Many times I get asked what abuse is.
I understand this question, and the need for that question because many of the dissociative survivors who I speak with grew up in such chronically abusive homes that abuse was normal. Normal is just normal to them. What I would define as abuse was their norm, their everyday, their usual, their expected. And once abuse is “just how it is”, it becomes tricky and confusing to learn where actual abuse – physical, sexual, emotional abuse – starts and stops.
It gets even more confusing when the person that is being abused has a genuine relationship with the abusive person. Having genuine care for someone may give the abuser extended grace, or extra permission, or repeated forgiveness for the inappropriate actions they did. What about when the abuser’s behaviors are gentle, or appear as loving, or are done in the guise of helping the other person? Is gentle touch ever considered to be abusive or inappropriate?
It also gets fuzzy when the abusive parent, for example, has medical illnesses, or psychiatric illnesses and severe mental health problems of their own. Even if this person is acting in abusive ways, do they realize they are being abusive? Do they know when they are doing something irrational or violent or neglectful? Should their poor behaviors be categorized as rigorously abusive as the negative behavior from those without mental health troubles? How much abuse or neglect should a child be allowed to tolerate from a sick parent before it is considered too much?
And what about situations where the person is taught to honor their father and mother, and / or to obey their father and mother, because to not do what you are told to do is a sin based on their religious beliefs. When do those parents cross the line from claiming their rightful authority over their child? When does honoring parents actually become a dishonorable request?
Where is that line between appropriate and abuse?
Where does the unacceptable start?
It’s often not clear.
It’s especially confusing to a young child or teenager growing up in a home where these kinds of behaviors are typical.
I’m going to list some examples below, and in this post, I’m not going to give my opinion for what I deem to be abusive versus what isn’t. I would be glad to hear comments from you first. I will have an opinion, of course, but I’ll wait and say mine afterwards.
Are any of the following situations abusive?
And if so, how so?
*** Please note – if you are sensitive to triggers and self destructive behavior, please be sure you are in a safe enough space to read further.***
*** Also, if you think I am describing your personal situation, I assure you, I am not. These are examples created for discussion purposes only.***
What do you think about these situations?
A divorced, single mother with low income and high anxiety obsessively restricts the amount of food that her children are allowed to eat. She does this by hiding the food, and especially hiding any cookies or chocolates from the children. She frequently locks the children out of the house (ie: after school) to keep them from sneaking extra snacks until she gets home from work. She will not allow the kids to keep any snacks in their bedrooms. The children are fed something most days, but there is very little food in the house. Sometimes the fridge is barren and empty. The children feel hungry most of the time and they start stealing food from local stores because they are hungry. The mother is too proud to get help from her wealthy family members or from charities. She wants to “do it on her own”, and would rather go hungry than ask for help.
A father, who says he is happily married to the mother, makes flirty comments to his puberty-aged daughter. He doesn’t touch the girl, but his comments and his gazes are sexualized. He says he is only complimenting his daughter for looking cute and attractive. The father’s buddies whistle and make many of the same kinds of comments in front of him while staring at his daughter. These comments make the father beam with pride. The mother hears some of these comments but acts as if she didn’t hear anything at all.
A mother is very angry at her children and decides to discipline them. She doesn’t hit them, but she speaks openly about fantasizing slapping their faces. She also removes various items from the children. For example, all toilet paper is hidden, all towels are removed, the use of the shower is taken away, all silverware is removed from view, lamps are removed from the bedrooms, hangers are removed from the closets, all food is removed from the children, the blankets and pillows are removed from the bed. The children are told to stay in their rooms for 24 hours and if they leave their room, they will be locked out of the house. The children don’t know whether they are allowed to go to the bathroom or not. From time to time, the mother gets inches from the faces of the children and loudly lectures them for 15 – 30 minutes at a time. She is seething with fury and anger during this entire episode, making hideously ugly faces at the children, and laughing at their discomfort. The mother has not touched the children, and believes her methods of discipline to be appropriate.
What do you think about those situations?
Are any of them abusive?
I could give more examples for your consideration, but for this particular post, I think I will stop there and check in with you readers at this point.
Here are your Dissoci-ACTION Questions:
- How are you feeling after reading these scenarios?
- Do you feel comfortable reading them?
- Were these situations upsetting to you in any way?
- What are your thoughts about these three different situations?
- Are any of them abusive or excessive?
- Are any of the parents in these scenarios acting inappropriately? If so, how so?
- What do you relate to in these examples?
- If you view any of these things abusive now, would you have viewed them as abusive when you were a child?
Your thoughts and comments are much appreciated.
Copyright © 2008-2018 Kathy Broady MSW and Discussing Dissociation
What are healthy sexual boundaries? I tend to avoid (or answer biologically) so not to abuse, but that”s neglect, so where to draw line? And i avoid adding emotions, because again, I’m not sure how to help best in my young adult kids.
All the Jill People says
I think it’s only the avoidance of help that makes the mother in the first senario neglectful. If there was no possible help available, her actions would be perfectly rational. As it is, they are not, and outside agencies should get involved, though I agree with homethinker that in-home help would probably be more appropriate than simply taking the kids away.
Senario two is a tricky one for me because my dad was like this in my teens and I catagorised it to myself as ‘overstepping the mark’ rather than out-and-out abuse. I myself warned him off without any difficulty – I gave him one severe look and he never said such things again. It all felt a bit icky, but ‘abuse’ just feels too heavy a word. Or perhaps I just don’t want to have had TWO abusive parents – I’ve had to acknowledge that some things my mum did were unequivocally abuse, which is not a conclusion anyone wants to draw about the actions of their own mum. I guess my mum’s actions may also have warped my standards, so that a few words out of place from my dad didn’t seem like a big deal in comparison.
Senario three is unequivocal abuse and the only scenario that made me angry and frankly I’d remove the children from that mother at once.
This is where I have trouble.
Part of me KNOWS that theses are abuse situations. But part of me thinks maybe not so much? Like, especially with the low income mothe scenario. Ive lived that and still live in that most of the time, but my brain tries to find ways to justify whats going on. And I dont understand it. But I do for sure think all three are abuse.
#1. would fit under “dependency” in that the mother is unable to provide food to her children due to mental illness. She is not neglecting her children since she focuses so intently on their food intake. Rather ther RESULT is neglect, but legally she should have state supervision due to dependency, just as though she had leukemia and didn’t have enough energy to buy food, they wouldn’t call her neglectful but “dependent” -unable to care for them. However, in real life there would just be hate and resentment by Children’s services and they would get outraged and just snatch the kids rather than provide social workers in the home because the feds pay for foster care and the state pays for in home help, so in home help is virtually nonexistent
Reblogged this on Why Violence?! and commented:
If In Doubt……..
Great article! So much has been made abundantly clear. Still, I can’t reconcile what constitutes extreme abuse as compared to ordinary. abuse That’s my conundrum to figure out……I guess.
All 3 r abusive. Reading it made me feel anxious and then sad. I am wondering if the Dad was too drunk to realize what he was doing if it is still considered abuse? Like if he passed out naked or something and his daughter saw him… would that be abuse or just an effect of his alcoholisim?
In my opinion, all 3 scenarios are abusive.
All 3 are abusive in different ways. I relate to much of what is written in the blog post. 3 is definitely neglectful behaviour. It does become blurry in certain situations, still a child should be removed when the environment becomes so unsafe that the child becomes at risk of further abusive actions. Abuse is never ok.
I enjoy the posts and blogging here on your site, thanks
#1: abusive: the kids are being deprived of a basic need, their daily requirement of food and as well as being locked out of their home at times
#2: the father’s lack of sexual boundaries even without touching is abusive. The comments and looks and behavior of him and his friends are gross and the mother ignoring this is also abusive
#3: this is degrading, abusive and withholds basic rights and needs to eat and be warm as well as relieve themselves of pee and poop
It is no doubt that all the adults in these scenarios are very damaged and have been wounded at some point in their lives to be subjecting children to these practices. It is frightening to acknowledge that many children across this planet are being hurt in these ways. I was hurt too as a child and teen, and have emerged finally in my middle age, clean from all drugs including alcohol, and attend support meetings, a spiritual community, see a therapist, and read and write to seek emotional, physical, spiritual and sexual healing. Keep chipping away at the hurt, people, there is recovery! It is not overnight, but it does happen, Don’t leave before the miracles happen
Reblogged this on Many of us's blog.
duh…I should have checked my post above before I hit the post button. While cutting and pasting a sentance, I`ve accidentally put it in twice (sorry, I`m just stupid). Wish there was an edit button.
Kathy Broady says
Thank you for your comments on this article.
In my opinion, all three of these situations are definite abuse. You all have outlined the reasons why these situations are abusive in very clear ways – thank you. Well said. I couldn’t have done it any better.
And yes, these situations may look / feel / seem familiar to many of you. I have heard these kinds of life-stories for many years, from a variety of survivors. That’s very sad.
Even though none of these situations describe abuse as excessive as abuse can get, each of the above scenarios crosses the line into territories unacceptable. Not providing proper care when the parent should, is a form of neglect. Neglect is as damaging as any other type of abuse. Humiliating a child is abusive, restricting normal bodily functions is completely unacceptable, and any version of sexual interest with a child is abusive.
All three of these scenarios, and all the parents described in these scenarios, in my opinion, are abusive parents.
For those of you that were unsure, what are your questions?
What do you see that is ok in these situations?
i still dont know. how are you supposed to know? these all sound like everyday life to me.
1)I feel a sense of shame, since I part of me envies each of the hypothetical situations. I know, as an adult that no abuse is ever OK. However, child parts inside feel like any of those situations, or all three combined would have been preferable to our childhood.
2)I feel shame reading them, because of the feelings I mentioned above. I also feel sadness, since I think each of these scenarios are quite likely going on in homes near and far, and no one is there to put a stop to the abuse, or support the children
3)Yes…for the reasons I mentioned above.
5)All of them are abusive. The first is neglect, pure and simple. The mother is putting her pride before her childrens welfare.The second one is sexually abusive. No touching, but the father is making sexual advances towards his child and the mother is enabling him to do so, therefore implying that her daughter deserves to be the target of her fathers sexual deviance.The third example describes a narcisstic sounding mother who chooses to deprive her chidren of basic humanity in her choice of `punishment`.
6) I relate to being an abused child that is being abused in plain sight.`Normal`, healthy relationships with parents/carers is the stuff of TV shows, not the reality of a neglected,abused child
7)Growing up in an abusive environment, abuse is `normal`. `Normal`, healthy relationships with parents/carers is the stuff of TV shows, not the reality of a neglected,abused child.`Normal`, healthy relationships with parents/carers is the stuff of TV shows, not the reality of a neglected,abused child
Jill Summerville Sparks says
Abuse wears many masks, hidden by excuses or by rational. It isn’t rational at all and no excuse for it, but unfortunately it happens every day.
Who do we blame? Mental illness? What about people who know this goes on yet do nothing to help? Do we blame people for not knowing what is abusive and what is not simply because the way they were raised to believe situations are normal?
Read this many times trying to figure out who was right.. The people who commented that they all abusive. What about people who can understand these situations? Ones who have compassion.. Not anger toward those described here? Does this make us odd? Or incorrect?
Maybe the disconnectedness has swallowed us up so that we just don’t know what to believe any more.
I just really really dont know. I cant’t tell if theyre abusive or not.
make us sick. so does “purposely moving them toward more mature views on sex and intimacy.” u may think that is ok. maybe ok for u and ur wife. makes us think of our father and what he say and did to make us ”more mature”. way way way triggered.
Sam Ruck says
I’m very sorry my words triggered you. If you ever visit my blog, you would find I’m a very safe man, even more safe than my wife (the host) is to the little girls. I never do anything with the little girls that a father shouldn’t do, but Alley (my girlfriend) is not a little girl anymore. She is growing up and a young lady. She is learning the difference between a man using a little girl and a husband loving his wife.
Blessings, to you on your healing journey.
“And what about situations where the person is taught to honor their father and mother, and / or to obey their father and mother, because to not do what you are told to do is a sin based on their religious beliefs.” This is the beginning of my story, raised by devout Jehovah’s Witnesses and sexually abused by my grandfather and an elder in the hall, I truly thought that when an adult male took a special interest in you and showed you they liked you, you should “repay” them with oral sex so that they would keep on liking you and paying attention to you. On top of that, it would have been a shameful sin not to obey my authority figures. This was just normal to me until I had my first male school teacher in elementary school and tried to “repay” him. That is when I started to realize it was wrong…..it was abuse.
My husband is a childhood abuse survivor with DID and he was brought up JW too. No idea if they have sexual trauma from that side of early life but if that was part of it. It would explain plenty.
All three are abusive. No question.
I started to write how each one was abusive and now I cannot spell anything correctly and my body aches like it is bruised all over. Case 2 could have easily been my father. Case 3 was my mother at times. Throw in some actual physical abuse every few weeks and that was my childhood.
Dad thought since he didn’t touch, it wasn’t abuse. Mom thought since I didn’t have to go to the hospital with broken bones, it wasn’t abuse.
It has made us *extremely* mindful about parenting. We now have outside kids who have never known “spanking” or physical retaliation. They’ve never been called names at home (by parents, anyway). We even scrapped the “time out”, instead using “take a break” where whoever is upset (kid or parent) goes to a self-nourishing place in their room, with soft pillows and books to read and favorite stuffed animals, until they can calm down and rejoin the family. The kids have learned self-soothing skills, progressive relaxation, even yoga.
I think–I hope, I pray–we have finally ended the cycle of abuse.
• If you view any of these things abusive now, would you have viewed them as abusive when you were a child? (All would have been abusive when I was a child.)
• Are any of them abusive or excessive? All are excessive.
• How are you feeling after reading these scenarios? (Fearful 1-3)
• Do you feel comfortable reading them? (No 1-3)
• Were these situations upsetting to you in any way? (1 – 3 highly upsetting)
I would suggest that abuse not be entirely defined by the external environmental factors that are not well integrated into personality. One must consider the state of one’s brain and personality at the time of the incident(s) in an historical perspective.
Consider a child, like myself, who grows up with delayed myelination and insecure attachment passed on through my primary caregiver. Both delayed myelination and insecure attachment are associated with increased depression, ADD, OCD, dyslexia, and poor emotional regulation skills. The insecure attachment problem can be regarded as relational trauma, according to the work of Allan Schore in attachment studies. What might be perceived by many children as a “grumpy” parent by a securely attached child could easily be traumatic for a child like myself, which was the case. My brain was not wired to effectively process my experiences and incorporate them into normal personality. (Likely due to epigenetic adaptations). I was afraid of my father and had approach/avoidance problems with my mother. Neither of my parents so much as spanked me or physically/emotionally abused me in ways that most people would recognize. This goes to the whole problem of resilience that is so often been addressed and studied recently.
Being forcibly sexually abused at age 5 and having my life threatened if I told anyone would be difficult enough for a securely attached child who might, with parental support and appropriate therapy, be able to integrate the experience into personality and avoid PTSD. I have known some who have made it through. However, the experience was devastating for me. This set up the initial PTSD situation. I was grossly sensitized to additional forms of “abuse” that would have been well integrated into personality.
As an adult, I experienced various relational traumas in 8 relationships with women who had histories of insecure attachment and mothers who were abusive in verbal/emotional ways. Some of their mothers were alcoholic and two who had PTSD. These women either became verbally/emotionally abusive or were subject to betrayals of fidelity. My last partner kept me like a concubine, isolated and under her control for nearly 6 years. Ultimately, I was saddled with a host of both somatoform and psychoform dissociative symptoms and at least 5 dissociated parts.
I reconstructed the types, frequency and degree of abuse, as I experienced them, and compared the frequency and type of dissociative experiences over time from age 5 to age 61. (I used two scales for this effort: the TEC for abuse and the SDQ 20 for dissociation as the best indicators.) The accumulated abuse over the years correlated with an exponential increase (R = 0.99) in dissociation symptoms. These women’s other husbands/long term relations did not suffer similar problems to my own, although they did not necessarily result in lasting relationships.
I would identify abuse by the interaction of brain states and externally generated experiences over time; not simply as a proposed scale of degree of transient distress correlated with the event. I would suggest that relational trauma, a social aspect, is a key element in abuse.
Sam Ruck says
welcome back to your blog. I know this post is really directed to the abused, not to me. But here’s how it’s affected my journey with my girls…
Some abuse is about perspective especially when it comes to sex. What is abusive to a child (almost anything sexual) should not be to an adult. But what I had to realize is that my wife is not ‘just’ an adult. Vast areas of her personality were/are immature because the little girls control these areas.
So when the little girls joined my life, I met them “where they were.” That means when the defender accused me of being abusive, I apologized without defending myself and changed my actions to make her feel safe (even though a healthy woman probably would have thought I was VERY safe in bed).
But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to leave these little girls where they were. They need to grow up and take their proper place within a healthy woman: my wife. So as their healing progresses I am purposely moving them toward more mature views on sex and intimacy.
At this point, Alley, the one who accused me 4 years ago of being an abusive man is now my girlfriend, is passively part of our lovemaking and is considering my marriage proposal to her. Her perspective has changed because I was willing to meet her where she was, and move her, at her pace, to a more healthy view on sexuality. She’s still not there, but she’s come a long way.
This is an excellent, thought-provoking comment. I’m making it anonymous to protect the author.
Considering the abuse I went through that I thought was “normal” at the time; I think if I was a child in any of those situations, no I wouldn’t associate it with abuse. But looking at these situations now from an adult perspective and an appreciation of how vulnerable children are: yes. I think they are all abusive/neglectful. All the scenarios you gave.
1. Definitely neglect. The children are going hungry. The children are fed something “most days”. Children need food EVERYDAY. I was starved as a kid. This is neglect.
2. Boundaries crossed here. The girl does not need to feel perved on by that man. Where are appropriate sexual boundaries between parent and child these days? Again, my father crossed sexual boundaries. Not in an extreme way. But enough for me to have a very big problem with intimacy now.
3. Why is it that emotional abuse in society is seen as a lesser abuse? Why doparents think: well I didn’t touch the child thus it isn’t abuse? Rubbish. how would that parent like to be trying to survive and thrive in that environment? Disgraceful.