When a child is continually mistreated, s/he will inevitably conclude that s/he must be innately bad. This is because s/he has a need (at an unconscious level) to preserve the illusion that her/his parents are good; this can only be achieved by taking the view that the mistreatment is deserved.
The child develops a fixed pattern of self-blame and a belief that their mistreatment is due to their ‘own faults’. As the parent/s continue to mistreat the child, perhaps taking out their own stresses and frustrations on her/him, the child’s negative self-view becomes continually reinforced. Indeed, the child may become the FAMILY SCAPEGOAT, blamed for all the family’s problems.
The child will often become full of anger, rage and aggression towards the parent/s and may not have developed sufficient articulacy to resolve the conflict verbally. A vicious circle then develops: each time the child rages against the parent/s, the child blames her/himself for the rage and the self-view of being ‘innately bad’ is further deepened.
This negative self-view may be made worse if one of the child’s unconscious coping mechanisms is to take out (technically known as DISPLACEMENT) her/his anger with the parent/s on others who may be less feared but do not deserve it (particularly disturbed children will sometimes take out their rage against their parent/s by tormenting animals; if the parent finds out that the child is doing this, it will be taken as further ‘evidence’ of the child’s ‘badness’, rather than as a major symptom of extreme psychological distress, as, in fact, it should be).
The more the child is badly treated, the more s/he will believe s/he is bringing the treatment on her/himself (at least at an unconscious level), confirming the child’s FALSE self-view of being innately ‘bad’, even ‘evil’ (especially if the parent/s are religious).
What is happening is that the child is identifying with the abusive parent/s, believing, wrongly, that the ‘badness’ in the parent/s actually resides within themselves. This has the effect of actually preserving the relationship and attachment with the parent (the internal thought process might be something like: ‘it is not my parent who is bad, it is me. I am being treated in this way because I deserve it.’ This thought process may well be, as I have said, unconscious).
Eventually, the child will come to completely INTERNALIZE the belief that s/he is ‘bad’ and the false belief will come to fundamentally underpin the child’s self-view, creating a sense of worthlessness and self-loathing.
Often, even when mental health experts intervene and explain to the child it is not her/his fault that they have been ill-treated and that they are, in fact, in no way to blame, the child’s negative self-view can be so profoundly entrenched that it is extremely difficult to erase.
In such cases, a lot of therapeutic work is required in order to reprogram the child’s self-view so that it more accurately reflects reality. Without proper treatment, a deep sense of guilt and shame (which is, in reality, completely unwarranted) may persist over a lifetime with catastrophic results.
Any individual affected in such a way would be extremely well advised to seek psychotherapy and other professional advice as even very deep-rooted negative self-views as a result of childhood trauma (Known as CORE BELIEFS, see immediately below) can be very effectively treated.
By the time we are adults, most of us have developed very entrenched, deeply rooted, fundamental beliefs about ourselves. Psychologists refer to these as our CORE BELIEFS. Once established, they can prove very difficult to change without the aid of therapeutic interventions (such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT).
A traumatic childhood, especially one that involved us being rejected and unloved by our parents, will very frequently have a very adverse effect on these CORE BELIEFS. However, precisely how our self-concept is warped and distorted by our problematic childhood experiences will depend upon the unique aspects of those experiences (as well as other factors such as our genetic inheritance, our temperament and the support we received (or failed to receive) from others to help us to cope with our childhood difficulties.
Examples of the kind of false core beliefs our traumatic childhood experiences could have led us to form are as follows :
OTHERS WILL ABANDON ME – this belief may develop if one/both parents abandoned us during our childhoods, for example
I AM NOT WORTH OTHERS CARING ABOUT – this belief may develop if our parent/s focused far more on their own needs than our own, for example
I MUST BE SELF-SACRIFICING – this belief may develop if our parent/s ‘parentified’ us, for example
I MUST SUBJUGATE MYSELF TO OTHERS – this belief may develop if our own views and needs were dismissed as unimportant by our parent/s, for example
I AM A SOCIAL PARIAH, UNFIT TO ASSOCIATE WITH OTHERS – this belief may develop if we grew up feeling our childhood experiences set us apart from our contemporaries or if we were in some way ‘forced to grow up’ too early so that we developed difficulties relating to those of our own age during childhood (perhaps we were so anxious and preoccupied we couldn’t behave in a care-free way join in the ‘fun’).
I AM INTRINSICALLY UNLOVABLE – this belief may have developed if we were unloved, or PERCEIVED OURSELVES TO BE UNLOVED, by our parent/s, for example
I AM VULNERABLE AND IN CONSTANT DANGER – such a belief can develop if we spent a lot of our childhood feeling anxious, under stress, apprehensive or in fear, for example
I MUST ALWAYS KEEP TO THE HIGHEST OF STANDARDS – such a belief may develop if our parents only CONDITIONAL LOVED/ACCEPTED us
I AM SPECIALLY ENTITLED – this belief may develop if we feel (probably on an unconscious level) that society, in general, should compensate us for our childhood suffering or because we are so overwhelmed by our emotional pain that we can’t help but to focus almost exclusively upon our own needs (rather as we would, say if we were on fire).
Unfortunately, such deeply instilled core beliefs are liable to become self-fulfilling prophecies. As already stated, they are resilient to change and this state of affairs is seriously aggravated by the fact that, once such beliefs have become deeply ingrained, our view of the world is so coloured that we misinterpret, or ‘over-interpret’, what is going on around us, specifically :
We selectively attend to, and absorb, information which supports, or, seems to us to support, our negative view of ourselves, while, at the same time, ignoring or discounting anything that contradicts our negative self-view. In so doing, we are likely, often, to grossly overestimate the significance of the information that seems to confirm our negative self-view, or simply completely to misinterpret information (e.g. by thinking/believing: ‘he just yawned because I’m boring’, whereas, in fact, he yawned because he had not slept for twenty-four hours).
Effect On Interpersonal Relationships In Adulthood:
Such self-destructive and dysfunctional beliefs about the self, developed during a psychologically unhealthy and traumatic childhood, have, unsurprisingly, been found significantly to contribute to maladaptive interpersonal styles when we become adults (e.g. Tezel et al., 2015). This can, of course, lead to loneliness, isolation and increase one’s sense of alienation.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help us to think less negatively about ourselves.
TEZEL, F.K. Archives Of Neuropsychiatry (2015) Relationships between Childhood Traumatic Experiences, Early Maladaptive Schemas and Interpersonal Styles