When the hidden-denied reasons behind your childhood of multifaceted #childsexualabuse becomes known more clearly, what’s holding you back from responding alike “the reason I’ve grown so f-ed up, is due to your f-ing parent-church-school-club you took me through”?! #nrs💣
Published on August 18, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Table of Contents
- How Do I Know If I Was Emotionally Neglected as a Child?
- What Are Some Examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect?
- How Does Emotional Neglect in Childhood Affect Us as Adults?
- How Emotional Neglect Causes Trauma
- Healing From Childhood Emotional Neglect
While everyone may perceive neglect differently, emotional neglect in childhood generally refers to when a child doesn’t experience emotional security or support from their guardian figures. Our emotions may have been completely ignored or invalidated—purposefully or unconsciously—or we might have been explicitly shamed for expressing our feelings.
Emotional neglect is considered a form of trauma, as it can have long-lasting and profound effects on a person’s emotional and psychological well-being.
— DANIEL RINALDI, MHC
This form of neglect can occur when a caregiver is not present, but when they are present they are emotionally unavailable, if the parent is ill-equipped to handle childhood emotions, or if the parent is purposefully dismissive.
“Emotional neglect is considered a form of trauma, as it can have long-lasting and profound effects on a person’s emotional and psychological well-being,” says therapist Daniel Rinaldi, MHC. He adds that chronic emotional neglect can shape our emotional landscape as adults by affecting our self-esteem and impacting our interpersonal relationships.
Ongoing childhood emotional neglect is a form of child abuse and can lead to lasting trauma. This trauma can make it hard to develop a healthy relationship with others and with ourselves. We might even engage in self-sabotaging behaviors.
Therapy can teach us how to properly identify and label our emotions so that we can deal with them in a healthy way and begin to truly heal.
How Do I Know If I Was Emotionally Neglected as a Child?
Raising children is highly nuanced and inherently difficult; there’s no doubt that our parents or caregivers made mistakes along the way. However, chronic emotional neglect is not the norm, and its ripple effects follow us well into adulthood.
“Emotional neglect can be hard to spot because it is not always visible—even to a professional,” says Aurisha Smolarski, LMFT, founder of Cooperative Coparenting. “It is also hard to spot because it tends to be based less on what a parent does and more on what they don’t do.”
Smolarski says that emotional neglect can be either intentional or unintentional, or even unconscious.
Some parents emotionally neglect their children because they’re uncomfortable with emotions in general and are unsure of how to respond to the complex feelings a child experiences.
Other parents are too overwhelmed with the stress in their own life—including struggles with addiction, work-life balance, child-rearing, and mental health issues. Smolarski also notes that parents who experienced abuse or neglect themselves may be more likely to neglect their own children.
What Are Some Examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Here are some signs of childhood emotional neglect. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it provides a general idea of what emotional neglect looks like:
- Punishment for expressing negative emotions like sadness, frustration, or anger (e.g., being told to go to your room or be quiet)
- Lack of shared celebration or joy when experiencing a positive emotion like happiness or excitement (it might even present as zapping the positive emotion with a negative response)
- Being told your feelings or experiences aren’t valid or worth further examination (example phrases might include “You’re too sensitive,” “Stop acting like a baby” or “Don’t worry about it.”)
- Dismissed or ignored feelings because the parent is focused on themselves or another situation
- Withholding or not showing affection, whether it is explicitly requested or not
- Failure to intervene or find a solution in situations when a child is under emotional stress
- Not acknowledging difficult emotions like grief after losing a pet or embarrassment after being bullied (often because the parent struggles to recognize or process these emotions themselves)
How Does Emotional Neglect in Childhood Affect Us as Adults?
Those of us who were emotionally neglected as children often develop behavior patterns or coping mechanisms. Any of the following might be indicative of emotional neglect in childhood.
Emotional neglect can be either intentional or unintentional, or even unconscious.
Difficulty Expressing and Processing Emotions
Childhood emotional neglect can cause us to avoid emotions all together in adulthood. We may struggle to identify our feelings or find it difficult to process big feelings.
There might also be a general sense of “numbness,” which is ultimately a form of self-protection. Smolarski adds, “They may choose to leave a relationship or situation instead of asking for something they need because that feels safer than the risk of rejection.”
They may withdraw or isolate from social or peer groups because they feel different and because they fear being asked to talk about how they feel.
— AURISHA SMOLARSKI, LMFT
On the other side of the coin, Smolarski says that if we’ve been emotionally neglected as kids, we might end up becoming the “caretaker” or “burden holder” of our friends and family.
Essentially, addressing other people’s emotions and needs allows us to feel worthy, loved, needed, and good enough. This can backfire if we end up focusing so much on others that we fail to prioritize ourselves.
We May Have a Super Hard Time Trusting Other People
Sometimes it feels safer to put up walls so that no one else can get in and potentially hurt us. We’re simply trying to protect ourselves.
So, if we’ve experienced pain in the past we might end relationships the moment we feel threatened or avoid relationships completely.
Vulnerability and opening up to other people may feel scary too which limits the ability to connect with others. “They may withdraw or isolate from social or peer groups because they feel different and because they fear being asked to talk about how they feel,” Smolarski notes.
She adds that some might even self-sabotage their relationships to avoid feeling abandoned, rejected, or neglected. And those who find themselves in close relationships may struggle to access or voice their own emotions, which can negatively impact the relationship.
Our Self-Esteem May Take a Hit
Rinaldi says that chronic childhood neglect can often cause people to have low self-worth. If our self-esteem is low, we might write off our own emotions or even let people walk all over us.
Low self-esteem may also cause struggles with self-compassion and self-love.
We May Try to Cope in Some Not-So-Healthy Ways
In some cases, childhood emotional neglect can present with poor coping techniques as an adult. Bonnie Scott, LPC-S, founder of Mindful Kindness Counseling, says this is often because people who’ve been neglected have trouble trusting their own experience of emotions and needs.
“They may meet those needs in maladaptive ways, like becoming codependent on people who aren’t good for them or showing people-pleasing behaviors to keep people around,” Scott says. They might also rely on drugs or alcohol to get them through a difficult emotion or become addicted to shopping, porn, online usage, risky sex, or food.
How Emotional Neglect Causes Trauma
Rinaldi says that emotional neglect can impact someone’s life—even if it occurs only once or twice—though it is even more profound and complex when there’s a chronic pattern extended over a period of time.
Ongoing Neglect Is Child Abuse
Ongoing emotional neglect is considered a form of child abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it’s a traumatic experience that, if severe or continued over a long period of time, can affect a child’s development.1
“Trauma can cause changes in the brain and nervous system that in turn lead to difficulty expressing emotions, lower self-esteem, shame, or guilt,” Smolarski says. “Children suffering from the trauma of neglect can have behavioral issues at home and in school and may struggle to form and maintain relationships in childhood and as adults.”
More severe neglect can lead to substance abuse, the tendency to engage in risky behavior, and long-term mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).2
Healing From Childhood Emotional Neglect
If you experienced childhood emotional neglect, know that you’re not alone. So many of us have survived this kind of abuse.
Making the effort to heal this wound is a sign of bravery, and can be done at any age.
— AURISHA SMOLARSKI, LMFT
Fortunately, healing is possible. There’s so much room for personal growth and a pathway to improved self-worth. Trust and emotional intimacy can be learned over time with patience and a strong support system. We can have and deserve fulfilling relationships.
“Remember that there is nothing wrong or bad about you or your emotions,” Smolarski says. “We all have emotions. It’s just that you didn’t have someone to reflect them back to you, to teach you that your emotions are welcome and valid, and to help you regulate them. Making the effort to heal this wound is a sign of bravery, and can be done at any age.”
Therapy Can Help
She adds that this process often requires professional support, such as therapy. Therapy allows us to explore past experiences, process unresolved emotions, and develop healthier coping strategies and communication skills.
In therapy, we can learn how to identify and label emotions accurately, develop self-compassion and self-acceptance, and figure out how to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
“Outside of professional settings, individuals can prioritize their emotional well-being through various self-care activities, such as engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment, practicing mindfulness and meditation to cultivate self-awareness, and journaling to express and process emotions,” Smolarski adds.
By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decad
Some People May Find It Harder Than Others to Manage Their Emotions
Updated on May 03, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
What Is Dysregulation?
Dysregulation, or emotional dysregulation, is an inability to control or regulate one’s emotional responses, which can lead to significant mood swings, significant changes in mood, or emotional lability. It can involve many emotions, including sadness, anger, irritability, and frustration.
While dysregulation is typically thought of as a childhood problem that usually resolves itself as a child learns proper emotional regulation skills and strategies, dysregulation may continue into adulthood.
For these individuals, emotional dysregulation can lead to a lifetime of struggles, including problems with interpersonal relationships, school performance, and the inability to function effectively in a job or at work.
Press Play for Advice On Regulating Your Emotions
Hosted by therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how to deal with your emotions in any circumstance that may come your way. Click below to listen now.
What Triggers Dysregulation?
Why is it that some people have no trouble remaining calm, cool, and collected while others fall apart at the first instance of something going wrong in their life?
The answer is that there are likely multiple causes; however, there is one that has been consistently shown in the research literature. That cause is early psychological trauma resulting from abuse or neglect on the part of the caregiver.1 This results in something known as a reactive attachment disorder.
In addition, a parent who has emotional dysregulation will also struggle to teach their child how to regulate emotions. Since children are not naturally born with emotional regulation coping skills, having a parent who cannot model effective coping puts a child at risk for emotional dysregulation themselves.
Is Dysregulation a Mental Disorder?
While dysregulation isn’t necessarily a mental disorder (or a sign of one), we know that emotional dysregulation in childhood can be a risk factor for later mental disorders. Some disorders are also more likely to involve emotional dysregulation.
Below is a list of the disorders most commonly associated with emotional dysregulation:2
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD)
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
When emotional dysregulation appears as part of a diagnosed mental disorder, it typically involves a heightened sensitivity to emotional stimuli and a lessened ability to return to a normal emotional state within a reasonable amount of time.
What Are Signs of Dysregulation?
In general, emotional dysregulation involves having emotions that are overly intense in comparison to the situation that triggered them. This can mean not being able to calm down, avoiding difficult emotions, or focusing your attention on the negative. Most people with emotional dysregulation also behave in an impulsive manner when their emotions (fear, sadness, or anger) are out of control.
Below are some examples of what it looks like when someone is experiencing emotional dysregulation.
- Your romantic partner cancels plans and you decide they must not love you and you end up crying all night and binging on junk food.
- The bank teller says they can’t help you with a particular transaction and you’ll need to come back the next day. You have an angry outburst, yell at the teller, and throw a pen across the counter at them.
- You attend a company dinner and everyone seems to be talking and having fun while you feel like an outsider. After the event, you go home and overeat to numb your emotional pain. This is also an example of poor coping mechanisms and emotional eating.
Emotional dysregulation can also mean that you have trouble recognizing the emotions that you are experiencing when you become upset. It might mean that you feel confused by your emotions, guilty about your emotions, or are overwhelmed by your emotions to the point that you can’t make decisions or manage your behavior.
Note that the behaviors of emotional dysregulation may show up differently in children, involving temper tantrums, outbursts, crying, refusing to make eye contact or speak, etc.
Impact of Emotional Dysregulation
Being unable to manage your emotions and their effects on your behavior can have a range of negative effects on your adult life. For instance:
- You might have trouble sleeping.
- You might struggle to let experiences go or hold grudges longer than you should.
- You might get into minor arguments that you blow out of proportion to the point that you end up ruining relationships.
- You might experience negative effects on your social, work, or school functioning.
- You might develop a mental disorder later in life because of a poor ability to regulate your emotions (e.g., depression)
- You might develop a substance abuse problem or addiction such as smoking, drinking, or drugs.
- You might engage in self-harm or other disordered behavior such as restrictive eating habits or binge eating.
- You might have trouble resolving conflict.
A child with emotional dysregulation may experience the following outcomes:
- A tendency to be defiant
- Problems complying with requests from teachers or parents
- Problems making and keeping friends
- Reduced ability to focus on tasks
How Do You Fix Dysregulation?
The two main options for treating emotion dysregulation are medication and therapy, depending on the individual situation. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
Medication may be used to treat emotion dysregulation when it is part of a larger mental disorder. For example, ADHD will be treated with stimulants, depression will be treated with antidepressants, and other issues might be treated with antipsychotics.
In terms of therapy for emotional dysregulation, the main treatment method has been what is known as dialectical behavior therapy(DBT).3 This form of therapy was originally developed by Marsha Linehan in the 1980s to treat individuals experiencing BPD.4
In general, this type of therapy involves improving mindfulness, validating your emotions, and engaging in healthy habits. It also teaches the skills needed to regulate your emotions. Through DBT, you learn to focus on the present moment, how to become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how to deal with stressful situations.
DBT argues that there are three “states of mind:”4
- Reasonable mind refers to being logical and rational.
- Emotional mind refers to your moods and sensations.
- Wise mind refers to the combination of your reasonable mind and your emotional mind.
DBT is about showing you that you can see situations as shades of grey rather than all black and white (in other words, combining your emotional mind and logic mind).
If you’ve just experienced a stressful situation or crisis and want to try a little DBT at home, pull out a journal and answer these questions.
- What was the event that caused you distress?
- What did you think about in the situation? (Write down three main thoughts.)
- How did these thoughts make you feel? (Write down any physical symptoms, things you did like crying, or feelings like being upset.)
- What was the consequence of the thoughts you had?
The goal of DBT is to balance your emotions with logic to obtain more positive outcomes from the situations that you find stressful. The goal is also to teach you to become more aware of the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. In this way, it’s expected that you will be able to better manage your emotions in your daily life.
Parenting a Child with Emotion Dysregulation
If you are a parent of a child who struggles with emotion dysregulation, you might be wondering what you can do to support your child. It is true that children learn emotion regulation skills from their parents. You have the ability to teach your child how to manage emotions rather than become overwhelmed by them. Here are some ways you can support them:
Your child also needs to know that they can reach out to you for help and comfort when needed. Having a supportive and reliable parent figure in their life will help to protect them against problems with emotional dysregulation.
- Recognize your own limitations. Do you have a mental disorder or have you struggled with your own emotion regulation skills? If so, you and your child might benefit from you receiving treatment or therapy to build up your own resilience. When you are better able to manage your own distress, then you will be able to offer the most support to your child.
- Lead by example. In addition, the best way to teach your child how to manage their emotions is not to demand that they behave in a certain way or punish them for acting out. Rather, the best option is to model the desired behavior yourself that you want them to adopt.
- Adjust accordingly. It can be helpful to start to recognize triggers for your child’s behavior and have a back-up plan of effective ways to deal with acting out. For example, if your child always has a tantrum when you take them to buy shoes, try picking out a pair in their size and bringing them home for them to try on.
- Maintain consistent routines. Children who struggle with emotion dysregulation benefit from predictability and consistency.5 Your child needs to know that you will be there for them when they need you and that they can rely on you to be the calming presence. When your own emotions are out of control, then it is much more likely that your child will be unable to manage their own emotions.
- Seek accommodations or additional support. If your child is in school, it is also important that you talk to their teacher about their problems with emotion regulation. Talk about the strategies that you use at home and how your child might need extra help in the classroom or reminders on how to calm down. If your child has a diagnosed disorder, they may be on a special education plan that allows accommodations or gives them extra help. Be sure to take advantage of that.
- Reward positive behavior. If you see your child acting in ways that are positive for emotion management, comment on those positive behaviors. Find ways to reward emotion management successes so that they will become more frequent.
Whether it’s you, your child, or someone you know who struggles with emotion dysregulation, it is important to know that this is something that can improve over time. In fact, 88% of those diagnosed with BPD are not predicted to meet criteria 10 years down the road.6 This goes to show that emotion regulation strategies can be learned and are very helpful for improving your situation and living the best life possible.
Regardless of your current circumstances, you can make changes that will result in improved social, school, and work functioning. You can learn to manage the stressful situations that cause you pain and work through past hurts or mistreatment that led you to where you are today.
By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of “Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder” and “7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety.” She has a Master’s degree in psychology.
Amongst the growing amount of public acknowledgment, that ‘those foreign cases of #childabuse’ are in fact happening within their own neighbourhood, at their own school, or ‘worst still’ to their own children – it’s understandable that some parent’s concerns won’t be for that safety of their own victimised child, but for themselves to be able to reclaim “wasted monies”. As we now live in a consumerist society, occasionally we hear of broken families, where their sole-concern is in filling their own hip pockets with some of that 💰, as fractures often occur in these horse-or-cart structures. (Experienced Satire)
As examples of some Private/Elite schools in Brisbane who’ve offered out some damages-compensation-(not hush money), here are some examples + links:
- Brisbane Grammar abuse victims push for tuition fee refund
- Child abuse royal commission: Anglican Church to refund school fees to victims of sexual abuse at schools in Brisbane diocese
- ‘A refund for faulty service’: Private school repays school fees following sexual abuse of student
- CARC dealing with Schools
As these were just a handful of examples of how a church-founded country of Australia, can be dealing with immersed control of a tax-free body, whilst still battling for equal rights of colonial-Indigenous after-effects – there are many more layers to unpack!
By Grace Jennings-Edquist and Sana Qadar
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, reading the details of the crimes can provoke a wide range of difficult emotions.
Some will feel vindicated and relieved that action is being taken, but anxious as the matter makes its way through the legal process, says Hetty Johnston, executive director of child protection advocacy organisation Bravehearts.
“For many survivors, they may have witnessed other people actually not make it to today as a result of what’s happened to them,” adds Tarja Malone, who manages the helpline at the Blue Knot Foundation, which supports adults impacted by childhood trauma.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of grief and loss for those who haven’t made it to today as a result of the abuse they’ve endured.”
If you’re feeling emotional after reading coverage of sexual abuse — or you’re supporting a loved one in that situation — there are several things these experts recommend.
Whether it’s social media or the news, “it’s good advice for people to limit how much media they digest around this if they’re feeling triggered,” says Ms Malone.
If you’re feeling panicky or anxious, don’t feel “compelled to keep digesting information about it over and over again”.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- beyondblue on 1300 224 636
- Blue Knot Foundationon 1300 657 380
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- QLife on 1800 184 527
When you see details of child sexual abuse in the news, actively deciding not to read the details of the crime might prevent you from feeling overwhelmed, explains psychotherapist Rita Barnett, who has worked with survivors of sexual violence.
“If you do read the details, try not to picture it or use your imagination when you’re reading the words; just try to separate them as much as you can,” Ms Barnett says.
“When you have a vivid picture in your mind, it’s very hard to remove that.”
Lean on support systems
Don’t bottle up how you’re feeling.
Reach out to friends or your counsellor, even your GP — anyone who understands your background and why this might be difficult for you.
“Speak to your friends, speak to your therapist — keep talking,” says Ms Johnston.
“If you don’t have those kinds of supports at the moment, then calling some of the helplines available would be a really good idea,” Ms Malone says.
If talking is really difficult, Carolyn Worth from the CASA (Centres Against Sexual Assault) Forum and manager at South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault suggests writing down how you’re feeling.
“Some people write a letter to someone — they’re not going to send it, but they write it out and they get some structure to their thoughts in some way.”
Other people find it useful to write a journal, she adds.
Spend time on self-care
There’s plenty you can do to help yourself feel better.
It may sound simple, but keeping to a routine, getting plenty of rest and exercise, and eating regular meals can help you feel more settled.
“Don’t suddenly decide to eat a whole packet of Tim Tams, because it won’t make you feel better in the long run,” Ms Worth says.
“And don’t have eight cups of coffee, which will hype you up.”
If you’re drawn to booze or illegal drugs, try to avoid them.
“It just makes things worse in the end; at some point, you will have to face those negative feelings.”
Instead, Ms Worth recommends making time for relaxation.
“What is it you really like doing? Is it watching first-class trash on TV? Then allow yourself to do that. Or take a bath, listen to music,” she says.
“If you’re into meditation, just sit and go and do that for a while … because we tend to do that when we’re feeling good, but not always when we really need it most.”
And if you’re stuck at work feeling emotional, take some time out for lunch or a walk. Perhaps you could ring a friend and chat.
If you’re really having trouble coping, Ms Malone suggests speaking to someone you trust at work: “Let them know you’ve received some news that’s been difficult,” and consider taking some time off.
Seek professional help if you need it
Feeling angry, sad or distressed after reading or hearing about abuse is understandable. But it’s wise to keep in mind that, if these negative feelings continue, a therapist or counsellor may help.
“If you’re still bouncing around about the same thing and you don’t feel any better at the end of a week, then ring up and make an appointment to see someone,” Ms Worth says.
“It’s bad for anyone to be that heightened for that long.”
Deal with deniers
As difficult as it is to deal with, there’s a chance you’ll encounter individuals who deny specific cases of abuse took place or blame the victims.
Unless arguing is cathartic for you, it’s probably best to walk away when you hear these comments, Ms Worth suggests.
“It’s like dealing with trolls — you’re wasting your time, you’re just giving them oxygen,” she says.
If a loved one is struggling
The most important thing you can do for someone who’s struggling is to simply be there.
“Be there to listen and to hear their experiences, distress or anger,” Ms Malone says.
“Normalise the responses the person might be having.”
You can also “gently talk to them about reaching out to professional support”, she adds. Consider going with them to a counsellor or being there while they ring a helpline.
It might be worth directly asking your loved one whether they’d like to discuss their feelings with you, Ms Worth suggests. Or they may prefer to simply be with you, doing something pleasant.
“It might be taking the dog to the beach, so you could do that and share with them,” Ms Worth says.
“If they want to watch something, sit with them so you’re there.”
Then, if they want to talk, you’ve made space so they can easily open up.
One more tip: “Leave the shame and the blame and all of that to the people who perpetrate the crime,” Ms Johnston says.
“Give that responsibility back to the perpetrator.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated for legal reasons.
Posted 26 Feb 201926 Feb 2019, updated 22 Aug 201922 Aug 2019
AUGUST 18, 2023
A child can never give consent. The sexual abuse of a child is just that – abuse. This abhorrent crime must be called what it is and we need to begin with the foundations, by ensuring that the correct terminology is entrenched in our legislation.
We may not realise it, but the words we use when we speak about child sexual abuse have immense power. They can change our perception as a society about this issue, and they can either shame or empower a victim-survivor of this crime.
Our general discomfort with the topic of child sexual abuse has historically led to the use of language which deprioritises the safety of children in Australia’s legislation. The State and Territory laws are inconsistent in their definitions, with many states having referred to the ‘persistent sexual abuse of a child’ as a ‘relationship’.
Recognising the harm and stigma that this causes victim-survivors, The Grace Tame Foundation launched their ‘Harmony Campaign’ in February 2022, which is aimed at making child sexual abuse laws consistent across all jurisdictions in Australia. The disparities around the age of consent, the definition of sexual intercourse, what consent is and grooming, as well as the language used to describe the crime, trivialise the experiences of victims and are often exploited by perpetrators.
The former Australian of the Year has been relentless in her pursuit of these changes, seeing success across the country in how State and Territory legislation refers to the crime. As at August 2023, the word ‘relationship’ has been removed nationwide from the heading of the criminal offence of the ‘persistent sexual abuse of a child’. This is a significant achievement, and the first step towards their aim of removing the word ‘relationship’ from all parts of the offence of child sexual abuse in every jurisdiction.
“Softened wording doesn’t reflect the gravity of the crime, it feeds into victim-blaming attitudes, eases the conscience of perpetrators and gives license to characterise abuse as romance.”The Grace Tame Foundation, Harmony Campaign
Grace Tame has been a powerful advocate for the voice of victim-survivors of child sexual abuse, reminding us through her tireless work that children deserve our commitment to protecting them from harm. Despite how confronting this crime is, we need to engage in public conversations in a mindful and trauma-informed way to remove the stigma surrounding the issue. With the Australian Child Maltreatment Study revealing that 28.5% of Australians have experienced child sexual abuse, this epidemic is not something that we can ignore. It may be difficult to speak about, but children need us to lean into the discomfort to both acknowledge the pain and trauma of victim-survivors and prevent more children from being abused.
With recent high profile media cases shing a spotlight on the issue of child sexual abuse we are currently experiencing an increase in the public conversation surrounding the issue, particularly relating to changes we need to make to current systems in order to protect children from abuse and exploitation. An increase in discourse means an increase in the need for a better understanding of how we refer to this abuse, and how that discussion impacts victim-survivors. The new reporting guidelines for media reporting on child sexual abuse, developed for the National Office for Child Safety (NOCS) are designed to keep the victim-survivor voice at the centre of this topic.
The work of The Grace Tame Foundation affirms just how important, and guiding, the victim-survivor voice is in shaping both our response to and perception of child sexual abuse.
Whether you have an active role in child protection, you’re a parent, you work in the child care sector, or simply as a member of society, we can all play an active role in supporting victim-survivors. And the easiest to do this is by engaging in meaningful public discourse using the most appropriate language. In 2016 ‘The Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse’ were adopted in Luxembourg, establishing a global standard for terminology in relation to child sexual abuse. This is a helpful and comprehensive guide used by many organisations involved in working against this crime. ICMEC Australia has created a simple summary of these global standards for those who would like to start the process of better understanding the correct terminology.
We are encouraged by the achievements of The Grace Tame Foundation in championing the rights of victim-survivors of child sexual abuse. Every milestone that is documented in the media creates more public awareness of this crime. But their Harmony Campaign is not finished. Laws in most states and territories across Australia (except Victoria and Western Australia) continue to use the term ‘relationship’ in other parts of the offence legislation. Using trauma-informed language is essential in helping children feel safe and supported enough to report abuse and to recognise harmful behaviour. It takes champions like Grace Tame to share the victim-survivor voice. Now let’s work together to help her and other advocates remove the stigma that has surrounded sexual abuse and exploitation for too long.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help, find support services available here.
Psychological, physical, social and economic impacts of childhood sexual abuse.
Posted May 6, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- A quarter of girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse before they are 18 years old, according to CDC estimates.
- People who have experienced child sexual abuse (CSA) are more likely to experience disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
- CSA can also have long-term impacts on physical health, with people being more likely to report pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and obesity.
- In addition, CSA is linked to negative social effects, such as sexual or relationship problems, and socioeconomic outcomes, such as lower income.
Child sexual abuse (CSA) is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that has serious long-term consequences for those who have been victimized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexualabuse before they are 18. Not only are there psychological consequences to CSA, but longitudinal research has also found that CSA results in negative health, psychosocial, and socioeconomic outcomes for those who have been abused.
The Psychological Consequences of CSA
Many studies have examined the long-term psychological impact of CSA. A recent research review of over four million people found that those who experienced CSA are between two and three times more likely to experience the following disorders compared to adults who were not abused:
- Borderline personality disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
It should be noted that many of the psychological consequences of CSA can take years to develop as the abuse is thought to alter brain structure and chemistry during its developmental period. For example, one study found that the average time between the abuse and the onset of depression was 11.5 years, while another studyfound an average of 9.2 years from the time of abuse to the onset of depression and 8 years until the onset of PTSD.
The Physical Consequences of CSA
Numerous studies have also shown that there are long-term impacts to the physical health of those who experienced CSA. Across studies, adults who experienced CSA were 1.35 to 2.12 times more likely to report health problems such as:
- Poorer overall health
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Gynecological symptoms
- Cardiopulmonary symptoms
As a result of these health problems, adults with a history of CSA use health care more frequently than those without a history of CSA, spending on average 16% more per year. Notably, however, a history of CSA is also associated with lower odds of having health insurance and receiving a general check-up (preventative care) in the past year.
The Psychosocial Impacts of CSA
Researchers have also documented many negative social consequences of CSA including:
- Relationship disruption (break-up/divorce)
- Dissatisfaction with their relationships
- Sexual unfaithfulness/promiscuity
- Increased sexual dysfunction
Sadly, there is considerable evidence to suggest that those who have experienced CSA are also likely to be revictimized. A recent study involving 12,252 survivors found that 47.5% were sexually victimized again later in life. Similarly, there is also evidence to suggest that the children of women who have been abused are also more likely to be abused themselves, suggesting that the cycle of abuse may continue into the next generation.
The Socioeconomic Consequences of CSA
From an economic perspective, it is estimated the average lifetime cost of child maltreatment (including CSA) per survivor is $830,928. Compared to adults who had not been abused, survivors of CSA were found to:
- Earn on average $8,000 less per year
- Be less likely to have a bank account, or own stock, a vehicle, or home
- Be three times more likely to be out of work due to sickness and disability
- Be 14% more likely to be unemployed in general
- Be less likely to go to, or graduate from college
- Be less likely to have a skilled job
As is clear from the research, CSA significantly negatively impacts all facets of life — not only for those who experience childhood sexual abuse themselves, but also for their loved ones and society at large. Thus, we must all do what we can to prevent sexual abuse before it happens, and provide support and services to those who have already experienced CSA.
For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
By Esther Perel
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? — she’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast transcript — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
Simply put, I can’t tell if I’m being gaslit and this is having a very negative effect on my well-being, or if I’m just an overly sensitive person.
Anytime I put up a boundary, my partner freaks out and makes a huge deal, telling me I’m being insensitive to him. He has a big personality, is very quick-thinking and articulate, while I often find it hard to communicate. The arguments are very dramatic and intense and he never lets things go no matter how much I ask him to give me a break. He reminds me during these arguments that I’m ruining the relationship. We broke up over these arguments a few months ago, only to get back together after he assured me they wouldn’t continue.
The Phone Call
Esther Perel: So, you wrote the question, but if you could ask it to me again as we speak today?
A newsletter about modern family life by Kathryn Jezer-Morton.
Caller: I am wondering if I’m being gaslit by my partner or if it’s a case that I’m just being overly sensitive. I feel that I get certain treatment, when we’re alone, that feels very hidden, but in speaking to him, he says I’m overly sensitive, that I’m overly boundaried and that, actually, it’s more that I’m treating him badly, and he gets angry at me for me being bad.
And he admits that sometimes his behavior isn’t great and he’s working on it. And he’s worked a lot on it. I just have no idea if I’m basically a bad person and if I’m treating him like crap and not being sensitive to him, because that’s what it sounds like.
Esther: So, tell me something — let’s just go a bit back. How did you come to formulate the question the way you do? What is the history of your relationship that led you to this question, “Am I being gaslit or am I overly sensitive?”
Caller: So, he has a tendency — for example, over New Year’s, we went away together, we were in the car and I wasn’t feeling well, and he just kept on shouting at me that I wasn’t being nice to him. And he was shouting at me. And originally, I thought he was joking. And I was like, “Yeah, I know I am.” But I was quite premenstrual at the time, or I was menstruating and I felt awful, so I was just a bit of a curmudgeon.
And I was like, “Yeah, I know. I feel bad. Just let me feel bad.” And he just kept on shouting, “You’re not being nice to me! You’re not being nice to me! Ooh!” And we were literally going to our friend’s doorstep, and he just left me there and just acted like everything was perfectly normal. And it seems to often be, as well with social settings, that we’ll be going out and he’ll do something to pull the rug out from underneath me and be like, “What’s your problem?”
Another example is, I was at therapy, and I came back and I wasn’t feeling particularly great. We had been talking about boundaries, because I do have concerns that my boundaries aren’t very good and it’s something that I work on.
Esther: What do you mean by that? That’s a big statement.
Caller: Yeah. So, I know that I don’t necessarily know how to put up boundaries. I was in a job before where, basically, I worked myself to a state of very poor health, and a lot of that had to do with working with someone who wouldn’t let me say no. So, no matter how much I was like, “I’m not available,” they just kept on pushing me.
Also, that particular industry, in that particular job, there was a real need for me. There was nobody else to do the job. I had to travel and move, and I was exhausted, but because there was such a need for me, I felt I didn’t have a choice. I let myself just get torn into that and away from my life and away from the people that I care about. And eventually, I got to a point where I completely burnt out.
Esther: And you are telling me this also because in some way something parallel is happening between you and your boyfriend?
Caller: Yeah, exactly.
Esther: Right? You are on the verge of burnout. If I ask you — because you say, am I being gaslit or am I overly sensitive, which of course is what people who are gaslit often end up feeling is that they are being overly sensitive, that they are not clear, that they’re doubting themselves, that they’re confused, that they no longer trust their own sanity — you went to look for the definition of what being gaslit means?
Caller: I definitely looked it up at some point, but I don’t quite remember it at this moment.
Esther: Right. So, without even defining the term, if you are telling me, “I’m in a relationship where I don’t trust that what I think has validity. I find myself often saying I feel something and then I’m being blamed for the very thing that I just uttered. The blame is constantly shifting. I am accused of being the gaslighter, and then I end up completely confused, and it makes me question the situation.” It’s like what we call in my field, projective identification, “You are telling me that I’m doing to you what you’re exactly doing to me,” and I distrust myself. I begin to question my mental health because you keep telling me that my mental health is not steady, or something happens and you tell me that’s not what happened, or that “It is your fault” if it happened, or that “I’m doing these things and I’m saying these mean things because I actually am trying to help you,” or that “It’s not such a big deal. So what if you’re menstruating? That shouldn’t explain why you’re treating me the way you are,” or that “You are overthinking it,” or that “When I’m mean, I was just joking,” or that “You’re too emotional.”
These are seven common gaslighting phrases. If any of these are continuously occurring to you or if you simply, even without that, say, “I am constantly questioning myself, I’m constantly doubting myself, I’m constantly in a state of confusion,” et cetera, et cetera, then the answer to your question doesn’t really matter. What you know is that this is not a good situation.
Caller: But that’s the thing is … I don’t know.
Esther: Now you’re going to give me the other side, “But we also have nice times. But when I’m about to pull away, he apologizes profusely and he promises that he will change, that he’s working on it and that this will never be happening again,” until two hours later.
Esther: Now, you’re going to seesaw back and forth in the ambivalence, “Here are all these things, but maybe what if he what says has validity and is true?”
Esther: “And maybe I am indeed so insecure, and maybe I do indeed have a problem with boundaries, which, of course, I’m having with him too. So, in the end, maybe he knows me better than I know myself.”
Esther: And when I say, “I’m hungry,” he says, “No, you’re not really hungry. You shouldn’t be hungry right now.” And I’m beginning to wonder, “Well, maybe then I’m not hungry.”
Caller: Yeah, that’s literally what happens. I’ll be like, “Oh, let’s get some food,” and he’ll be like, “No, no.” I’m like, “Well, I’m, I need something.” And I’ll end up getting a protein bar, something to tide me over until we’re eating, and then he’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, by the way, while you went into the shop to get a protein bar, I got a chicken sandwich.” Then, I’m just like, “What?” Yeah, it comes from everywhere. It feels very controlling.
Esther: It’s either reality manipulation, scapegoating, coercion, or straight-up lying. Those are probably four of the main gaslighting tactics. Shifting blames would be another. And the interesting thing, as I listen to you, is, you have the answer to your question every time you give me another example to reinforce that you actually know what’s happening.
Caller: But the thing is that he has shown me, in so many ways, that he does love me and … We have, honestly, the best time. He’s my best friend in the world. I don’t know how to lose him. And that’s the thing is, I see him as a really good person, as a really kind and warm and friendly… And if you see him with his friends, he is incredible, incredible. It’s so confusing. Exactly, again. But then he turns around and does that to me.
Esther: Now, a question I would ask him is, “Who did this to you and nobody stopped them? Who did you see do this in your family and nobody stopped them?”
Caller: I feel that would be really hard for him. And I would be worried about, not challenging, I think, for him, something like that would be —
Esther: But do you know?
Caller: I’d imagine I have an idea.
Esther: That’s my question. He may be a wonderful friend, but that does not dictate how he’s going to be with his girlfriends. Those two things don’t necessarily always go in sync. I would ask him, where did he learn this, and who did he see do this, and who never stopped it? And I would then ask you this parallel question — this of course is not a question you’re going to ask him, but I’m asking that to you because you probably know him … how long are you together?
Caller: Two years.
Esther: Okay. Then, I’m going to ask you, who did you see in such a dynamic? Where did you learn not to be able to say no? Because this is not about “Am I being gaslit or am I being overly sensitive?” Without defining, without focusing just on these two terms, you’ve described the reality. Then, you say, “But he loves me,” and that may very much be the case as well. But he also needs to control you, but he’s also intensely insecure and therefore he needs you to be one down, but he also has a hard time hearing you say “I’m hungry” without instantly denying it or defying you or qualifying it or deciding if you have a right to be hungry at this moment or not because he knows better than you what your stomach needs.
So, regardless of how much he loves you, he still would need to learn to differentiate and to be able to let you have an experience, and respond caringly and compassionately to it without having to decide if your experience is valid or not before he decides how he wants to respond because he’s the master and the judge.
Caller: Oh my God, yeah. That is qualifying my experience. That’s it. It’s like every single experience I have, all of my friendships, all of my work, it’s being qualified. That’s exactly it, and being like, “You’re doing this right and you’re doing that wrong.” It’s like being stuck in a box. And the thing is that I know that I am brilliant and I have beautiful friendships and I was excellent at that job and I’m excellent at most things that you put in front of me, and I feel that really deeply.
I know what I’m doing, and I care about myself, and I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself, and I’m continuing to learn, and I’m conscious of where I go up and where I go down, but …
Esther: And if you had a friend, since you have very good friends, if one of your friends was in a situation that is similar to yours, what would you say?
Caller: Just step away. It’s just not that easy. We’re completely entwined in each other’s lives as well.
Esther: And then, what would you say to your friend who says, “It’s not that easy. We’ve got our lives completely intertwined with each other. I have invested two years of my life here. I know he loves me, but I’m being obliterated, I’m losing my mind, I’m continuously put in a situation where I have to doubt myself”?
Caller: Yeah, I’d be like, “I’ll take care of you.” I don’t know.
Esther: Have you spoken with your friends?
Caller: Yeah, a bit. I don’t like to speak badly about him because they all know him. So I want to honor the relationship, in a way. I’ve spoken to my sister a bit.
Esther: And has anybody said, “Keep going”?
Caller: Yeah. Then, I had one friend who had flagged it early, and when she flagged it, that was also the time, literally the same day when I had the breakdown for work, or the day that I literally just heard from my doctor being like, “You can’t do that job anymore.” And I was not sleeping through the night.
And I was literally talking to him about it, and he was like, “Well, I’m thinking about maybe we should break up.” So, he, nearly always, when I’m at a level of peak stress, he’ll put something else on top. Then I never went back to work after that.
Esther: So, if you are struggling with something, he will trump you? If you bring up a feeling, he’ll bring up another one that he thinks, in that moment, is more important than the one you just brought up?
Caller: Yeah, every single time. So when I was talking about that boundaries thing, he flipped. When I was back from the therapist and I was just literally standing in the kitchen being, “I just need to eat some dinner.” So I was like, “Right, I’m just going to make myself some food. I’m gonna take care of myself, I’m gonna nourish my body.”
And I was like, “Okay, I just need … I’m a bit weird right now, I just need a little bit of space because I,” blah, blah, blah. Then, he started at me, and I was like, “No, I can’t handle this right now. I’ve explained the fact that I’m feeling very vulnerable. I’m just like letting you know that.” And he was in a great mood when I came in, and then, suddenly, he turned, and then he started shouting at me and shouting at me, and I was like, “Stop shouting at me.”
Then he freaked out about me not understanding what a boundary was, me turning my boundaries against him. Then we had this long discussion about what qualifies shouting or not, and then we literally got into the depths of what the semiotics of the word shouting is to both of us. Then he made me say that he hadn’t been shouting at me in terms of the way that he understands the word “shouting.”
Esther: So, you covered all four, right?
Esther: You covered the coercive strategies, you covered the shifting of the blame, you covered the questioning of your reality, you covered the manipulation, the disqualifying. So, you’ve answered your question.
Esther: What has made it so difficult for you to know that you have to go or to act on it? Where does your challenge come from in terms of saying no, in terms of saying, “This is what I know I need to do, and I’ll deal with the consequences. In fact, I’ll be liberated. I’ll suddenly realize how much I’ve been hijacked and what kind of a hostage situation this has been. And I will be able to, once again, liberate myself with my friends, and then my friends are going to start telling me how they had noticed it, that and the other, and I’m going to say, ‘How come you never told me?’ And they’ll tell me, ‘We kept trying to tell you but you couldn’t hear it because you were completely enveloped in this saga.’”
Caller: Yeah, it’s bizarre. I know that you’re right, I know that.
Esther: You are brilliant. You’ve answered your questions. You have your answer. This is not a question of discernment, this is a question of, you’ve tried it before, you may try it again, he’s going to beg you, he’s going to plead with you, he’s going to be his best self for half an hour, and he may be a perfectly good, kind person, but he’s got some things to deal with if he’s going to be in a relationship.
Esther: And so do you.
Caller: Yeah. Well, yeah, I think that’s the thing — if I’ve tried so hard, and I’m 35, I’ve been in enough relationships, and he genuinely has worked a lot on himself, and I can see how he’s come along in a big way.
Esther: Do you know what?
Esther: I don’t know what you mean, because every example you’ve given shows me somebody who has very little ability to see what he does. And, of course, for any gaslighter there must be a person that is letting themselves be gaslit. These two go together.
Esther: But there hasn’t been a situation where you describe him saying, “I realize, I notice, I take responsibility, I’m sorry, I was projecting, I was dumping.”
Caller: Well, he has done that.
Esther: When? When you leave?
Caller: No. We do talk after these things happen. I’ve been listening to you forever. I never knew that he knew about you, and he sent me something, one of your YouTube videos about when couples get to an impasse, and he was like, “Let’s look at this and let’s talk about this based on the tools that are there.” And I really appreciate that.
I can see him trying. But the thing is, we’re actually at a point right now where we’re not really speaking, and I asked for the keys back for my flat after everything that happened that I’ve been talking about recently. It was too much.
Esther: That piece of your excusing him and analyzing and justifying and excusing his behavior is part of the gaslit cycle.
Esther: “He’s doing this but he doesn’t really mean to do this, he feels bad about it afterwards, and so, now, I need to make him feel better about him making me feel bad.”
Caller: Yeah, yes. Yes.
Esther: This is twisted.
Caller: Completely twisted. Because I was on the phone to him yesterday. I wanted to let him know that I was going to be speaking to you because I thought that that was respectful. I also was like, “Look, in the long run, I feel we’ve been running on what I want. I just want to know what you want.”
Then, of course, it came back around to how much all of his friends told him that he’s great, and then I, of course, was like, “Well, you’re a great person, and I want you to know that you’re a good person.” And I do think that, but it still comes around to having this treatment, and I still seem to be the person going to him telling him that he’s good, and then I’m the bad guy again.
Esther: And does that come from him as well, “You’re a wonderful person”?
Caller: No. I get, “You’re a lovely person.”
Esther: “You’re a lovely person,” okay. If you are indeed such close friends, and if he’s indeed such a wonderful person, then you may want to find this relational structure that will actually highlight that. Being his friend may give you much more of the wonderful qualities that he has than being his girlfriend.
Caller: Yeah, that’s true.
Esther: At least for right now. So, he can stay in your life. It’s not clear that he will. Generally, when that dynamic occurs, it’s more common that the person will be more vindictive and not want anything to do with you. They’ll try, they’ll come back, they’ll come back until they finally realize that maybe they’re not going to get what they want, and then they’ll say, “Fuck you.”
But if he does stay, have him in your life, but have him in the structure of a relationship that gives you access to the best qualities that he has. If he’s such a wonderful friend, be a friend.
Caller: But I love him.
Esther: That is a wonderful thing, but that doesn’t mean you need to make a life in that dynamic.
Esther: It doesn’t change if people don’t actively take ownership over what they do to create this kind of dynamic, and that means you and him.
Caller: Yeah. One of the reasons that I contacted you is, I know that I’m autonomous in this relationship, but it’s really hard to admit that I’ve let somebody walk all over me and that I haven’t been strong enough to tell them to piss off. It makes me question myself so much more.
Esther: Which is one of the reasons why these dynamics sometimes go on for a long time, because he has his denial. His denial is to shift the blame on you. But you have your denial, which is, “This isn’t really happening. I could walk away at any time. I am a strong woman, I am autonomous. Nobody tells me what to do.” But in fact, that’s not what’s happening. So, it’s one denial meeting another denial, so to speak.
Caller: Yeah. I hear you.
Esther: And what you just said, “But I love him,” so what? I hear you, it’s a deep feeling, but the question remains, and what do you want to do? That your feelings of love are mired into a relationship that is ultimately going to make you lose your entire sense of yourself.
Esther: So, you will continue to say, “I love him,” but the “I” will have dissolved in the process.
It’s not easy. You’re going to surround yourself with friends, and you’re going to have to be honest with your friends and let them know what’s going on, not by blaming him, but by telling them that you found yourself in a relationship where instead of increasingly becoming bolder and stronger and more recognized, it’s all the reverse that is happening.
And that’s not because of what he does only. If, on the other end, you say, “I want to do some couples work and I want us to both go and deal with this dynamic,” go ahead. It won’t change alone. Somebody has to see this in action to be able to intervene. Each of you will make perfect sense when you talk alone to your own respective therapists.
Caller: Yeah. Couples counseling is on the cards right now. We’ve seen a couples counselor before and it didn’t … she wasn’t great. And my concern is that he’s going to charm them, and he is not going to show the truth of the dynamic when there’s another person present.
Esther: Then, you’ll put that on the table too.
Esther: A good clinician sees the invisible and sometimes hears the inaudible.
Caller: Thank goodness for you, and thank goodness for this phone call, It’s just like clearing the clouds from my brain.
Esther: Look, I’m going to ask the question again, and then we are going to say good-bye. But it is the question that you didn’t answer, which is, where does your challenge come from? Because you couldn’t say, “Saying no is difficult for me, so I found a person with whom I can practice that muscle.” These things are a mindfuck.
Esther: But you may want to say, “I wanna practice my no, and I found the best place to do so because here is a person who doesn’t hear any of them. So, I practice boundaries with somebody who doesn’t respect any of them or sees them all as an attack on him or sees them as a weakness of mine, but they’re all qualified.”
Or you may say, “That doesn’t have to be the way I’m looking for a relationship.” I know you’re 35 and I know that you love him and I know that you think you’ve had your share, but maybe that should bring you also a level of awareness that says, “Is this how I want to live?”
Caller: But I think that’s the thing, it’s, I don’t know how I’ll have a healthy and wholesome relationship. I just keep on seeming to get battered or something.
Esther: “Why do I, a smart, accomplished, professional, insightful, autonomous woman, find myself in relationships with men where I end up in this kind of battered position?” That is a very powerful question.
Esther: “And how do I learn to see it sooner rather than later?”
Esther: “And how do I say, ‘I’m breaking the cycle,’ and then act on it?” Is this a good place to stop?
Caller: In my head, I’m only just beginning.
Esther: Because I’m leaving you with some big questions rather than slap answers, because you have the answer. To the question that you came with, you know the answer before you came. To what is the cycle that you are repeating, we didn’t get to, but we suspect there is one because this is not your first time. Different melodies for the same dance.
If we were seeing each other regularly, this would be the moment where I say, “To be continued.” But it will be continued, but without me. But I’m inviting you to take this and do something with it.
Caller: I will. Thank you.
Variations on a theme, but always about control and power.
Posted April 16, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Scapegoating is a common form of parental verbal abuse.
- Research shows that scapegoating allows a parent to think of the family as healthier than it is.
- Scapegoating lets a parent minimize responsibility for and explain negative outcomes, enhancing a sense of control.
- The scapegoat role can be rotating, or it can target one child specifically.
In interviews for my forthcoming book on verbal abuse, the subject of scapegoating comes up with great regularity; among the forms of verbal abuse used by parents, scapegoating appears to have go-to status. In a family with a controlling, combative, or narcissistic parent at the helm, scapegoating is an effective tool to maintain control not just over the interactions and behaviors of family members but also over the family narrative.
As researcher Gary Gemmill has pointed out, scapegoating permits a parent to think of the family as healthier and more functioning than it actually is; if it weren’t for that one individual—yes, the scapegoat—the family would be perfect, and life would be blissful. This is an important point because it helps the parent curate the family narrative in a very specific way.
Another study by Zachary R. Rothschild and others posited and then showed that scapegoating allows a person to minimize guilt or responsibility for a negative outcome and gives him or her a sense of enhanced control because there’s always a reason to point to for a bad outcome. The example I often use is the family car that is vandalized at night while parked in the driveway. If this happened to you, you might be concerned or even call the police, but you’re likely to consider it a random incident.
But the parent who habitually scapegoats won’t approach it that way; instead, he or she will focus on the fact that Jack drove the car last, and he didn’t lock it, which made it so much easier to vandalize. Moreover, Jack didn’t turn on the lights that illuminate the driveway and entrance, which gave the vandals the cover of darkness.
Voila! In the family’s curated narrative, Jack is actually to blame for the car’s being vandalized. That is how scapegoating works.
Who gets to be the scapegoat?
In some families like Tim’s, the scapegoat role was rotating, one that permitted his father to drive his message across with force:
“Failure was unacceptable. Talking back was treason. You did what he said, you took the abuse he meted out, or you were ignored and scapegoated. The son who didn’t listen up then became the scapegoat until he reformed and ‘got the message,’ and then the next slacker would become the target. This went on from childhood to the first decade or so of adulthood until I finally set sail.”
In many families, the scapegoat is a permanent role, as it was in Alisha’s:
“My middle brother, Tom, was the scapegoat because he talked back and resisted my mother’s manipulations. It was ironic because of the four of us, he was the highest achiever—he was athletic and got good grades—but my mother couldn’t deal with the fact that she couldn’t contain him the way she could me and my two younger siblings. She blamed everything that went wrong on Tom and that, in turn, set my father off who believed every single lie she told about Tom. The rest of us made ourselves scarce and said as little as possible, trying to stay as neutral as we could so she wouldn’t turn on us. Tom left home at 18, put himself through college and then law school, and stopped speaking to our parents 10 years ago. He’s got to be the most successful black sheep in history. I still see him, but my sister and brother are too scared, even as adults, of pissing my mother off. Even though I wasn’t scapegoated, I have tons of issues that I am dealing with in therapy. I spent my whole childhood curled up in a defensive ball.”
Counterintuitively, you don’t need a herd to become a scapegoat; only children can be scapegoated too. This is what Dora recounted:
“In my mother’s telling of the story, everything that has gone wrong in her life can be traced back to me. It was my birth that alienated my father from her and ended up in his seeking a divorce. That isn’t the story my dad tells, of course, and I was 7 when he left. She never remarried because no one wanted a woman with baggage, the baggage being me. This could be funny since Dad married a woman with two kids but she didn’t mean it as a joke. Ditto her job and why she never rose up the ranks; yes, the Dora factor. At 30, I walked into a therapist’s office and ended up confronting my mom who denied ever doing it. As my therapist pointed out, she shifted from scapegoating to gaslighting. I maintain low contact these days but I am moving toward estrangement because her inability to own her actions or words makes me nuts.”
Not taking responsibility is the home-court advantage of scapegoating.
How the scapegoat gets chosen
While science illuminates what motivates the abuser to scapegoat, there’s no research on how the target gets chosen, so I’ve culled from the hundreds of stories shared with me for this project and Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life to come up with some thoroughly unscientific patterns which may, nonetheless, be of interest. Some of them are more obvious than others.
1. The resister or rebel
Since all verbal abuse is about control and an imbalance of power, it’s not surprising that the kid who won’t go with the program—whatever that program may be—will be singled out and marginalized for it. This pattern echoes the story Alisha told about her brother, Tom, and may also be the impetus for the rotating scapegoat role in other families.
2. The sensitive one
Scapegoating and bullying have similar intentions, and each gives the abuser a rush of power; that’s going to be much more satisfying if the kid you pick on really responds and reacts. Additionally, this permits the parent to rationalize the scapegoating as being necessary to “toughen the kid up” or “to stop being too sensitive.”
This happens to both sons and daughters and shows up as a strong pattern in many families, unfortunately. The other children do what they can to repress all their emotional reactions, which gives them cover but causes a different kind of damage.
3. The outlier
I’ve come to see that especially with mothers who scapegoat, thinking a child is an outlier is usually a function of the mother’s own goodness of fit; the child is sufficiently different from both herself and her other children that whatever parenting skills she does have are completely overwhelmed, and she reacts by shifting the blame onto the child. In the family narrative, this child usually bears the burden of responsibility for the household being hard to run or any other problem the mother might be experiencing.
4. The reminder
This comes up most frequently with children of divorce who either look like or supposedly “take after” or act like a parent’s ex-spouse, but it also comes up with those from intact households in which the child supposedly resembles a family relative who is disliked, hated, or is a black sheep or some combination of all. It can be overtly expressed—“You are just like your dad, irresponsible and lazy”—or covert, as was the case for Dina, who happens to be a psychologist:
“As a kid, I couldn’t understand why I was always to blame and my sister was always fabulous. I was a straight-A student, high achiever, and my sister was none of those things. But there was history. My father committed the sin of leaving my mother and remarrying happily. I committed the sin of looking like him—tall, thin, brunette, and intellectual. My sister is my mother’s physical—blonde and petite—and not-too-serious clone. It took the therapy which was part of my training to see the elephant in the living room.”
Scapegoating is verbal abuse, no matter how it is normalized or rationalized. And it really doesn’t matter how parents choose their victims; it only matters that they do.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2021
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Gemmill, Gary. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups, Small Group Research (November, 1989), vol, 20 (4), pp. 406-418
Rothschild, Zachary R., Mark J. Landau, et al. “A Dual Motive Model of Scapegoating: Displacing Blame to Reduce Guilt or Increase Control,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012), vol. 102(6), 1148-1161.references
About the Author
Peg Streep’s newest book is Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering. She is the author or coauthor of 15 books, including Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
By political reporter Matthew Doran
Posted Wed 3 May 2023 at 10:34pmWednesday 3 May 2023 at 10:34pm
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Survivors of horrific child sexual abuse are being promised an easier and less traumatic route to getting compensation, while some people currently in jail will soon be allowed access to financial support.
- The federal government wholly or partially supports 34 of 38 recommendations to improve the way the National Redress Scheme operates
- An earlier review found it was an overly complicated process which regularly caused distress for victims
- The government says more than $1 billion has been paid in redress payments since 2018
The federal government has released its response to a review of the National Redress Scheme for people who experienced institutional child sexual abuse, wholly or partially supporting 34 of 38 recommendations to improve the way it operates.
The review, led by former senior public servant Robyn Kruk, echoed the sentiments of many who had made applications for redress over the course of its existence – that it was an overly complicated process which regularly caused distress for victims forced to recount their experiences in terrible graphic detail.
Survivors and advocates have complained the scheme is a bureaucratic nightmare, and there is a lack of consistency in judging claims for redress and providing payments.
The maximum amount of compensation remains at $150,000, with some critical that few applications are ever deemed to be worthy of such a payment.
Restrictions on some people serving jail terms from accessing the scheme will be eased, and the eligibility rules for people with criminal records will be tweaked.
Abuse victims convicted for serious offences, such as murder or sexual assault, will still have to go through a separate application process “to ensure public confidence in the Scheme is maintained”.
“Better targeting would see fewer survivors undergo the special assessment process before a decision on their eligibility for redress is made, which is currently leading to unnecessary delays in survivors accessing their redress outcome,” the response stated.
Greater guidance will be given to staff at the scheme on how to assess child sexual abuse stemming from medical procedures, after concerns some claims were dismissed because the abuse was dressed up as legitimate treatment for health conditions.
But the federal government has rejected calls to remove references to “penetrative sexual abuse” when making calls on the severity of claims.
“Making broad changes to the Assessment Framework at this point in the Scheme would constitute a fundamental change to the Scheme’s design and operation, risking the viability of institutional participation which is essential for survivors being able to access redress,” the report said.
“Such major changes would also introduce complex issues of equity and re-traumatisation risks, noting the Scheme has issued over 12,000 outcomes to redress applicants.”
It has also refused to make the framework public, because it said there was a “risk of re-traumatising survivors because of the necessarily descriptive content”.
Eligibility to apply for redress will be extended to former child migrants, who are not Australian citizens or permanent residents.
No ‘faceless’ staff
The names of senior officials involved in considering redress claims are now provided to applicants when their case is finalised, to allay concerns from some abuse survivors their cases are being considered by “faceless” staff.
A proposal to change the way redress claims are considered – that a “reasonable likelihood” abuse occurred be enough to prove a claim – has also been rejected by the government.
Extra support services for survivors, and for staff poring over the details of their abuse, will also be provided.
The response argued the legislation is already prescriptive in the way claims should be judged.
“While it has taken longer than expected to carefully consider all Review recommendations and their implications, we have still been forging ahead with improvements,” Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said.
“The Government’s main concern is the wellbeing of survivors, and ensuring the Redress process is as smooth as possible.”
The cost of the changes remains unclear, with the details to be revealed in next Tuesday’s budget.
Other recommendations from the review have already been acted on.
They include the proposal for advance payments of $10,000 to be made to Indigenous applicants and people making claims who are terminally ill, and changes to the indexation rules for payments.
The minister said more than $1 billion had been paid in redress payments since 2018, and that more than 600 institutions have signed up to the national redress scheme.
Posted 3 May 2023