So often when we think of abuse, we define it in terms of physical and sexual abuse. We don't often think about how damaging emotional abuse can be. Clearly sexual and physical abuse is escalating exponentially. The impediment of keeping silent has been removed. Painful as it is, people are much more attentive to allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Those allegations are no longer just kicked to the curb, and they are all very seriously followed up.
Unfortunately, emotional abuse is not treated in the same way. It is still oftentimes dismissed and ignored. Too often, when a charge of emotional abuse is made, the accusers are dismissed as being too histrionic and overly dramatic. Since there are no bruises, the allegations are often found to be unfounded.
How do you measure emotional abuse? Does the abused person have to have a breakdown or be constantly hysterical for someone to respond in a positive way?
Genuine emotional abuse is very hard to measure. It doesn't just happen once. It happens repeatedly over an extended period of time. In some ways, it's more destructive than physical abuse because it doesn't leave any external marks. It just destroys the heart and soul of a person.
Emotional abuse does not know a particular face, economic circumstance or social situation. Painfully, it is everywhere. Well-educated, intact families can be emotionally abusive. Single moms and dads can be emotionally abusive. Blended families can be emotionally abusive. Reconstructed families can be emotionally abusive. Real emotional abuse knows no boundaries. If we take time to look, it is everywhere.
The reason emotional abuse is so destructive is because it is so subtle and infectious. Oftentimes, parents are emotionally abusive. They hide behind statements that speak to holding their children accountable and responsible. However, if the truth be told, they are just controlling and manipulating their children and intensifying the emotional pain they're battling with.
Emotional pain rips at someone's heart and runs the risk of destroying someone's soul. Too often, it renders them powerless. They are so frightened and full of fear that they feel and act powerless.
Oftentimes the person who is emotionally abusive has suffered at the hands of emotional abuse. He or she grew up in a home with a parent who was overbearing and controlling. Nothing was ever good enough. The Mom or Dad accused the child of never doing anything correctly. They found fault with everything their son or daughter did. Praise was never uttered from their lips. Criticism was relentless.
Some teenagers who are constantly criticized can let the criticism roll off their backs and not let it disrupt their day-to-day lives. However, relentless negative comments can totally distract someone from their focus and purpose. No normal human being can endure constant emotional harassment.
If you are a young person and live at home, you are even more powerless because you are trapped. You have no place to run and hide when the emotional abuse becomes overwhelming. An adult at least has the freedom to walk away. Adults usually have other safe options to run to, even though their fear paralyzes them from leaving.
What is so shocking about emotional abuse is how infectious it is and how many decent young people are suffering from it. Too many kids are afraid to speak up. So, they silently suffer from overbearing, over controlling abusive parents. When it gets so unbearable, some have the courage to leave. Some who have left, never turn back once they leave.
MJ is seventeen. She is the oldest of three children from an intact family. Both of her parents are well educated. They both have good jobs. Most who know them would describe them as a tightly knit and close family.
As the oldest, MJ charted a course for her younger sisters. She is an excellent athlete and a good student. Her teachers described her as an all around nice kid. In elementary school, she was a star soccer player. Her Dad coached her when she was in elementary school. That is where the emotional abuse began. Nothing she did was ever good enough for her father. When she was nine years old, he would humiliate her on the soccer field. If she missed the kick, he would make her feel like she let the team down. His screaming and demeaning her were unconscionable.
At home, MJ's Dad was all over his children. They could not breathe without asking his permission. When he was working, if the children wanted to go out with friends, instead of Mom saying yes or no, everything was deferred to Dad. They would have to call him at work, and depending on his mood, he would say yes or no. He had a very stressful job, so he said no more often than not, even about the simplest things.
As MJ got older, it got worse. He became more sarcastic and demeaning, not just about her athletic play, but also about her school work and her everyday social life. By middle school, there was not a day that went by that she did not go off to school in tears because of his relentless comments. He would start her day off by criticizing her dress, critiquing what she ate for breakfast and commenting on the way her hair was combed. He never began her day with a kind word or a few words of encouragement.
If you confronted him about his interactions with her, he would always express shock. He would respond by saying he was only urging her to be the best that she could be. He was totally oblivious that his comments were mean and hurtful. He really believed that he was being a good dad. When MJ would appeal to her Mom, she always deferred to her husband. So, MJ felt like she had no one in her corner.
She was afraid to share any of this with her friends for fear they would tell their parents. She was afraid their parents might call her house and try to be helpful. The few times she did say something in elementary school, he became even more relentless after the phone calls. He made her feel terribly guilty for sharing family business with outsiders.
Once MJ reached high school, she thought her Dad would lighten up. She was more independent and self-reliant. Her daily schedule became much busier with athletics and after school activities.
Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. He became much more intrusive in her life. He embarrassed her on the soccer field by yelling and screaming at her while she was playing and calling her coach names. When her friends came to her house, he would make sarcastic remarks about her and make her feel very uncomfortable with them. He constantly critiqued her school work and told her repeatedly that she was too stupid to go to college, using those exact words. She has a B+ overall high school average and has been accepted into four reputable liberal arts colleges and universities.
If she got an A-, he would rant and rave about why she didn't get an A. If she went out with girlfriends on a Friday night to the movies, and the movie ran later than expected, she would call home to say she would be a little late. When she got home, he was waiting and would lace into her with an emotional assault that really sounded abusive and demeaning. At most, she was only five or ten minutes late. He made everything a big deal.
By senior year, MJ had had it. She felt less support from her Mom. From her perspective, the emotional rants were off the wall. She told a guidance counselor that it was unbearable and she couldn't stand it any longer. A few months ago, she moved out.
Presently, she is thriving in school and in her social circle, but she lives with tremendous guilt. Her father has convinced her that she's worthless and that she has destroyed the family.
An interesting point, her Dad left home at sixteen and never turned back because he was emotionally abused by his father!
Emotional abuse is damaging more teenagers than we realize. We have very inadequate intervention strategies to help young people who are being victimized and to help their parents who are responsible for the emotional damage.
If we truly care about young people and the quality of their life, we need to address this issue now!