October 20, 2011

Consequences of Abuse on the Next Generation

Last week, I finished up a series exploring the false beliefs we develop based on the messages family members send and how our recovery can either be helped or hindered by our family.

In response, a reader contacted me with a very interesting question, "What about the impact on the children of a survivor when they find out their parent was abused? How do survivors determine what to say, how to say it, and how to deal with the consequences? Where is the support for these children?" These are great questions! So, today, I'm happy to share this reader's experience, and I hope others who are struggling with this issue will gain some insight or encouragement from her story. Names have been changed to protect the identity of this reader and her family.

The effects of child sexual abuse do not end when the abuse stops. They are carried within a victim until they are addressed and for many this is done so in silent agony. Abuse in childhood becomes abuse again in later years when memories surface and hurt as though being abused again.

Sexual abuse of children is more likely to have been carried out by either a member of a child’s family or a close and trusted relation or friend. This makes it even harder for a victim as the feeling of having no one to turn to for help overtakes them along with their fears and hurt.

Sally, a woman in her 40’s, was abused when just 10 years old. She kept her secret for over thirty years, managing to cover up her mood swings and feelings of shame until finally she could no longer do so. The first person she told was her husband of twenty-five years. Her disclosure to him hurt him deeply even more so when she told him who abused her – her elder brother. Her husband’s pain was evident, but he was what she calls, “One in a million.” After the initial shock and plenty of tears, he held her tight and promised they would get through this together. Of course, he felt sick and angry as this was his brother-in-law. Many family meals and celebrations had been shared over the years and now hatred was taking over. They decided not to tell their children. This seemed a good idea at the time, but Sally began thinking of her 12 year old daughter and panic began to set in. “What will happen to her if something happens to her father and I? Who will protect her from her uncle?” Sally could take no more, and she told her oldest child who would soon be 18 and could therefore be her daughter's legal guardian and protect her. This was to prove as heartbreaking and soul destroying as the past Sally had tried so hard to blank from her mind.

Her son’s reaction to the “news” was a mixture of so many different emotions that Sally began to hate herself for telling him. She had asked him to not tell his sister as she felt she was too young to cope with it. This made him even angrier, as his reaction to this was, “So it’s okay to hurt me like this but not her?” Sally understood this was just his anger talking, but it upset Sally to see her first born hurting so much and guilt began to set in. Changes in his behaviour soon became evident. At times he would explode with rage and others would cry as if still a little boy. He felt this great need to know more about his mother’s abusive childhood. For him, abuse was just a word, something that didn’t happen in his close loving family. He felt sick at the memories of times he had spent with his uncle.

She was determined that she would become the victor of the events she could not control in childhood, she would control the rest of her life. The abuse Sally endured had made her live a life of loneliness and pain. Now she was faced with seeing the pain on the faces of her own family. This made her even more determined to overcome her past. Life in the house was often unbearable, tension seemed to overtake the once relaxed atmosphere. The situation began to take its toll on Sally’s physical and mental health. She began to keep a diary of her feelings and thoughts. She sat in bed at night crying while writing. At times, she cried so much she could barely see the words she was writing, but this didn’t matter, what mattered was she was releasing her suffering.

Her abuser was arrested and no one had believed Sally that he would admit to it. Sally knew him for the coward he was and never gave up hope of this. Finally, the police called and gave her the news that he had admitted to abusing her. Coping with her own feelings was one thing, but now she was trying to cope with her family’s. This was tough as she never knew what to expect or what to say.

Her parents refused to believe it and made it clear they wanted nothing more to do with her. Now her children had lost their grandparents. Although speaking out felt right, she felt that she was ruining the lives of her children. Watching them both suffering was at times too much to bear. Both in their own way had set on a path of self-destruction and although she had spoken to various professionals, she couldn’t find the support for her children. All she heard was, “They have to understand that it happened to you, not them.” Eventually, she had to inform the school of what was happening. Her daughter began counselling and after 3 years she still attends sessions. That may seem a long time but it shows just how much it hurts to find out one of your parents was abused as a child. Family life is still difficult at times, but Sally no longer has to mask her feelings.

Speaking out about her abusive childhood gave Sally a lifeline in regaining her life. Although she was a victim of childhood abuse, she now considers herself a survivor and this feels good....

Her father passed away the year after she spoke of her abuse but her mother did not tell her and Sally found out after he was already buried. She eventually managed to find out the details of his passing and where he had been buried. To this day, Sally visits his grave and sadly always asks the same question. “Why wouldn’t you listen to me daddy? I love you sweet dreams......”

October 12, 2011

Family Matters - Part 2

Last week, I wrote a bit about the roles we take on in our family and then later continue playing. This week, I want to share some of the core false beliefs that people who grow up in families where abuse/dysfunction occurred develop. These are*:
    • I must meet certain standards in order to feel good about myself.
    • I must have others’ approval.
    • Because I have failed, I am unworthy and deserve to be punished.
    • I am what I am, I cannot change; I am hopeless.
These are false beliefs that we can challenge; we don’t have to continue holding onto or being shaped by these ideas. One way that I work with clients to challenge these false beliefs is to have them rewrite them as new stories that will give them freedom and possibility:

Example: I can feel good about myself even when I make a mistake, because it means I am trying and learning.

One important thing to understand here is that there is nothing, in general, wrong with having standards or needing approval. Problems occur, however, when we set up these beliefs as “musts.” If we can’t function and feel good about ourselves without the approval of others, for example, then things have gotten out of balance.

Much of who you are and how you see the world is shaped by the family you grew up in. You received all sorts of messages about what behavior was and wasn’t acceptable. At times, family members may have made statements that influenced how you saw yourself, relationships, or the world. The thing is, whatever messages our family members gave us about ourselves were simply that – messages sent. They are like telegrams that were sent long ago and became wired into our thinking, but all of that is up for grabs now. You get to choose at this point which things you believe, which things you don’t believe, and which things are really just about them, it’s their stuff – so that doesn’t have to be how you think about relationships or yourself any longer.

Here’s the bad news: in order to recover – you have to let people off the hook for the things they do and say. This doesn’t mean you have to continue to be abused or receive negative messages; it just means you have to make it about them and not about you.

The next, and often harder level, is to begin to notice that we begin to take these experiences with people and determine – or prove – things about them. We begin to define who they “ARE.” For example, my mother is over-bearing; my father is cold and disconnected; my husband is lazy. This is similar to what we are out to prove about others. When we have it that someone else “IS” the provider, the dependable one, the loser, the aggressor – this keeps you and them trapped with no possibility, because you frame all of their behavior with this lens or limit them to a particular way of being.

What do you have the people in your life being? How do you define them?
Example: My mother is a nuisance. My father is the one I can trust. My husband is my life.

What are the costs of doing so?
Example: If my husband is my life, I’m not owning and taking responsibility for my own journey.

What new possibility becomes available by giving up who you’ve had them being?
Example: If I give up defining my husband as my life, I’ll experience independence and relieve him of the enormous pressure of being “my life”!

When we determine who others will be, we limit and suffocate them and harm ourselves in the process, because we are unable to embrace the entire person. If your abuser is still in your life, one of the hardest but most freeing steps you can take is to stop defining them as “the abuser” and to begin seeing the whole person. This is particularly important if you want any sort of real relationship to occur. Now, if the person is still abusing you to this day in some way, this statement doesn’t apply to you!

Who are the people you’ve been limiting by defining who they “ARE” for you and not allowing room for anything else? Once you’ve identified these people, I encourage you to go to them and share who you’ve had them being and what you now see as possible because you are giving that up.

A little How-To Guide:
  1. Tell the person who you’ve had them being
  2. Share the cost
  3. Create a new possibility that becomes present when you stop defining them
If you’d like to challenge the false beliefs you've developed resulting from the messages you received from your family members, just schedule a 30 minute FREE discovery session. Right now – receive 6 sessions for the price of 3!

*adapted from Shelter from the Storm

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