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Childhood Abuse: The Lasting Effects on Families

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistJuly 20, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Someone on the Relationships and Coping Community recently explained that she grew up in a family where the daughters were abused; and she was struggling with family dynamics that center on issues related to that abuse. Unfortunately, such struggles are common. So, in response to her, and to all who can relate, I offer these thoughts.

Surviving childhood abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional) does not end with childhood. Along with having to cope with personal struggles for years to come, surviving also means dealing with ongoing family dynamics related to the abuse. Sometimes strong ties are forged between siblings who supported or tried to protect each other. However, all too often there continue to be problems, such as issues of secrecy and betrayal.

These kinds of family dynamics can leave people feeling traumatized all over again. Siblings might ostracize a man who expresses anger toward a father who beat him. A mother might deny her daughter’s stories of being sexually abused by her father or grandfather; or she might blame the daughter for the abuse. Responses such as these invalidate a person’s experiences and create new struggles in adulthood.

When this happens to you, it is important that you work through issues within yourself. You need to come to accept and have compassion for yourself for having experienced past abuse; to find a way to feel whole and healthy as a person. And, you must find a way to relate to others and the world around you in a more positive way – for instance, recognizing when people are truly supportive of you and nurturing those relationships.

Then when you face your family, proceed cautiously and know what response you are seeking. Although you might want to resolve issues, you must also be prepared for handling disappointment in a healthy, self-compassionate way. This means being clear within yourself that it is no longer acceptable to ‘keep family secrets’ or take blame for abuse perpetrated on you. It also means being willing to find peace within yourself without your family’s blessing (though this might not be your first choice).

One common struggle that emerges for people is feeling guilty for abandoning or betraying their family. If you can relate to this, it’s important to realize that a child who is abused by their family is in an extremely harmful circumstance. Finding a way to get out of it is not a crime, but rather a matter of physical or emotional survival.

Another common struggle is experiencing guilt for lacking the love you “should” feel toward your parents. In this circumstance, it’s important to realize that relationships cannot be ordered up like a side of French fries. They must be nurtured; so liking or loving someone (even a parent) is not something that can be demanded (by you or someone else). If you feel it is your duty to care for a parent or help a sibling, you can live up to that obligation without ‘feeling the love.’

I also find that people often mislabel as guilt what is actually sadness about a bad situation, or having sympathy for others. For instance, “I feel guilty about moving on” can mean “I feel sad about all that has happened. I feel sad and disappointed that my siblings are still stuck in my destructive family dynamics; and that we don’t have a close relationship.”

All of these personal issues and family dynamics are complicated and emotional. Because of this, resolving them will not just happen. It takes effort and time. Supportive relationships are essential – and professional help is often needed to navigate these treacherous waters. But the waters can be navigated, and you can guide yourself to a happier, healthier life.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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