With lines shifting and cultural views changing, just what is childhood abuse? To understand what falls under this spectrum of childhood abuse, I have found it helpful to focus on not only the behaviors but also the effects of those behaviors. I believe childhood abuse is a systematic, persistent pattern of psychological, physical, and/or sexual behaviors that denigrate and devalue the identity and worth of a child. This childhood abuse shows itself in, I believe, four distinct and often interconnected ways—through emotional or psychological abuse, through physical abuse, through neglect, and through sexual abuse.
Childhood abuse is multilayered. Neglect and physical and sexual abuse are always accompanied by devastating emotional damage. This childhood abuse can appear as aggressive actions of harm as well as passive failures to act. Childhood abuse can manifest as a pattern of behavior over time but can also encompass a single severe and traumatic event that undermines a child’s sense of self, immediate safety, and long-term security.
I want to share what I have seen as a significant barrier to healing from childhood abuse, which is this persistent clinging to the illusion of normalcy.
What about you? What was your normal? Perhaps your normal growing up was a house full of yelling, cursing, and chaos. You may have grown up routinely being slapped or kept from food or sleep. Your bedroom, when you were younger, may have been a place, not of dreams, but of nightmares. These situations were part of your normal life. You didn’t like living like that, but you didn’t know any other way. That life was normal for you and you found a way through it. You may have even felt pride that you survived and turned out as well as you did. Or you may, to this day, still experience deep shame regarding how you were treated and hide behind the curtain of normalcy. Regardless, you did what you had to and got by another day. Truthfully, the last thing you want to do now is go back and relive what you’ve been trying to put behind you.
Others of you, early on, understood your “special” status; you knew you weren’t normal and believed you were to blame. You couldn’t hide from the truth of your abuse; instead, your goal was to hide the truth of your abuse from others. You didn’t want anyone to know how you were being treated because of the deep guilt and shame you felt. The horror of your abuse was always accompanied by the terror of someone discovering your humiliation and degradation. Deep down, you believed you were at fault. Either you deserved what happened to you or you were too weak to stop it. If others found out, they would blame you too and do nothing to protect you. You pretended to be normal to hide the truth you weren’t.
If this is how you’ve dealt with the pain of your past, this illusion of normal may have become so engrained that it has taken on a life of its own. The illusion seems much easier to deal with than the truth. You may be trying to live your life completely in the present, avoiding any mention of your past, beyond the façade of normalcy you’ve hidden behind for years.
Going back and dealing with your past may not be what you want to do, but I firmly believe it is what you need to do. Words that bite and scratch and dig deep into the soul leave scars. Neglect and abandonment create holes of deprivation that resist being filled. Being used for the sexual gratification of others steals away identity and worth. Physical, sexual, and psychological wounds leave scars, whether hidden or acknowledged.
If you or a loved one is struggling with past abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help. Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues, and bringing healing to the whole family. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.