Do You Categorize Emotional Abuse As Normal?

Do You Categorize Emotional Abuse As Normal?


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More than twenty years ago, I wrote a book on emotional abuse because I wasn’t finding much acknowledgment regarding the damage I was seeing in my clients from emotional or psychological abuse. One question I asked in that book was why emotional abuse was so common. I concluded that emotional abuse was so prevalent because some people categorized emotional abuse as normal.

ornella-binni-148189How could something normal be considered abusive? So what if you were yelled at growing up, wasn’t everyone? Who cared if you were regularly dismissed as worthless? You just needed to try harder. If you didn’t grow up feeling loved, that was just a generational thing you were supposed to get over. If you weren’t beaten within an inch of your life, you had nothing to complain about. So people didn’t complain; they moved on with their lives. Yet some of those people kept having difficulties — difficulties that eventually led them to my office.

Do you remember the childhood story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen? In this story, two weavers promise a vain emperor a fine suit of clothes. However, these clothes could only be seen by those who were wise and knowledgeable. Those who were stupid or incompetent would be unfit to see the clothes. The weavers purport to have finished the clothing, mimic dressing the emperor, and then proceed to parade him about the village. The townspeople are afraid to be deemed unfit to see the splendid new clothes, so they ooh and aah and gush about the emperor’s new clothes, that is, until a young child cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing any. At that point, the bubble bursts and the adults in the crowd find the courage to admit the obvious.

People are slow to admit the obvious in cases of emotional abuse for various reasons. When I was growing up, years of groupthink said that adults, especially parents, had the right to deal with children however they saw fit. You weren’t supposed to involve yourself in another family’s “business.” If adults spoke harshly to children, well, they must have had a reason. It wasn’t your “place” to object — and certainly not in public.

joe-gardner-298306My generation also grew up learning that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I remember repeating that rhyme to myself when other kids were mean to me. I learned the lesson well and determined I wasn’t going to let other kids get to me. That rhyme wasn’t as successful when it came to hurtful words from adults, and certainly not my parents. My father and mother still retained the power to hurt me with their words. Even my older sister could get under my guard with her words and her sometimes go-away attitude. Needless to say, I didn’t grow up in a perfect family. I also didn’t grow up in an abusive one. I grew up in a truly normal family, with parents who loved and cared for me, who gave me words of encouragement, and who sometimes hurt me with their words.

As far as I knew, the kids I hung out with growing up also lived in normal families, though the ratio of good-to-bad ran the gambit, from the house with what we used to call “the Kool-Aid mom” to the house with the dad who drank during the day. We didn’t know any different. As kids, we roamed the neighborhood, reading the temperature of our block of houses, seeking out the best moods and best food. We didn’t think about emotional abuse; we just knew the people and the houses to avoid. And we felt sorry for the kids who didn’t have that option.

Growing up, about the only thing I could do for one of my buddies, who didn’t have that option, was to let him have sleepovers at my house as much as possible. When the answer was no to sleeping over at my house, I’d find the courage to go to his house, hoping my being there would, in some way, keep him from being as much of a target. At that age, being his friend was my way of helping him.

As a kid, my buddy’s life was his life and we found ways to work around the rough parts. One of those ways was for both of us to pretend the drunken tirades weren’t so bad. My friend would make jokes about his dad and make-believe he didn’t care; I’d laugh and let him.

david-monje-219913My family moved and we lost touch, as kids often do. I’ve wondered, though, over the years, how he’s doing with those rough parts of his life. To this day, I can still remember some of the terrible words his inebriated father would hurl in his direction. I’ve relived them in the lives and stories of those I’ve counseled.

When I started my practice over thirty years ago, I committed to unclothe the lie that “words can never hurt.” They can and they do, in stunning and devastating ways. When society collectively comes to that conclusion, the emotional abuse of children will become less common.



jantz_gregAuthored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.