June 7, 2007

Violence and Trauma Revisited

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:20 pm by nevavegan

I think I’ve said it before, but just in recase I need to restate it for the record. I’m not a therapist, I’m not a Ph.D., I’m not a college professor, I’m not an intellectual… Blah, blah, blah, so I’m just speaking from personal experience and I don’t have all the answers.

Child abuse is epidemic in our culture. Reported rates are way too high, and there’s a certain assumption that abuse is under-reported. While some factors are more highly associated with abuse and neglect in particular, like lower household income or a single parent home, no child is safe from abuse based on demographics. Child abuse occurs in every income level, every part of the country, every ethnicity, every religion. Merely being Christian (or any other religion) doesn’t guarantee that there’s not abuse in a home. Having a nice house or no visible marks on the child are also meaningless. It surrounds us, it’s insidious.

Every now and then a really egrigious case of child abuse is reported, often after a child dies, and we all act like it’s the worst thing that ever happened. However, many times abuse continues for years and nothing is ever done. Sometimes adults will stand up and demand to know why nobody intervened on their behalf when they were children and being victimized. Oftentimes others are aware of or suspect abuse but they don’t want to interfere, or they’re afraid they might be wrong, or they care more about the abuser than they do about the child. Of course, just reporting abuse doesn’t totally solve the problem. Foster care isn’t wonderful in many cases, and most of the children are eventually returned to parents who might still lack the life skills to stop abusing.

Trauma and abuse are not “women’s issues,” they are human issues. Men are abused, children are abused, women are abused, the elderly are abused, the disabled are abused, athletes are abused… These are human issues that come down to our failure as a culture to address conflicts and problems without violence. These are human issues that come from living in a world where it’s accepted that some people have the right to control others, to own others.

Because of this, a lot of men in our society have been victims of abuse. Even those that have not been directly abused might absorb terrible messages from a society that condones and even glorifies violence.

In an abusive home, one that follows the pattern we’re all familiar with, a physically violent father who beats the mother, terrified children hiding in corners, everyone there is a victim. The violent father in all likelihood grew up in a violent home. Through his actions he is teaching his son that the only way to relate to other people, women in particular is through violence. He is teaching him the old myth that our anger controls us rather than that we control our anger. And so he raises a son who is terrified and violent, who either learns to despise his mother to cope with the cognitive dissonance or else feels compelled to try to protect his mother which puts him in line for his father’s abuse.

What has that child lost? He has lost the gift of any kind of normal, healthy relationship with either of his parents. He might hate himself for failing to protect his mother (which was never his job) or he might hate himself for anything in him that seems weak or feminine in his view, because he begins to believe that “feminine” traits invite abuse. Without some kind of help along the way and hopefully counseling, he might lose the ability to ever have a decent, loving relationship himself. The very thing that might sustain him through life’s ups and downs is lost to him before he even knew it was possible. He may not be able to develop normal friendships either, because he has no example of how to treat others with kindness. He also can’t let people get too close lest they see the deep family secrets played out. He might internalize extremely bad views of how to deal with frustrations or how to work through difficulties, and the lack of those life skills might hold him back in all areas of his life from damaging his professional reputation to holding him back from volunteering. This leaves a shell of a person, someone who really can’t find or hold onto happiness, someone who can’t find fulfillment in work or human relationships.

Of course the daughter in that physically violent home also suffers, that goes without saying. She is more likely herself to have an abusive partner later in life. The same cognitive dissonance and self-hatred might play out in her. The mother suffers the direct effect of the physical violence, and is more likely to have also been abused herself as a child or have grown up in an abusive home. In this scenario, everyone is broken. Nobody wins.

Then we must also keep in mind that sometimes mothers are the physical abusers in the household. And the same dynamics and damage play out.

If we change this scenario to a verbally and emotionally abusive parent though, what changes? The verbally and emotionally abusive parent can also be either male or female. Though the children in this home might not be in fear for their lives, they also learn poor ways of relating to others which may hold them back in the workplace, in friendships, in intimate relationships, and limit their lives in many ways. The verbally and emotionally abused child will often internalize the abuse, believing that they are in fact stupid, ugly, or bad. They also will grow into adult who are more likely to communicate in abusive ways—they simply don’t learn adult communication skills in a verbally abusive home. Verbal and emotional abuse can also result in post traumatic stress disorder and long-term depression in the children exposed to it.

We need to find ways to break the cycle of abuse and violence. We need to teach people how to handle the trauma they’ve endured and not pass it on. We need to stop sending generation after generation of broken people into the world.


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