Child Abuse/Neglect Can Predict Emotional Abuse in Adults
Research shows a relationship between child abuse and interpersonal violence.
Posted February 4, 2021
I do not wish to engage in victim-blaming, so I will state at the beginning of this post that there are many victims of emotional abuse (women and men) who do not have a history of childhood abuse. There are many emotionally healthy individuals who can become attracted to abusive partners.
That said, in this post, I discuss how childhood abuse and neglect can set a person up to enter an emotionally abusive relationship. As I wrote in my previous posts on emotional abuse, shame is the most damaging aspect of emotional abuse in adults. But it is also the most destructive effect of childhood abuse. Furthermore, shame and the damage it does to childhood victims can be a primary reason why former victims of child abuse or neglect may stay in emotionally abusive relationships as adults.
Shaming may feel normal to many because many parents (and other caretakers) believe that shaming a child is an acceptable and even beneficial form of discipline. There are many ways that parents shame their children. These include:
Belittling. Comments from parents like: “You’re such a cry-baby,” or “I’m ashamed to be seen with you” are horribly humiliating to a child, as is making a negative comparison between your child and another child, such as, “Why can’t you act like Bobby? He isn’t a cry-baby.” This is not only humiliating but teaches a child to always compare himself with peers.
Blaming. When a child makes a mistake, it is important for her to take responsibility for her action. But many parents go way beyond teaching the child a lesson by blaming and berating their children: “You stupid idiot! You should have known better than to…” All this accomplishes is to shame the child to such an extent that she cannot find a way to walk away from the situation with her dignity intact.
Contempt. Expressions of disgust or contempt communicate absolute rejection. The look of contempt (often a sneer or a raised upper lip), especially from someone who is significant to a child, can be a devastating inducer of shame because the child is made to feel disgusting or offensive.
Humiliation. As Gershen Kaufman stated in his book, Shame: The Power of Caring: “There is no more humiliating experience than to have another person who is clearly the stronger and more powerful take advantage of that power and give us a beating.” (1992). This is especially true if the beating is done in front of others.
Disabling expectations. Appropriate parental expectations serve as necessary guides to behavior and are not disabling. Disabling expectations, on the other hand, have to do with pressuring a child to excel or perform a task, skill, or activity. Parents who have an inordinate need to have their child excel at a particular activity or skill are likely to behave in ways that pressure the child to do more and more. According to Kaufman, when a child becomes aware of the real possibility of failing to meet parental expectations, he or she often experiences a binding self-consciousness. This self-consciousness—the painful watching of oneself—is very disabling. When something is expected of us in this way, attaining the goal is made harder, if not impossible.
Telling a child you are disappointed in them. Yet another way that parents induce shame in their children is by communicating to them that they are a disappointment to them. Such messages as “I am deeply disappointed in you,” accompanied by a disapproving tone of voice and facial expression, can crush a child’s spirit.
Other Significant Shaming Experiences
In addition to parental shaming, victims of emotional abuse may have previously been shamed by child abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Research shows that shame is an emotion that is highly characteristic of victims of childhood abuse, causing them to belittle and degrade themselves and to believe that they brought the abuse on themselves. They also tend to believe they do not deserve to be loved. This belief is often carried forward into their adult relationships.
Furthermore, research suggests that adults, particularly women, who were victimized as children are at risk of re-victimization in later life. For example, in one famous survey, it was found that 72% of women who experienced either physical or sexual abuse as a child also experienced violence in adulthood, compared to 43% of women who did not experience child abuse.
In general, those who experienced any form of child abuse or neglect are particularly vulnerable when it comes to being re-victimized. This is true for several important reasons:
- An impaired sense of self. This can cause them to look to the reactions of others to gauge how they are feeling about a situation. Because of this, they may be gullible and easily manipulated by others. They may be unable to establish appropriate boundaries with others, including their partner. In addition, they may have difficulty asking others for help, creating or finding a support network, or taking advantage of the support that is available.
- Avoidance. Avoidance symptoms can help us cope by temporarily reducing emotional pain. Some of the more serious symptoms related to avoidance are substance abuse, compulsive high-risk sexual activities, eating disorders, and self-injurious behaviors. One of the most common types of avoidance is dissociation—a way to “escape” from abuse and pain. Adults survivors of child abuse often describe being able to numb their bodies or “watch” the abuse from above their body while they are being abused. Dissociation can become an unconscious habit, however, and can therefore not only remove you from uncomfortable or abusive situations but add to your tendency to deny that abuse is occurring. If you aren’t present in your own body you will put up with abuse for far too long. While you may not be consciously aware of the abuse or its consequences, it doesn’t mean you aren’t being negatively affected.
- Cognitive distortions. If you suffered abuse or neglect in childhood, you may view the world as a dangerous place. Because you were powerless in the past, you may underestimate your own sense of self-efficacy and self-worth in dealing with danger, and feel that there is nothing you can do when faced with difficult situations. You may feel powerless to protect yourself.
- Low self-esteem. Research shows that women in particular who experienced childhood violence or who witnessed parental violence could be at risk of being victimized as adults as they are more likely to have low self-esteem.
- Violence is normalized. Those who grow up in households where one parent emotionally or physically abuses the other come away believing that violent behavior is a normal response to dealing with conflict.
- Betrayal trauma. This occurs when a child is betrayed by someone the child should trust and who should be trustworthy, for example, sexual abuse by a parent, other relative, or teacher. These early experiences of personal violation interfere with the child’s ability to make healthy decisions about whom to trust, including an inability to decipher potentially emotionally unhealthy situations. In addition, someone with trust deficits can experience the following: 1) A limited ability to engage in proper self-defense actions and to self-protect, and 2) an inability to end a physically or emotionally abusive relationship.
Child Sexual Abuse
While all abuse is shaming, child sexual abuse can be especially shaming. It is important to acknowledge just how much childhood sexual abuse influences and even forms a former victim’s personality, the ability to protect themselves from further sexual and other violations, and even their motivation to do so. Former victims of childhood sexual abuse are often unable to stand up for themselves and adequately protect themselves. This is because the effects of this type of abuse are devastating to a young girl or boy’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-concept. Furthermore, the trauma can make it difficult for former victims to believe they deserve to be protected and respected.
Emotional neglect can have as much of a negative impact as physical or sexual abuse. Childhood emotional neglect happens when a parent fails to respond to a child’s emotional needs. Even though the parent may take care of the child overall, something invisible is missing: The parent doesn’t validate their child’s feelings or respond to their child’s emotional needs.
Research shows that childhood neglect increases a person’s vulnerability to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in adulthood and that adults with histories of childhood neglect were found to have an increased risk for a greater number and variety of acts of psychological abuse from an intimate partner.
Emotionally neglected children feel their needs weren’t important, that their feelings don’t matter, or that they should never ask for help (either because it is perceived as a sign of weakness or because they believe it is hopeless). As they grow up, they tend to experience unnecessary guilt, self-anger, low self-confidence, or a sense of being deeply, personally flawed.
If you were emotionally neglected as a child, think about how that experience could have caused you to be vulnerable to an emotional abuser as an adult, either because he or she seemed to hold the promise of you receiving the love and attention you didn’t get from your parents, or because you expected so little from a partner given the little you received as a child.
Numerous studies have reported a relationship between child abuse and neglect and the perpetration of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). In fact, at least one study, the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study, found that child abuse predicted IPV.
Engel, Beverly. (2020). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing the Shame You Don't Deserve. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp.
Kaufman, Gershen. (1992). Shame: the Power of Caring. New York: Schenkman Books, Inc.