities and the reasons why they do what they do. The child’s innate protectiveness and love for their parent comes into play. Most abusers, my Mother included, are terrified of anyone finding out their “secret”. They pass this terror onto the child. The child also has a natural fear of being taken away from their parent. Guilt comes into the equation because no child wants to see their own parent get into trouble and know that they are the cause of it because they spoke out. And when you add to that the shame a child feels when they believe they’ve done something to deserve the abuse and the instinct they have to try and earn a parent’s favour, what you get is one very silent victim indeed. And I was no exception. To this day I live with a constant moral dilemma about exactly how open I can be given that my Mother had a serious mental health problem, has tried to change and doesn’t apparently remember most of what happened herself.

Aside from the absences, I displayed no other obvious signs that would have indicated there was something wrong. I was quiet, yes, but so were a lot of people. I wasn’t even aware that I was naturally an extrovert in those days. And without any visible physical marks of abuse, how was anyone to know? Clearly a deeper level of perception would have been needed. It would, in fact, probably have taken a survivor of such abuse to be able to spot the signs.

What are some of the signs of abuse to look out for?

Speaking as one such survivor and one who is now an education professional who has completed child safeguarding training myself, here are a few of the signs that you can watch out for. If you spot more than one of these in a child it could be caused by abuse or bullying:

  • Lack of eye contact in children who show no other signs of being on the autistic spectrum.
  • Children who are often alone even in a social situation or who consistently seek out adult company in preference to that of other children.
  • Brightness and intelligence, coupled with good behaviour in class but a lack of achievement in tests.
  • Children who have one or two behaviours which are wildly inconsistent with the rest of their character, or who vary between two extremes in their personality and mood.
  • The telling of stories which later turn out to be untrue in order to gain attention.
  • A depressed, negative or oppressed attitude towards life and towards him/herself.
  • The creation of large, elaborate and introspective doodles over exercise books or indiscriminate and heavy scribbling which masks much of the page.

There are, of course, a myriad of different symptoms and no two children are the same. The education system is slowly waking up to the reality of child carers and the safeguarding measures which are now in place are much better than a generation ago. It is still not enough but we are making progress.

My own story is one which has a happy ending: on leaving home and twenty-six, I was able to get a job straight away and moved to a place where I met people who wanted and were able to help me by giving emotional and financial support until I gained my teaching qualification and began to find my feet in life. I am undoubtedly one of the lucky ones who survive such situations and go on to succeed, although a lot of the pain remains with me and even when it heals I will wear the scars for the rest of my life. But I wrote this article because of the uncounted thousands who are robbed of their childhoods and their lives by psychological abuse and who may never realise the full extent of what has been done to them, nor be as blessed as I have been in rising above it.

It is unfashionable in this day and age to talk about Christianity, but I was never a slave to fashion so let me end with this: without my faith and without the power of forgiveness I would never have walked away from the horrors of the past with my life and sanity so well preserved as they have been.