What do you know about child abuse? What should you know about child abuse? Did you know that abuse is one of the most traumatizing events that a child could experience? For many children, abuse is unexpected and their ability to cope is often disproportionate to the abuse. Trauma is often defined asa terrible event that outweighs a child’s ability to cope (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2015). This inability to cope often leads to mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and even personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, narcissism, or avoidant personality. Even more, trauma can interfere with our ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships (work, marriage, friend, family) and appropriate social interactions. Trauma can also affect development throughout the lifespan and lead to a lifetime of emotional lability (“switchable” emotional states or moods). This article will briefly explore “Traumatic Bonding” and signs to look for that indicate traumatic bonding with an abuser.When working with families, I often encourage them to be aware of the types of relationships that can negatively affect a child, adolescent, or adult who has been traumatized. It is the quality of arelationship that can make or break the traumatized individual. We must understand that while a part of the traumatized “victim” is resilient and quite strong, there is another part of them that requires a level of compassion, understanding, sensitivity, empathy, and comfort.
It’s important to understand that there are multiple factors that can positively and negatively contribute to the trauma that has already occurred. These risk factors can either protect us from the trauma or plunge us deeper into it. Some of these factors include:
- low socioeconomic status,
- substance abuse,
- poor mental health or emotional reactivity,
- financial difficulties,
- poor coping style,
- others reaction to the trauma,
- no support system
- lack of employment,
- being bullied or harassed,
- living in situations that increase ones exposure to trauma,
- low self-esteem,
- lack of identity,
- domestic violence or abuse,and
- poor academic performance
Risk factors that are combined can trigger “complex trauma” such as a child who has witnessed their mother being physically abused by his/her father, is struggling with homelessness, low income, depression, anxiety, and substance abusing parents. These risk factors together can create a complex situation that may require months to years of therapeutic support. But the following protective factors can help build a layer of resilience:
- support system,
- financial stability,
- good emotional and psychological health,
- positive coping skills,
- connectedness with the community such as school, church, or youth/support groups
- social or familial connections,
- education or academic achievement,
- employment, and
- problem-solving skills
Despite all of these factors, the field of clinical psychotherapy continues to struggle with examining why some severely abused children have trouble disconnecting from their abuser and forgetting them. Some children, as difficult as it is to believe, continue to desire the nurturing and accepting love of an abusive parent, even long after they have been removed from the abusive home environment. This is why AmyBaker and Mel Schneiderman deftly explore the issue through the stories of survivors and through their own analyses of those stories. And it is an important subject to analyze.
In my own work, I have made more than500 child-abusereports, also called childline reports, to date. In the United States, we collectively make a whoppingthree million of these reports eachyear, and our country is said to have the worst record among industrialized nations, according to childhelp.org. It is evenmore frightening when you consider that such a report is madeevery ten seconds. The question becomes: How can we understand whatkinds of mental and emotional problems in adults can lead them to mistreattheir children, and what kinds of attachment theory can help us parse the unhealthy connection that results? In the book, Peter, one of the adults who recountshis story of physical abuse at the hands of his parents, realizesthat the unbearable beatings from hisfather occurred only when his father was drunk. With each lash of the belt, Peter recalls, my body swung and juddered as if I was a rag doll being flung about by a rabid dog. And although it only happened after his father drank, Peter explains,Violence of this kind seemed normal to me. It was what parents were for, what they did to you.
This type of “bonding”, which they refer to astraumatic bonding,can happen when a child experiences periods of positive experience alternating with episodes of abuse.By experiencing both positive and extreme negative from aparent,the authors explain, a child can become almost co-dependent. But, Baker and Schneidermanpoint out, although they compare thisto a hostage situation, a child in these casesis different than an actual hostage, in the sense that the child has a pre-existing caregiving relationship with the abuser.So, although for many of us the idea a child bonding withthat person may be impossible to fathom, the way that caregivingcombines with violencemakes separating oneself from the adultvery difficult.
Individualswho have bonded to their abuser often exhibit certain emotional and behavioral signs that are important for us to recognize. Some of these behavioral and emotional signs include but are not limited to:
- Overidentifying with the abuser: Some individuals who have endured long-term abuse often find themselves harboring conflicting emotions. There are times when the abused individual may hate the abuser one minute and the next minute make statements or do things that makes the relationship appear better than it actually is. For example, a child who is being emotionally abused might make statements such as “I hate my uncle for what he has done to me,” and later make a different statement such as “Uncle Tim and I always joke around and go to the movies on Saturdays.” These two statements and the different wording often perplexes outsiders. Other abused individuals might make statements such as “Uncle Tim and I always dress alike because we enjoy it,” “Uncle Tim and I are very much alike because we like the same foods,” or “Uncle Tim and I cried when we watched Titanic together for the first time.”
- Feeling indebted to the abuser: Some abused individualsmay develop a sense of gratitude for something that the abusive individual may have done for them. For example, if an adolescent female was once homeless and placed in multiple foster care homes but the abusive individual took them in and treated them well before the abuse, the abused individual may feel he or she owes the abuser something. I have been told by severely abused adolescents that the abuser “loved me or he would not have helped me.”
- Feeling that “he or she needs me”:Some abused individuals develop an emotional bond to the abuser that makes them feel they sometimes owe the abuser something. For example, individuals who have been sexually, emotionally, or physically abused may find themselves feeling sorry for the emotional or psychological challenges of the abuser and develop a sense of empathy or compassion for the abuser. This can lead to the abused individual feeling indebted to the person and dedicated to “helping them get better.” This kind of behavior can typically be found in romantic relationships in which the abused individuals becomes so emotionally protective over the abuser that they will endure the abuse in order to please the abuser.
- Explaining almost everything away: A very typical behavior of some abused individuals is to make excuses for the abuse. The abuser doesn’t hurt them because they are bad but because “I deserved it. I wasn’t nice that day” or because “he was jealous, I would be too.” This is often a telltale sign that the abused individual is bonding or bonded to the abuser.
- Protecting the abuser: Most of us would run away from someone who is abusing us. We don’t want to experience pain and we don’t want to feel the shame of being abused. But sometimes because the abuser is often mentally or emotionally disturbed and is the product of a dysfunctional environment, the abused individual can develop such a bond that they feel the need to protect the abuser. Sometimes the abused individual might stand up for the abuser and go against people who truly care. A teenage girl who has been dating her abusive boyfriend will most likely go against her mother when her mother attempts to highlight negative traits and behaviors in the boyfriend.
- Allowing the abuse to continue to “please” the abuser: Some individuals, primarily those who are being sexually abused and manipulated, will permit the abuse to continue to “keep problems down” or “please him/her.” The victim becomes so overwhelmed by a failure to protect or stand up for themselves that they give in. Or the individual is fearful of walking away and remains in the situation for however long they can. During my training as a clinician 8yrs ago, a child said to me “he wanted something good from me and I gave it to him because he deserved it. Dad always goes to work for us and is a hard worker.”
- Wearing multiple “hats”: Depending on how emotionally or psychologically unstable the abuser is, some abused individuals will play multiple roles in the life of the abuser. For example, a child who has been physically and verbally abused by a substance abusing parent with 5 other young children might begin to play the role of: “caregiver” to the younger children, “teacher” to the kids who struggle with homework, “surrogate parent,” “babysitter,” “therapist” to the abuser, etc. Playing multiple roles often results in lack of identity and feeling overwhelmed. Many children lose their childhood prematurely and end up developing into depressed, anxious, and suicidal adults.
- Covering negative emotions in the presence of the abuser: If you are sad and the abuser is happy, you cover your sadness. If you are happy and the abuser is depressed, you cover your elation. If you are feeling hopeless and suicidal but the abuser is walking around the house singing and playing music, you will most likely cover your emotions and go along to get along. Many of the abused and neglected children and adolescents that I have seen often fall into this category. One 17-year-old female, who was fearful to return to her emotionally abusive environment, reported to me during our final session “I was in the middle of crying about the loss of my friend but as soon as I heard Gram coming up the stairs singing, I wiped my tears and put on a smile. When do I ever get to feel what I want to feel?”
- Desiring love and affection despite being hurt: Most individuals who are the victims of abuse desire love and affection, sometimes only the love and affection of the abuser. It’s almost as if the person desires the love and affection of the abuser so much that they will do anything to achieve it. One previous client reported that she would kill herself if her boyfriend of 4yrs told her to do it. Think of suicide bombers. What is the motivation behind their suicide? The motivation is often religious dedication or to possibly be accepted by those who support the behaviors of suicide bombers.
If you’d like to continue reading on this topic, check out my most recent peer book review for AmyBaker and Mel SchneidermanonBonded to the abuser: How victims make sense of childhood abuse.
I wish you well
Photo by Mike Knapek