By Marilyn Cramer, RMT, Cl.Ht.
Childhood should be a special, magical time for every child. Unfortunately, it is not always the case. Most people in our society have some form of dysfunction, and it’s usually because of the way they’ve been raised. That dysfunction is generally handed down from generation to generation and we see it as being normal, because that is all we know. Human dysfunction shows itself in many ways… verbal abuse, physical and sexual abuse, violence toward animals, alcoholism, mental illness, depression, abandonment of children, giving children adult responsibilities, apathy, etc.
In dysfunctional families, problems tend to be chronic and children do not consistently have their needs met. Harm to a child shows itself in adulthood, and takes on many different forms.
According to Counseling Services at Kansas State University, healthy families allow for emotional expression. Family members can freely ask for and give attention. Rules tend to be made explicit and remain consistent, but with some flexibility to adapt to individual needs and particular situations. Healthy families allow for individuality; each member is encouraged to pursue his or her own interests, and boundaries between individuals are honored. Children are consistently treated with respect, and do not fear emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Parents can be counted on to provide care for their children. Children are given responsibilities appropriate to their age and are not expected to take on parental responsibilities. Finally, in healthy families, everyone makes mistakes; mistakes are allowed. Perfection is unattainable and unrealistic.
Frequently, chronic mental illness or a disabling physical illness contributes to parental inadequacy. Children tend to take on adult responsibilities from a young age in these families. Parental emotional needs tend to take precedence, and children are often asked to be their parents’ caretakers. Children are robbed of their own childhood, and they learn to ignore their own needs and feelings. Because these children are simply unable to play an adult role and take care of their parents, they often feel inadequate and guilty. These feelings continue into adulthood.
Sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls. It is perpetrated by both men and women. It cuts across lines of race, socioeconomic level, education level, and religious affiliation. In most cases, sexual abuse is part of an overall family pattern of dysfunction, disorganization, and inappropriate role boundaries.
Responsibility for sexual abuse in all cases rests entirely with the adult. No child is responsible for being abused. Most sexually abused children are too frightened of the consequences for themselves and their families to risk telling another adult what is happening. As a result, they grow into adulthood carrying feelings of self-loathing, shame, and worthlessness. They tend to be self-punishing and have considerable difficulties with relationships and with sexuality. Regardless of the kind of dysfunction or abuse, effects vary widely across individuals.
Approximately 50% of the women that come to me for Reiki have been sexually abused when they were a child. Most of these women had some form of cancer of their reproductive organs. It is a direct result of the abuse. Scars are deep, and sexual abuse can have an effect on every aspect of a person’s life. Sometimes it takes many, many months to fully recover from the incidents. Difficulties with the throat can stem from not being able to talk to anyone about the abuse. Pain or cramping in the abdominal area that has no known cause can occur. Difficulties in relationships and trust issues surface repeatedly.
Healing must take place on a deep level in order to feel whole and well. During Reiki sessions with those women who were abused as children, many layers surfaced one at a time. Incidences that were buried deep in the subconscious slowly surfaced and healed.
Forgiveness is a key to healing, but a person cannot truly forgive until they are healed emotionally and mentally. In the end, forgiveness sets a person free.
Below is a questionnaire written by the Counseling Services of Kansas State University:
HOW MIGHT I BE AFFECTED?
Adults raised with family dysfunction report a variety of long-term effects. The following questions may help you assess your own situation. Answering “Yes” to these may indicate some effects from family dysfunction. Most people could likely identify with some of them. If you find yourself answering “Yes” to over half of them, you likely have some long-term effects of living in a dysfunctional family. If you find yourself answering “Yes” to the majority of them, you might consider seeking some additional help.
- Do you find yourself needing approval from others to feel good about yourself? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you agree to do more for others than you can comfortably accomplish? Yes_____ No_____
- Are you a perfectionist? Yes_____ No_____
- Or do you tend to avoid or ignore responsibilities? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you find it difficult to identify what you’re feeling? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you find it difficult to express feelings? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you tend to think in all-or-nothing terms? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you often feel lonely even in the presence of others? Yes_____ No_____
- Is it difficult for you to ask for what you need from others? Yes_____ No_____
- Is it difficult for you to maintain intimate relationships? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you find it difficult to trust others? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you tend to hang on to hurtful or destructive relationships? Yes_____ No_____
- Are you more aware of others’ needs and feelings than your own? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you find it particularly difficult to deal with anger or criticism? Yes_____ No_____
- Is it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you find yourself feeling like a “fake” in your academic or professional life? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you find yourself waiting for disaster to strike even when things are going well in your life? Yes_____ No_____
- Do you find yourself having difficulty with authority figures? Yes_____ No_____
Allow yourself to feel angry about what happened, but holding onto anger will deplete you emotionally and physically. It shuts down the immune system.
Forgiveness is a very reasonable last step in recovery, but it is a horrible first step. Children need to believe in and trust their parents; therefore, when parents behave badly, children tend to blame themselves and feel responsible for their parents’ mistakes. These faulty conclusions are carried into adulthood, often-leaving guilt, shame, and low self-esteem. When you begin with trying to forgive your parents, you will likely continue to feel very badly about yourself. Placing the responsibility for what happened during your childhood where it belongs, i.e., with the responsible adults, allows you to feel less guilt and shame and more nurturance and acceptance toward yourself.
You may want to talk with your parents directly about what happened. If you decide to do this, it is important to keep your goal clear. Do you want to encourage change and work for a better relationship, or are you trying to get even or hurt them back? Pursuing revenge frequently results in more guilt and shame in the end. Holding on to anger and resentment indefinitely is also problematic and self-defeating. Focusing on old resentments can prevent growth and change.
You may also want to disown your parents. This may sound drastic, but if they cannot see that they are the dysfunctional ones and they feel you are being over-dramatic or that you are to blame, it may be best to let go of the relationship.
Healing from childhood trauma is multi-faceted, and a person must do what is right for him or her. Be your own best friend.
Vannicelli, M. (1989). Group psychotherapy with adult children of alcoholics: treatment techniques and counter transference. New York: Guilford Press.
Forward, S. (1989). Toxic parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life. New York: Bantam Books.
Some of the contents of this article was originally written and developed in 1993 by Sheryl A. Benton, Ph.D., Counseling Services; updated/modified for the internet in 1997 by Dorinda J. Lambert, Ph.D.