Category Archives: Emotional Abuse Articles

Effects Of Inconsistent And Unpredictable Parenting

Inconsistent parenting

What are the effects of inconsistent and unpredictable parenting? This article investigates that question.to

Coming home each day from school as a child, I would never know what kind of mood my mother would be in; one day she might be deeply depressed, the next excitable (in this mood she would often sing, diva style, her favourite songs from the Mikado – ‘ the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la, have nothing to do with the case…’ I can’t remember how the song goes from there, but you get the general idea?). Or she might be seething with anger and full of intense loathing for me, conveying her feelings of deep disgust, evoked by my most unwelcome reappearance, by shrieking insults at me through the kitchen window before I’d even set foot inside the door. (I have written about this elsewhere.)

Whilst there has not been a great deal of research conducted upon the effects of unpredictable and inconsistent parenting on children, there exists evidence to suggest (eg. Luxton, 2007) that those who experience it are at increased risk of developing low self-esteem and depression as adults. (Also, it seems that consistent maternal care may be a particularly important factor in the generation of high self-esteem).

Consistent Parenting:

Healthy families are relatively stable and predictable and the child knows that the parents can be depended upon both physically and emotionally. For example, if a parent says s/he will pick the child up after school, the child can be confident s/he will do so; and if the child is distressed, s/he can depend upon the parent to sooth and comfort him/her; the child knows, too, that if the parent feels the need to discipline him/her, s/he will do so in a fair, reasonable and consistent manner.

Inconsistent Parenting :

In unhealthy families, however, parents may behave towards their children in inconsistent and unpredictable ways. The environment in which the child is compelled to live, therefore, tends to be unstable, chaotic and fraught with potential danger. Because of this, the child is likely to feel constantly anxious – walking on eggshells and fearing what the unpredictable parent may do next.

In such a household, the behaviour of the parent may fluctuate wildly and dramatically (this can be for clinical reasons such as alcoholism, drug addiction, cyclothemia or bipolar disorder). Inconsistency may occur in relation to both physical and emotional care. For example, a parent may leave a lone child at home, promising to be back by 6pm, yet not return until 3 in the morning. And the manner in which the parent uses discipline may be highly unpredictable. Or when the child is distressed, s/he may not be able to depend on the parent for psychological support.

Conclusion :

To reiterate, then, according to research, such inconsistent parenting is associated with those individuals who are on the receiving end of it being placed at higher risk of developing depression and having low self-esteem as adults.

However, to gain a fuller picture, more research needs to be conducted – it is known, for instance, that significant and protracted child abuse puts the abused individual at increased risk of developing a whole range of psychiatric conditions, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD), in adulthood; it therefore follows that when inconsistent parental behaviour crosses a certain threshold (i.e. when it amounts to chronic, significant abuse), the seriousness of the implications speak for themselves.

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Effect Of Parents With Low Empathy For Others’ Feelings

Parents with low empathy typically show little or no regret, remorse or guilt when they behave in ways that hurt and harm their children and children of such parents are therefore at particularly high risk of experiencing abuse.

At the extreme end of the scale, those with very low empathy are termed by psychologists as sociopaths or as suffering from anti-social personality disorder (however, this does not mean they will necessarily have been diagnosed or have broken the law – many such individuals can function well on a superficial level, seem charming on the surface and have cultivated a public persona that very effectively disguises their disorder; they may even strike the outside world as ‘model citizens’).

Other personality traits (on top of lack of feelings of guilt and superficial charm referred to above) of the sociopath include the following:

  • egocentricity
  • unreliability
  • dishonesty
  • an inability to form long-lasting relationships
  • superficial emotions
  • lack of awareness/concern regarding the harmful effects of their behaviour on others
  • poor ability to make long-term plans
  • experiences abnormally low levels of anxiety (so can be good at jobs that require a strong nerve such as surgery)

People with very low empathy, such as sociopaths, tend not to be easy to change ; they are also, as implied above, often very hard to detect – this makes them all the more potentially dangerous.

POSSIBLE BRAIN DIFFERENCES :

One of the possible reasons why sociopaths may find it difficult to change is that research suggests they may be suffering from brain abnormalities (specifically, in the region of the brain responsible for giving rise to feelings of empathy for others, as, indeed, one may expect). However, much more research still needs to be conducted before a full picture can be built up of both biological and environmental causes (and, indeed, of how these two categories of causes interact, of course).

LATEST RESEARCH :

It is worth noting, however, that (at the time of writing), the latest research suggests that sociopaths may not so much lack empathy as have an abnormal ability to suppress it (Keysers et al. 2012).

HOW THE SOCIOPATH CAN BECOME AGGRESSIVE TOWARDS THE EMPATH :

First, an EMPATH  can be defined as a particularly sensitive and perceptive individual who is often the first to intuit that there is something ‘wrong’ with the sociopath. Such individuals can represent a threat to the sociopath as they have the potential to expose him/her (the sociopath) and challenge his/her manipulative behavior.

Frequently, due to this threat, the sociopath turns on/ becomes aggressive towards / attacks / tries to discredit the empath in an attempt to stop him/her (the empath) exposing him/her (the sociopath) and speaking the truth about his/her (the sociopath’s) behaviour.

HOW THE SOCIOPATH ENLISTS THE SUPPORT OF THE APATH :

In order to try to defeat, or, even, psychologically destroy the empath, the sociopath will often enlist the support of the apath (or the support of several apaths).

An apath is someone who lacks the judgment or insight to perceive the sociopath’s malevolent manipulative behaviour, or someone who is too apathetic and morally cowardly to care about it or do anything about it. If, on top of this, the apath bears the empath a grudge, the perverse collusion between the sociopath and apath may prove particularly devastating.

The psychological theorists, McGregor and McGregor, who originally formulated the above theory, termed this dynamic the sociopath-empath-apath triad. By way of illustration, the concept could apply to a family in the following manner :

  • mother = sociopath
  • youngest son = empath
  • oldest son = apath
  • father = apath

In the above example, there are two apaths; however, in other situations there may be just one or three or more.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

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Parental Antipathy Towards The Child And Psychological Abuse

The psychological researcher Moran, PhD, differentiates parental‘antipathy’ (towards the child) from ‘psychological abuse’, although there is clearly considerable overlap between the two.

Sadly, as a child, I had both inflicted upon me : direct, unmitigated psychological abuse came mainly from my mother, then, after she threw me out of her house when I was thirteen and I had to go and live with my father and stepmother, they subjected me to constant and unrelenting antipathy. I can only remember my father giving me one compliment in the years I lived with him and his second wife; from my stepmother, I recall none. My constant, overriding and abiding sense was that they both, frankly, disdained my very presence. In fact, I was essentially ignored unless they felt the need to criticize me, reprimand me, humiliate me or give me a (usually superfluous) instruction.

My mother’s last words, before I left her house, not addressed to me but to my father (who had come to pick me up in his car), regarding me, and in my presence, were : ‘Get this fucking little bastard out of my house and never bring it (she did not, apparently, deem it fit to dignify me with a personal pronoun) back’. And then, on the day I moved into my father’s house I was reminded by him that I was not wanted and was ‘being  done a great favour.’ I recall his precise words, in fact : ‘Remember! When Janet [my stepmother] married me, you weren’t part of the deal!’  You will agree, I think, that the implications of these words were fairly unambiguous?

My mothers’ (above) words were, fairly obviously, an example of psychological abuse, whilst my father’s words (above), equally obviously, were an example of antipathy. However, I have written about these incidents elsewhere, so will not elaborate further upon my personal experiences here; instead, I shall endeavour to define the terms ‘psychological abuse’ and ‘antipathy’ (as a form of emotional abuse) in more general terms:

According to Moran (see above), antipathy expressed towards the child by the parent involves the parent treating the child with constant  coldness and/or irritation, frequently intimating, or directly expressing, dislike/distaste and behaving towards the child in a generally rejecting manner.

Whereas, also according to Moran, psychological abuse can be split up into the following subcategories:

– terrorizing (such as playing on the child’s deepest fears)

– extreme rejection (such as driving a child to a distant location, making him/her get out of the car and leaving him/her there)

– humiliation

– cognitive disorientation (such as blatantly lying to the child in a way that causes mental confusion and/or undermines the child’s sense of reality; for example, verbally abusing the child and then denying it ever happened)

– deprivation of basic needs (eg sleep)

– deprivation of valued objects (eg a favourite soft toy the child relies on to feel less emotionally insecure)

– inflicting marked distress and discomfort

– corruption (eg encouraging the child to deal drugs)

[It is worth noting, too, that although Modern does not classify them as psychological abuse, he points out that role-reversal (whereby the parent turns the child into his/her carer) and making the child feel frequent shame (eg the parent may frequently get drunk and show up his/her child in front of his/her friends, or make the child wear filthy, shabby clothes to school)) can both inflict severe emotional harm upon the child].

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Subtle And Insidious Verbal Abuse Parents May Use Against Their Children

subtle types of verbal abuse

Because I self-harmed as a child, causing skin lacerations which would evolve into (admittedly unsightly) scabs on my arms, legs and shoulders, my older brother took to calling me ‘Scabby‘ and my mother quickly followed suit.

I was also an extremely sensitive child, so when my older brother wasn’t referring to me ‘Scabby’ he would refer to me as ‘Poof‘ (presumably on, the rather obviously, erroneous assumption that if a person were sensitive it follows he must necessarily be gay).

If I was upstairs doing my homework (which I threw myself into as a means of psychological escape) and dinner was ready my mother might shout out ‘Scabby, dinner’s ready‘ and my brother might chip in, ‘Yes, come along now Poof!’ (I remember, quite clearly, too, how this, or similar scenarios, would then be followed by my mother’s delighted, even triumphant, laughter (or perhaps ‘cackling’ might be a more apposite word).

If I protested, I was aggressively informed (palpably disingenuously) that they were only ‘teasing’ and to ‘stop making a silly and unnecessary fuss’. I would then be derided, ridiculed and mocked for being so ‘thin-skinned.’

But I have written about this before, so I will not go on.

The reason I do again refer to this treatment by my mother and older brother is that, in this article, I want to look at different ways in which parents may be verbally abusive towards their children. Whilst what I refer to above is blatant verbal abuse, parents may also employ far more subtle and insidious forms of such abuse.

Below I list some examples of how parents may be verbally abusive towards their child, including forms of verbal abuse which are less blatant than the example I’ve provided from my own personal experience (above).

 

 

EXAMPLES OF VERBAL ABUSE :

 

  •  UNDERMINING / DISPLAYING DERISION

For example, a child may tell his/her parent s/he has come top of a test, only to meet with the sarcastic response, ‘Oh, and I suppose you think you’re some kind of genius now, do you?’

  • THREATENING

For example, the parent may say to the child, ‘If you carry on behaving like this, I’m going to put you into care / up for adoption’

  • DENIAL / INVALIDATION OF CHILD’S FEELINGS

An example of this might be a parent saying something very hurtful to the child and then denying it was hurtful (possibly due to lack of insight and empathy or as a deliberate form of further provocation)

  • EXPRESSING ANGER ABUSIVELY

For example, a parent may scream at his/her child with his/her face only centimeters away from that of the child’s

  • EXPRESSING CONTEMPT / DISGUST

For example, saying to the child, ‘Just looking at you makes me feel physically sick’

  • TRIVIALIZING

For example, a parent responding to his/her child who has just announced proudly that s/he come second in a math test, by saying, ‘What’s so great about that? I always came top of my class. Second place is for losers.’

  • BLOCKING

For example, a parent may simply refuse to listen to his/her child’s concerns but instead treat these concerns dismissively and as being insignificant and tedious, perhaps by yawning theatrically and saying to the child in an exaggeratedly bored tone, ‘Oh, you sound like a broken record’, particularly when, by any reasonably objective standard, the child’s concerns are significant

  • DIVERTING

For example, the parent may evasively and deliberately change the subject when his/her child brings up significant concerns

  • WITHHOLDING

This refers to when a parent never emotionally engages with his/her child. For example, all verbal interaction may be dry, superficial and largely confined to factual information / statements like, ‘Put your bike away in the garage’ or, ‘Wash your hands’, or, ‘Go to bed now.’

  • COUNTERING

For example, the parent may perpetually and aggressively contradict the child’s views and opinions, gradually sapping away his/her confidence and self-belief

  • DISMISSING THE CHILD’S FEELINGS

For example, a child may cry after his/her parent has said something hurtful to him/her only to be criticized for being ‘too sensitive‘ or for ‘over-reacting.

  • ‘HUMOUR’

For example, a parent may say something very hurtful to his/her child and then attempt to exonerate him/herself by claiming, ‘It was only a joke’ and, then, perhaps, accusing the child of having, ‘No sense of humour,’ thus adding insult to injury.

 

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When Parents Threaten Their Child With Violence

I have written elsewhere about how my mother was prone to unpredictable, unprovoked outbursts of extreme hostility when I was very young but it is only now I feel I want to be a little more specific – something has prevented me from going into detail up until now, although that ‘something’ is very hard to define, despite the fact I have (I hope!) gained a fair amount of insight into my past and its effects upon me.

When she was angry my mother’s verbal rage knew no limits ; her frequently repeated threats or hurtful statements included :

  • ‘I feel evil towards you! Evil!’ (The second ‘evil’ delivered in a particularly melodramatic, emphatic and malevolent tone)
  • ‘I feel I could knife you!’
  • ‘I feel murderous towards you!’  (or, if I was ‘lucky’, she’d be slightly more restrained and scream at me the rather more banal phrase, ‘I wish to Christ I’d never bloody had you!’ (though delivered in a tone of devastating conviction and palpable authenticity; one could almost feel the hot waves of hatred emanating from her).

(There may well be still worse examples which I have either repressed or which occurred when I was too young for them to form long-term memories – I simply can’t know; but this, of course, is true of everyone).

At the time, being on the receiving end of these, how shall I put it, rather less than maternally loving statements, I think I felt very little; just numb, in fact, as if everything had gone hazy and foggy. It seems I must have mentally shut down as a form of self-preservation; this is a psychological defense mechanism I now know to be called ‘dissociation‘).

For years, even decades, I kept these memories at the very back of my mind, so to speak, but, of course, that will have only worsened their psychological effect.

It is only now, decades later (I was about twelve-years-old when my mother’s verbal aggression was at its most vehement, just as I was entering puberty) that I feel ready to attempt to mentally process such experiences. However, painful this may be, avoiding doing so is likely to be even more so.

Very few of the articles I publish on this site are so personal and I apologize for, once again, indulging myself. However, my next post will be more objective and its topic directly related this one : ‘The Effects Of Parental Threats Of Violence Upon The Child.’

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Have You ‘Blanked Out’ Painful Parts Of Your Childhood?

blanked out childhood

In this article I want to focus on two different types of memory; these are :

  1. EPISODIC MEMORY
  2. PROCEDURAL MEMORY

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

  1. EPISODIC MEMORY :

This part of our memory deals with happenings and events. For example, our memory of our first day at school (if we have one – I don’t, as it happens) is an EPISODIC MEMORY, as is our memory (again, if we have one – again, I don’t) of our seventh birthday.

Most people do not have any EPISODIC MEMORIES that predate their third birthday and many others do not have any EPISODIC MEMORIES which predate their fifth birthday. (I have virtually no memory of anything before I was about eight years old, which is unusual).

Freud called these deficiencies in early episodic memories infantile amnesia and that the cause of this memory loss was repression. However, modern neuroscience suggests that Freud was mistaken and that the real reason that early episodic memories fail to form is due to the fact that the brain has not developed sufficiently to create and store such memories (in technical terms, insufficient MYELINATION has occurred in the brain for episodic memory to function adequately).

However, if we can’t remember significant chunks of our childhoods that occurred AFTER ABOUT THE AGE OF FIVE YEARS, modern psychodynamic theory assumes that THIS failure of episodic memory IS due to repression. In other words, the theory suggests we have unconsciously ‘buried’ (i.e. repressed) these memories as they are too painful, distressing and traumatizing to hold in (or, indeed, be permitted direct access to) conscious memory.

 

 

        2) PROCEDURAL MEMORY :

Procedural memory works on an unconscious level and starts to function, unlike episodic memory (see above), as soon as we are born. It stores memories of how to perform tasks (during the period we learn how to perform these tasks) and stores this knowledge in long-term memory so that when we try to perform the task again we know how to do so without consciously thinking about it and without being able, again on a conscious level, to remember precisely how we learned to do it in the first place. This sounds a little complicated so here’s a (hopefully elucidating) example :

We know how to walk even though we do it without thinking about it (i.e. on ‘autopilot’) and without being able to remember learning to do it. Therefore, knowing how to walk relies on procedural memory.

This type of memory is also sometimes referred to as IMPLICIT MEMORY and, as well as things like learning to crawl, walk and talk, implicit memory also stores information about how we interacted with, and related to, our primary care-givers in our earliest years; and, again, this memory is stored unconsciously.

However, even though this information about how we related in very early life to our primary care-givers does not have access to conscious recall, it still, according to modern psychodynamic theory, powerfully affects how we relate to others in adult life. Indeed, if, for example, our primary care-giver in early life was frequently aggressive towards us then this information is stored in implicit memory and puts us at high risk of being highly susceptible to the effects of stress in later life.

And this theory is reinforced by neuroscientific experiments which have found that if we are subjected to significant stress in early life this actually adversely affects the brain’s physical development, and, in particular, the development of a brain region called the amygdala which plays a central role in the brain’s reaction to external stressors.

CONCLUSION :

We can conclude that, according to modern psychodynamic theory, if large chunks of our childhood (after the age of about five years) are ‘missing’ from our memory, it is quite possible we have repressed the memory of these parts of our lives as they were too disturbing and traumatizing to be ‘permitted’ direct access to conscious memory.

Also, if our very early relationships (before our episodic memory started to function effectively) with our primary care-givers were highly stressful, this may have adversely affected our brain’s physical development (leading to adult difficulties dealing with stress, amongst other problems) even though we cannot remember this very early part of our lives.

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‘Adultification’ Of The Child By The Parent.

adultification

‘Adultification’ of a child by a parent entails that parent inappropriately assigning the child an adult role within the family that s/he is too young, and too developmentally immature, to take on or cope with.

It may involve the parent treating the child like an adult friend, a partner, a confidante or, as happened in my own case, a kind of personal counsellor/therapist (even before I was a teenager, my mother referred to me as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’, amongst other, somewhat less complimentary, things, as I have written about elsewhere on this site).

The child may be ‘adultified’ in such a way even when the parent has access to more appropriate means of emotional support such as close friends or adult family members; however, the phenomenon is especially likely to occur if a parent has recently divorced or separated. In such a situation, for example, the newly single mother may start to use her son (for it is more frequently a son than daughter in such cases, according to research) for psychological and emotional support; if her recent separation has not been amicable there is often a danger that she may enlist her son as an ‘ally’ against this other parent, perhaps destroying the father-son relationship

As well as being expected to provide emotional support, some parentified children may be expected to provide practical support (such as overly arduous household duties or excessive personal care).

Manipulation:

A parent who ‘adultifies’ his/her child may do so in a manipulative manner by only providing this child with approval as long as s/he (the child) is making great efforts (at the expense of his/her own needs) to fulfil the parent’s emotional needs. This obviously exploits the child’s innate need to positively bond with the parent, especially if the other parent is now absent.

Possible Effects Of Adultification Upon The Child:

Because the child is not developmentally ready (i.e. is not emotionally mature enough) to fulfil the adult role assigned to him/her, the effects tend to be negative and destructive; I provide examples below:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • impaired relationships with peers
  • deterioration in quality of school work
  • career problems in adulthood
  • difficulty maintaining relationships in adulthood

According to a recent study, the child may be adultified by the parent in four main ways:

1) By attaining precocious knowledge (e.g. by being treated as a confidante by the parent and made to discuss ‘adult matters’)

2) ‘Mentored’ adultification (assuming an adult role within the family with minimal supervision).

3) ‘Spousification’ (being treated as the parent’s spouse – this may entail sexual abuse)

4) ‘Parentification’ (having to act as a parent of younger siblings)

Whilst the effects of adultification upon the child are often negative, some evidence exists to suggest that mentored adultification (number 2 above) and parentification (looking after younger siblings – number 4 above) may help to increase a child’s confidence – however, such conclusions must be drawn tentatively as research into this area is still at a nascent stage.

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Emotionally Unstable Parents

The intense and costantly and dramatically fluctuating moods of the emotionally unstable parent permeate and dominate the household and can overwhelm the child, particularly when the intense emotions the parent is expressing are especially destructive ones such as hatred or suicidal despair.

Because the parent’s intense, destructive emotions are so unpredictable and can emerge ‘out of the blue’ the child can be made to feel constantly trepidatious, anxious or fearful, never knowing what to expect.

By definition, the emotionally unstable parent has great difficulty controlling his/her emotions; lack of control over one’s emotions is sometimes referred to as emotional dysregulation

This emotional dysregulation is likely to be most apparent when the individual is under stress (including minor stress that the majority of people would easily be capable of tolerating with relative equanimity).

Emotionally unstable patents often regard themselves as victims. Also, some may frequently use threats in order to manipulate others (without much in the way of guilt due to their lack of empathy).

Some may be suffering from personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.

Children who grow up with such parents tend to become psychologically insecure due, in large part, to the the inconsistency and unreliability of the parent’s emotional support.

Such parents often exploit their children, viewing them more as possessions to be exploited for their benefit rather than as individuals with their own specific set of unique emotional and psychological needs.

And, because of this, the child-parent relationship may become inverted; this is sometimes referred to as the parentification of the child – s/he becomes, in many respects, the parent’s parent (e.g. perpetually providing the parent with emotional support; indeed, this happened to me, starting before I became a teenager – in fact, my mother used to refer to me as her ‘little psychiatrist’.

Because the child is often forced to live to fulfil his parent’s needs rather than his/her own, this can lead him/her to develop identity problems as an adult.

Often, the emotionally unstable parent is able to mask their problem outside the home meaning that nobody appreciates the great stress under which the child is forced to live. This makes intervention on the child’s behalf far less likely.

If a child is forced to live under severe and protracted stress, the physical development of his/her brain may be affected; you can read one of my articles on this by clicking here.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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