My parent survived child abuse. Is it impacting us now?
December 18, 2014 9:33 PM   Subscribe

What information and support is out there for adult children of people who themselves survived child abuse (including physical, sexual, and verbal / emotional abuse)? How can abuse survivors' families (including adult children) navigate the effects of untreated trauma?

My parent was abused as a child. Our relationship now is often great, sometimes frustrating and perplexing, and occasionally very intense and hurtful. I wonder if understanding the impacts of child abuse they experienced would give me any insight, validation, or ability to better deal with this.

I'm trying to understand and cope with tendencies such as sensitivity to (real or imagined) criticism, angry outbursts, blaming, resentfulness, hurtful statements, public scenes, long emails or tearful voice mails about how they are falling apart emotionally due to something I said or did, threats to never talk to me again, calling my girlfriend's phone at inappropriate times when I don't pick up, making shows of not taking basic care of themselves (i.e., they're too distraught over my actions to cook), and accusations of betrayal and abuse (by me). By that last one, one example is that every few years a new complaint arises that I supposedly "always do" to the parent: "you're embarrassed to be seen in public with me, you treat me like an embarrassment." And despite protestations, from then on, various unrelated actions provoke anger (swallowing water wrong and coughing = a way to hide your face). Most of the time, things are mostly fine. But the risk of an outburst hovers.

I am working with a therapist to set boundaries and face my fears of how they'll react when I do so. I love this parent and would like to maintain a relationship. (The paragraph above really is a compilation of the worst times; it's not constant badness at that intensity.) But what has been happening to me is not something I can allow to continue.

I am now wondering if the person's history of trauma is related, and if so, how (if at all) that should shape my approach to clarifying what kind of behavior and speech is acceptable to me. How have other abuse survivors and their families navigated difficult behaviors by the survivor?

I'm eager to learn, so I welcome any leads: scholarly papers, textbooks, self-help books, support groups. (I'm in a large US metropolis.) I have been very perplexed at times. Other approaches to understanding our dynamic have not been a perfect fit. I'm hoping this lens will help. Googling is yielding lots for survivors themselves, but nothing yet on my specific question.

Disclaimers: I'm not trying to define their experiences for them or pathologize them. I don't know if this line of reading will be useful or not. They want to have buried this in the past, and in many ways, they very much have. I have no interest in rattling their defenses. Nor do I imagine I can (further) heal them. I doubt they'd pursue treatment or talk about it. I just want to better understand what is going on in our relationship and set my own boundaries going forward.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to offer something up, IDK if it will work or not...

Your parent has emotional "soft spots," and normal behaviors from you (and I suppose others) can trigger your parent - right?

Instead of being defensive when your parent unexpectedly explodes, what if you stayed very calm and showed deep empathy for your parent's obvious and extreme discomfort? Like, what if you took your parent's side?

I think your parent wants to be heard. Also comforted, but NOT patronized.

Anyway, that's what I want when I'm triggered like that.

Then again, I've done a lot of self-work so I'm aware. If your parent isn't hip to the fact that they are acting out because of trauma and past abuse, they might not be able to slow down and diffuse their own emotions once the (over)reaction is triggered.

Just a thought. I hope you try it. I hope it works.

Abuse victims are usually hyper-vigilant. So, when your parent reacts to something they are "sensing," they are probably not wrong that something is "up" even if they are wrong about how important or not whatever they are sensing actually is.
posted by jbenben at 9:55 PM on December 18, 2014 [10 favorites]

I am not in any way trying to pathologize your parent. Many abuse survivors suffer such profound effects from the abuse that those effects shape their personalities and create personality disorders. From the way you describe your parent, I'm thinking that it might make sense to research borderline personality disorder and see if you think it fits.

The older idea about borderline personality disorder was that it's incurable. Newer ideas recognize that the symptoms are a reasonable response to an unreasonable situation (like childhood abuse) and that intensive treatment over several years can lead to remission of the condition.

I suspect that if you look for information on borderline personality disorder or for information on children of people with borderline personality disorder (there's a gender bias in the diagnosis, so you're more likely to find information about mothers with borderline personality disorder), you may find more of the information you're seeking.
posted by jaguar at 10:25 PM on December 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't have much to add on this, but from the way you've written this I got the sense that your parent's abuse is new information to you. If so I would have to question if it is entirely true. After all you said yourself that they can be emotionally manipulative. Could they be telling you this now because you are now setting boundaries with them that they don't like and they want to regain some control by gaining your sympathy?

I have no idea obviously, but you know...just putting it out there.
posted by rancher at 10:32 PM on December 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

There have been times in my life when feelings of vulnerability and insecurity have overwhelmed me, not always with a reasonable basis. I've told my kids, and I've wished many times that they'd remember, that all it really takes to fix me right up is a long, deep hug. Don't talk, don't try to fix it, just hold me for a few minutes - a long few minutes - and I'll be all right.

FWIW, my childhood was that kind.
posted by aryma at 11:34 PM on December 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

@ rancher, I normally do a mental "thumbs up" when you post but on this one ... I know from personal experience that one of the worst things you can do to a person who has survived abuse is to doubt that it happened.

IMO, better that the OP believes in the perceived abuse and deals with the parent's presenting issues as described in the post. YMMV.
posted by alwayson_slightlyoff at 12:13 AM on December 19, 2014 [17 favorites]

I don't think there's any reason to even address the idea that she's making up to get your sympathy, but I'm very ticky about that because that's the absolute LAST thing that should be considered when any mental distress surfaces IMHO. I don't know how anyone could come to that conclusion with so little information, anyway. Same with the BPD idea - wow. If you read about BPD a bit you'll find aspects of the disorder that fit anyone who's undergoing a meltdown for any reason, but BPD is complicated and requires diagnosis by someone who knows what they're doing and has examined the person, at the very least; the last thing we need is labels that don't fit - labels that we worked out via information on the internet.

I think jbenben said it well when she said an abused person is hyper-vigilant - you have to be when you're brought up in a situation where you better know what's going on in every direction at all times - but it does get exhausting and when you're tired, the feelings of being overwhelmed and unappreciated come to the surface. That's why a long, deep hug helps me so much and why jbenben says it might be worth a try to just quietly empathize and soothe her pain - that may be all it takes. Or she may need medication or therapy or both.

I hate to sound a cliche', but is she by any chance menopausal? I ask because that was a rough time for me, regardless of what the experts say. I over-reacted to minor affronts and stacked all the terrible things that had ever happened to me up in a heap and held onto that heap as proof that I was besieged and couldn't do anything that would please anyone no matter how hard I tried. My descent into a serious suicidal depression followed pretty much the same pattern - and neither time could anyone convince me that what I was feeling was abnormal or wrong. Everything I felt was as real as what I feel today - as real as what you're feeling today.

My advice would be to try to soothe her without advising her or talking about what's hurting either of you - just a warm embrace that says "I love you, regardless of the rest." Continue your therapy and hopefully she'll come around to the idea that it may just help after all once she doesn't think she has to be defending herself all the time. And if not, maybe a visit to her doctor for a checkup would be a good idea anyway to cover hormonal issues, depression, or physical illness.

I wish you both well.
posted by aryma at 12:30 AM on December 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

My parent was abused as a child by her father.

For me it is a given that as the child of a vctim of abuse you are affected. Some people will be more affected and some less but there is a definite connection.

What helps is me looking after myself (eg. therapy, but also distancing myself at times when it is too much).
And as aryma said - express love in any way she can accept. My mother did lots of thereapy herself btw, but I do not see it helped her much. But it helps me to know she is seeing a therapist because it shares the burden of care.
And if she is very poorly, I have an arrangement that I may call the therapist (with her permission and not to discuss her but simply express my concern but not expecting him to comment or reply in any way).

Definitely do not question if she was truly abused. Not a good idea, it will needlessly upset her even more. Hug her, if it does not trigger anything (it can, with my mom).

I have read some helpful stuff but it was in German, but I will look for somethign in English.
posted by 15L06 at 12:56 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend Coping With Your Difficult Older Parent, which addresses how to establish boundaries with parents who behave like your mom from a position of empathy, with adult insight that you did not have as a child. An understanding of her history and perspective may help you frame her boundary-crossing behaviour differently, and lessen (if not eliminate) its impact.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:55 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

My parent lived in a household that featured an abusive alcoholic. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that she was greatly harmed by this experience and that she transferred some of this harm to me. Just when I think I know every single thing that happened to her as a child/teenager, I seem to learn new things. Just the other day I found out that her father stabbed her mother with a nail file just because she wanted to go to church, and this was before he started drinking.

As a child/teenager myself, I was unable to figure out what was wrong with me. I couldn't understand why she was so cold to me, seemed to hate me sometimes, was always depressed, etc. After learning about her childhood experiences it all clicked for me and I realized that what I had to do, in the absence of any attempts of her own to heal herself, was just accept her. I read a couple of books about adult children of alcoholics, worked on some of my own issues, and developed a strategy for dealing with her. This involved realizing a few things.

1. I can't fix her. If she wears her pajamas for 10 days in a row, smokes 2 packs of cigarettes a day, orders dinner in every night, and spends 95% of her time playing match-3 games on her iPad, this is not my problem. I just accept her behavior without judging it, mentioning it, or attempting to change it.

2. She will believe what she wants to believe, and nothing I can do or say will change it. For example, she thinks that I think she's stupid. I do not. She thinks she's stupid, and she's transferring her own self-worth issues over to me. Comments about what she thinks I think go unremarked upon. For example: "Well, I know you think I'm stupid, but I don't understand what's going on in this scene." "They're picking up dead drops. A dealer is leaving behind money in a remote location for the supplier to pick up." Notice I didn't say anything like, "I don't think you're stupid!" I just choose not to take the bait. Ever.

3. I assume that she loves and cares about me and never did anything to harm me on purpose. Because of our relationship, I am a physically and emotionally distant person, and I went through a long period of blaming her coldness for my low self-esteem and coldness. Blame and resentment accomplishes nothing. I acknowledge that she did her best with the tools she had and have given up on ever having this magical, affectionate, and loving parent that I longed for as a child. She is who she is and it is what it is. She has her own good qualities that I can appreciate and I try to focus on those--a good sense of humor, a love for animals, a beautiful singing voice, bravery, etc. I mean, she physically took a loaded gun away from my grandfather while he was attempting to shoot my grandmother. She was only 17 years old. She's a courageous person and she deserves some respect for surviving such a childhood without turning to drugs, alcohol, and physical violence herself. Empathy is key.

4. When she crosses a boundary, I do redirect her. For example, she's been crying because I don't wear a winter coat. This is all bound up in growing up poor and being worried about my state of mind. I just remind her that I'm almost 40 years old and can make my own decisions about my outerwear without her input, though I appreciate her concern.

5. I have accepted that I will never be the child she wanted. I've got loads of my own problems and am a constant source of disappointment to her. Just this evening she was talking about my big brains, my singing voice, my artistic talent, and how it is all going to waste. Instead of engaging in a painful conversation about my mental illnesses and self-destructive tendencies, I just said, "I'm glad you think I'm smart and talented." It's about being selective, choosing your battles, and accentuating positives.

It's hard work and exhausting at first, but with practice it gets much, much easier. I can do it without thinking most of the time.
posted by xyzzy at 2:41 AM on December 19, 2014 [31 favorites]

I have a family member who had an abusive childhood, so I am following this thread with interest, but I will say that your instincts are correct. It HAS helped me a lot to realize that a lot of their actions have to do with making things "just right" in an effort to avoid the (past) abuse, and have nothing to do with me. It helps me to keep perspective and remain calm.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:08 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Look, it might not be just the history of abuse that is causing your parent's behaviors. There may be some untreated mental illness there. My ex-husband's family has a strong line of mental illness and abuse, going back generations so I don't think it is uncommon. Your parent may need treatment. You are getting help from a therapist. That is good. Talk about the benefits of therapy during your parent's calm moments and try to lead them there. It is okay to avoid them during their bad times. If you feel your parent is a danger to themselves or others, call the police. You can't fix someone who doesn't believe that they are broken but you can call in resources that could help them realize that they may need help. The most important thing for you to remember is that they were broken when you got them and it isn't your fault that they act the way that they do.
posted by myselfasme at 5:58 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

[Let's steer clear of further speculation, thanks.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 6:38 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might want to check out some of the resources offered by organizations like Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, Help for Adult victims of Child Abuse, or your local domestic violence center.

In spite of the childhood abuse that your parent suffered and survived your parent has managed to raise you, an obviously kind caring person, so be sure to give your parent credit and appreciation for all the good parenting you got, along with those hugs mentioned above.
posted by mareli at 7:52 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
Thanks for all of the answers so far, particularly stories from other adult children. I would appreciate book recommendations from you, 15L06, if you remember any, or from anyone else who has one. I'm coming to realize that this has been well studied. For instance, I just found this journal abstract: "Daughter’s perceptions of being mothered by an incest survivor." They show characteristics of sexual assault victims without having experienced an assault themselves -- wow, because, me too. There is probably more like that to learn.

My knowledge of the abuse goes way back, from multiple sources (least of all the parent). But it has always been presented as this thing that happened in the past, not as something that might be having an impact today. What's new is the level of blame directed at me, my awareness of how not-okay our relationship can be, my search for understanding, and my sense of responsibility for protecting myself and other loved ones.

What my parent does, when triggered, is very much in the realm of verbal abuse and/or a personality disorder. The BPD possibility has been raised by my therapist (though of course not as a diagnosis). While books on that have been helpful, they haven't sparked quite the lightbulb you see in some reviews ("every word rang true!"), so I'm looking for additional possibilities.

Solutions like giving them a hug aren't very useful to me at this time. I know they need a hug from someone, but I have to put on my own oxygen mask first. My parent is not asking for help in a self-aware way, and allowing them to take their pain out on me won't heal them. If I can say this without sounding self-pitying, I'm realizing that I grew up to some extent learning not to have needs or feelings. For now, I want to let their equilibrium be their responsibility, protect myself, and reduce my enmeshment, so that I can not only be kind to them over the long run but also eventually provide healthy parenting to the next generation.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 9:39 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

You might want to check out some of Alice Miller's work. The Drama of the Gifted Child is her best known book (the title refers to children who have to learn the "gift" of being emotionally aware of their parents' needs at the expense of their own), but her other works focuses a bit more on how abuse cycles through families and affects childrearing and relationships.
posted by jaguar at 10:14 AM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Early trauma has been shown to impact brain development, which affects a person's emotional expressions and behaviors. You can read an overview here.
posted by megancita at 10:53 AM on December 19, 2014

@ alwayson_slightlyoff I meant no offence. Believe me I know what you say is true for a fact as I myself grew up with abuse that caused me to be permanently separated from family. Not being believed is like having to deal with the trauma all over again. However I have ALSO had a roommate once who would cry rape just because she was angry at the person for rejecting her advances (I was there when she didn't know it, so I knew what actually happened between them). And I have also known another person who whenever he got caught stealing from us he would list all his mental problems many of which turned out not to be true. It's important to acknowledge that manipulators like this DO exist, especially since it's awful people like that that make people question those who really were abused in the first place. If someone was claiming they themselves were abused I would never bring it up, but since this is a third-person issue involving someone who apparently has a history of manipulating the OP, I thought it was a valid consideration. I did not mean to imply that the parent should be called a liar and I hope it isn't perceived that way.
posted by rancher at 2:08 PM on December 19, 2014

@ rancher I would never think that you meant to offend. I am just sensitive to this issue, and I hope my comment was as neutral as I intended for it to be. Glancing up to re-read; okay, maybe not so much, sorry. Perhaps I should not post at 3 AM.

It's just that there is hardly anything so devastating as finally disclosing and not being believed, especially by family, or a therapist or a close friend.

And, yes, I have had the appalling experience of having a "friend" pull the "I was abused and I need special snowflake treatment" at a hospital, in my presence. I knew it wasn't true, she laughed to me afterwards that she told the staff she had been abused in order to receive preferential treatment ... and d@mn, was I angry. Especially as she knew my situation and did it in my presence. Now there's a manipulator for ya'.

I hear where you're coming from, and I think you get me. We're all good on this, yes?

And ... I'm sorry for your own experience. So many survivors, eh? Good on us to have made it!
posted by alwayson_slightlyoff at 5:10 PM on December 19, 2014

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