By Amy Hayes
When I think of child abuse, I think of a research paper I wrote in high school on the subject. Back then, abuse was considered extreme situations where parents did unspeakable things to their children. Although any incident of this nature is too many, the reported cases were few and far between, yet traumatic.
In recent years, domestic violence awareness has increased to include non-physical abuse. As the victim of an abusive relationship, I began a journey with a destination that surprised me. I discovered that I grew up in an abusive environment. That statement may take you by surprise and you might be wondering how someone would not know this. The answer to that is the topic of this article.
To a child, normal is their everyday life, regardless of what that is. If a child grows up with abuse, they think that is normal. Children have no point of reference for what normal should be. This may explain why children in abusive homes prefer to stay with their parents, rather than be ‘rescued.’
The obvious kind of abuse is physical, the kind where you can see the effect of the abuse. But verbal, emotional and psychology abuse are just as devastating if not more so. Why, you ask? The scarring that devastates a victim of abuse is not the physical wounds that can be mended, but the emotional scarring that can last a lifetime.
In many ways non-physical abuse is more difficult to deal with as the victim has nothing to ‘show for it’ and often is confused about what has been happening in their relationship. That was the situation I found myself in that led to my discovering my abusive childhood.
Why did it take me 45 years and 3 failed marriages to discover the abuse of my past? As a child I was taunted and teased incessantly by my older brothers. My parents, who often witnessed this, never did anything to stop it. Many people have told me, “That’s what older brothers do.” Really? I was called names that were supposed to be funny, but they weren’t anything but devastating to me. I was ridiculed and teased to the point that this became my normal. After all, my parents seemed to take it in stride.
As a result, all of my personal boundaries were destroyed. This left me open to abusers, and they always find the perfect victim. What was seen as child’s play was the perfect setup for abuse.
Which brings me to the point of this article: equipping parents to abuse-proof their kids. We’ve heard about stranger danger for many years in regards to sexual abuse. But how do we equip our kids to avoid non-physical abuse? The answer is boundaries. Helping our kids develop strong personal boundaries will protect them from the insidious ploys of manipulators and controllers.
Boundaries are those internal alerts that tell us we are being violated in some way. They are the red flags that go up when something doesn’t feel right. We naturally defend ourselves unless we’ve been conditioned otherwise.
Here are some suggestions for helping your children develop and keep their boundaries strong:
- Respect their boundaries. Resist the urge to ‘pull rank’ and invade their personal space or treat them disrespectfully.
- Watch your tone of voice. Speak to them as you would your best friend or boss.
- Never tease or use sarcasm. Be straightforward and honest with them.
- Apologize for letting them down when appropriate.
- Accept their feelings, good and bad. Help them work through negative emotions, but never tell them they shouldn’t feel that way.
- Defend them! It’s amazing how many parents will tell their children, “It’s ok, he didn’t mean it.” If your child has been hurt physically or emotionally, acknowledge the hurt and hold the offender accountable if possible. Never downplay a hurt.
- Don’t belittle or discount their concerns regardless of how ‘childish’ they may seem to you. If your 2 year old cries because his block tower falls down, that’s normal. Let him know you understand that he is frustrated and offer to help him build another. Never tell him not to be upset. Allow your child freedom to express his emotions, good and bad.
Dealing with negative emotions can be challenging. Tune in next month as we explore this topic further. Until then, practice abuse-proofing your child by exercising healthy boundaries.
Amy Hayes is the Parenting in Business contributor for The OffBeat Business Magazine. Amy is the mother of 8 children, from grown to adolescent, and coaches business owners, church groups and others to improve effective communication for parenting success. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.