Childhood is a time of happiness, freedom and learning. But, for many of us, childhood is full of memories of hurt, guilt, anxiety and fear. It is okay to have such childhoods.
This type of childhood does not define us.
We have come through to the other side. We have crossed into adulthood full of scars. But, we made it. Granted, we have our issues. For the most part, we lead productive and happy lives.
However, I still have trouble coming face to face with an emotionally abused child. She or he is my trigger.
That child reminds me of the raw feelings of childhood that will forever be imprinted in my psychic universe. That child also unleashes a well of conflicting emotions.
On the one hand, I feel so much kindness for that child I do not know what to do with it all. On the other hand, I want to ignore that child so that I don’t have to experience all the emotions triggered by the child.
This is what happens when emotional abuse can pass down generations. Mom is an emotionally abused child who rose above the abusive childhood but still gets triggered by her childhood emotions.
If she has a child, motherhood means walking down the memory lane, staring at a reflection of the child she could’ve been, and working her hardest to identify her triggers, so that she doesn’t project them onto her child. This is often the case when the mother has worked through her abuse.
When the mother has not worked through her own abuse. Rather, the mother has pushed all her emotions down into the bottom of her emotional well. When she has a child, this is an example of what could happen.
This mom has a beautiful child. She is happy. She takes care of the child religiously. But, she does not feel attached to her child. Somehow at certain critical moments in that child’s life, she fails. The child reacts to her failures. The child fails to really attach to her. Everyday, she feels the emotional separation between her child and herself. Everyday, as the gap grows larger, she does not know how to change this. She internalizes the gap as her own limitation. One day, she stares at her child, all she sees is the wall of her own childhood emotions being triggered by her child. Unable to handle all of these emotions all at once, she ignores her child. She makes excuses such as “Mommy has to work.”; “He’s so little, he doesn’t need me to do homework with him yet.”; “Mommy has to go and find a daddy.” The bond between her child and herself never heals. The emotional separation grows. It causes childhood trauma to her child.
I am not an expert in childhood trauma. I imagine each individual case of childhood trauma warrants it’s own set of therapy to cure.
However, having worked through my own trauma with some diligence before my child was born, I can tell you that this mother needs help as much as the child.
In my own life, as a child, while under the emotionally abusive situations, there were critical people in my life who, through their small unconditional gestures, helped to give me hope. They gave me hope that one day I could change my situation.
When that day came, that’s exactly what I did: change my situation.
Whoever you are: the mother who realized that you or a member of your family is hurting your child or the teacher who suspects a student is living with emotional trauma. When you are faced with an emotionally abused child, try to use the following 10 strategies.
It is never too late. It will always do some good.
10 Ways to Help an Emotionally Abused Child
- Show some kindness
Kindness is key. It can be a simple gesture such as giving a toy to the child. It can be giving that child your undivided attention. It can be respecting that child’s needs. It can also be flashing a smile. Whatever it is, it is greatly appreciated.
2. Show some humor
Crack a joke. Show that child that life is fun. Bring that child in to participate in a fun game. Invite that child to laugh with you. Laugh loud and laugh hard together.
3. Show some consistency
If you are a teacher or a relative who is close to that child, you know that you will be in the child’s life for a while. Then, establish a care routine with the child. It can be as simple as walking the child to his or her classroom together every Friday. It can be eating ice cream together every Wednesday. Any small gesture that demonstrates unconditional care is greatly appreciated. But, make sure that you are consistent with this routine.
4. Foster the child’s imagination
One of the greatest gift you can give a child is imagination. This is especially true when a child is under stress and pressure. Remind the child what it means to dream about a far away land. This teaches the child to use his or her imagination as a coping mechanism when family life becomes a challenge.
5. Show the child his or her boundary
When an abusive family robs the child of his or her boundaries, that child needs to be reminded of boundaries immediately. An abused child will often respond a little too willingly to your initial advances at caring for that child. The child has been starving for attention for some time. It is our job to push back. Say that: “I care about you. You are a great boy. But, you have to tell me what you want for lunch or I’m not buying you one. I don’t want to hear ‘whatever you want.’ That’s not going to cut it this time.” If you took the child to a baseball game and the child seems bored, then tell the child, “ do you want to go? you don’t have to like the game just because I bought tickets. I just want to spend time with you.” Show that child it is okay to say no.
6. Give the child a job
One of the greatest issue with an emotionally abused child is the self hatred that stems out of his or her self-esteem being trampled by the emotionally abusive family system. This self-hatred if not managed properly can lead to a variety of psychological issues in adulthood. In order to raise that child’s self-esteem, you can ask the child to come by and work on a project together. Keep the tasks small and simple. Give the child praises when appropriate. Treat the child as one of your employees. Give that child responsiblility and hold the child accountable for the responsibility. If you are consistent, in no time, you will see the smile on the child’s face. As the child’s self-esteem rises, the child will learn to rise above the disfunction in his or her own family.
7. Give the child honest feedback
One of the other issues with an emotionally abused child is the child’s inability to trust adults. Even though, the child may seem obedient. In truth, the child questions everything he or she hears. In order to reach such a child, the only way is to be honest. Give the child honest feedback. If the child did a bad job on something, just say that to the child. Don’t tiptoe around the child. Instead, respect the child by giving that child your honesty.
8. Practice positive discipline with the child
An emotionally abused child is often subtly rebellious. This subtly rebellious child is difficult to discipline. It requires an adequate amount of trust building before this child will listen. It also requires a lot of patience to give the child a chance to follow directions. The key here is using positive discipline strategies. Positive discipline strategies should only be used by the caretaker of the child. It needs to be implemented consistently after trust has been established.
Positive discipline involves:
- modeling positive behavior as an example
- use positive words instead of negative words
- use repetition to reinforce correct behavior
- reward the child with positive words
Here’s an example of Positive Discipline in Action. You can find more resources at the end of this post.
9. Tell the child about the child’s strength
When a child is under heavy emotional burden, the child loses sight of his or her own development. The abusive family system often takes up all of the child’s mental space. It’s important to remind the child that his or her own childhood is meant to serve the child’s own development. Put together an activity that the child excels at, then let the child shine. This experience will refocus the child on what is really important.
10. Give the child an outlet for pent up emotional energy
Physical activities are often the best way to release anger, frustration and stress. A child under the abusive family system can benefit from a day on the playground, a game of catch and a frisbee toss. After emotional stress is released, the child can often think more clearly about his or her abusive family system.
Armed with these 10 strategies, I hope that when we see a child who “doesn’t seem” to be in the “right” head space, we will be able to help that child. With enough small kindnesses along the way, the child will be empowered to work on himself or herself to overcome the abusive family system.
References for this post:
- Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers — Dr. Karyl McBride Ph.D.
- Take Back Your Life from a Narcissistic Family Upbringing — goodtherapy.com
- Resilience Guide for Parents & Teachers — apa.org
- Positive Discipline | Dr. Jane Nelsen — positivediscipline.com