Emotional abuse, Family Issues, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Nearly 1 in 3 children have been physically abused, while 1 in 5 have been sexually abused, and 1 in 10 suffer criminal neglect (CDC). Nearly 1 in 10 witness family violence (Safe Horizon). Half of the men who abuse their spouse also abuse their children. In cases when only one parent is abusive, the other parent will often permit the abuse or refuse to believe it. Half of homeless youth are running from abusive situations, many because of sexual abuse. […] Some parents continue to abuse their children into adulthood, while others only abuse them when they are young or for a certain period of time. Other parents leave their children in the care of relatives and re-emerge years later. Or raise their children in loving homes, only to disown them for coming out as gay, trans, or marrying outside of their religion.

That leaves millions of adult children to grapple with the decision of whether or not they should provide support to their abusive or estranged parents when they become ill or elderly.

One study of 1,000 caregivers found that 19% had been abused as children and 9% had been neglected. Caregivers of abusive parents were more likely to experience signs of clinical depression.

Some people make peace with their abusive parents, but that doesn’t mean there will ever be a healthy relationship between them.” — Michelle Daly for The Caregiver Space, Aug 11, 2015

21st century Western culture has some very, VERY conflicted ideas about elder care, especially in palliative stages of mental or physical decline.

“Can she really turn her back on an elderly, ailing parent?

That would violate a deep-seated social and cultural understanding (even, in many states, a legal obligation). Your parents did the best they could for you; when they’re old and need help, you do the best you can for them. But physically or emotionally abusive parents have already violated that convention. Is there still an ethical duty to assist them? Even “filial responsibility laws” requiring adult children to care for parents make an exception for those whose parents abandoned them or otherwise did some injury.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, October 20, 2011


“We know relatively little about how many adults become caregivers for abusive or neglectful parents, or about why they choose to — or not to. But thanks to a recent study, we can see that those who report having endured childhood maltreatment are more vulnerable than other caregivers to depression when tending to their abusive parents.

The researchers divided their sample into three categories: those with no history of childhood abuse or neglect; those who had been abused and were caring for their non-abusive parent; and those who had been abused and were, to borrow the study’s memorable title, “caring for my abuser.” They also compared caregivers neglected as children with those who were not neglected.

Those who had been abused or neglected were more likely to have symptoms of depression — like lack of appetite, insomnia, trouble concentrating, sadness and lethargy — than those who had not been. No surprise there, perhaps.

But the link was strongest for the third category. “The key was caring for the abusive parent,” said the lead author, Jooyoung Kong, a doctoral candidate in social work. Years later, “they are still affected. They’re more depressed.” — Paula Span, for The New York Times, January 20, 2014

I have previously written about families as “sick systems”; the more work I do within family systems, the more convinced I become that what we are taught to believe MUST be our strongest instinctive bond is often the deliberate OR unwitting author of some of our society’s deepest and most damaging trauma. The sense of unhealthy fusion into the abuser’s care seems to have little concern for gender or birth order of the caretaking adult child(ren).

The sense of obligation and loyalty to dysfunctional family structures is a difficult thing to address when it feels like it’s rooted bone-deep in our values. As a therapist, I always start a line of questioning there: are these actually YOUR values, or are these something you were told SHOULD be your values (and if that’s the case, we have to wonder: WHO told you these had to be your values? My odds are always on the abusive elements themselves, or at least those who implicitly condone or support those systemic elements). Standing by our abusers is similar in reasoning to why women in particular tough it out with domestic violence; it’s why adult children succumb to implicit or explicit pressure to involve themselves with aging or palliative parents in the elders’ decline. We feel we SHOULD. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.

In looking at the advice and support available online to caregivers of abusive elders, there are some frustrating limitations placed on those who can’t afford to hire in professionals to provide the service the adult child(ren) don’t feel safe providing themselves. Suggestions of placing the ailing elders in some kind of long-term care, or hiring a care manager or non-familial legal guardian, often require the adult caregiver have the financial means to pay for these services. Even with the privilege of that kind of financial security, there may be more resentment for assuming that financial burden than alleviation of guilt for not doing the work themselves. It’s a Catch-22 that strains a lot of adult-elder relationships even in the best of circumstances.

Beyond the potential for financial burden, when these adults do take on the responsibility for some or all of that abusive eldercare, what’s the invisible price tag? Fear of decline and death may exacerbate the elder’s abusive behaviours that caregivers remember from childhood, triggering a whole new round of the abusive cycles. At best these might be simply awkward and uncomfortable, or at worst escalating (for example) as adult children now in role reversals begin to exercise their new powers in retaliatory fashion. Attempts to repair and reconcile are emotionally perilous if the elder abuser is still in denial about owning their actions or the impacts–both intended or otherwise–of their actions. Especially if the caregiver is an only child and feeling trapped on the hook of providing care or support even from a distance for an unrepentantly abusive elder, there will be precious little safety for them in this situation.

If the members of the sickened family system can step outside those old habitual patterns and fears, there might be a chance to reconcile old issues. That is an exceptionally large “IF”, however. Holding onto the hope of reconciliation can be costly; the risk of reoffence is high, therefore so is the impact of newly-redamaged or repeating disappointment or reopened wounds. Therapy can help keep a balancing, observational eye on the caretaking relationship as the situation develops. We implement a series of self-assessments and situational assessments for the caregiver, and we give explicit permission to consider alternatives. We also use therapy as a safe(r) place to vent frustrations the caregiver will preferably choose not to vent on the ailing parent. The venting space also allows the caregiver to give voice to feelings and experiences an otherwise-supportive spouse may have trouble hearing or managing for themselves, especially if the eldercare situation extends over long periods of time without respite from the care… or the abuse.

There are no clear-cut paths to “right” or “wrong” in caring for abusive elders, especially if the adult child is facing any amount of obligation-driven guilt. The sentiment “blood is thicker than water” fills a family system with a sense that the entitlement of some members to mandatory loyalty is more important than the individual mental and emotional health of other members. Often this sense of entitlement involves considerable upheaval to the caregiver’s life: relocating temporarily or long-term to be closer to ailing elders, or moving parents closer to the caregivers; full or partial financial support; intervention and/or advocacy with the parent’s medical, therapeutic, or palliative care providers; estate planning and management; acute or ongoing family mediation. All of these tasks bring their own levels of turmoil to a relationship already pockmarked or undermined by unresolved abusive behaviours, past or present.

As with any survivor of abuse, emotional support is key. Permission to consider options outside the struggle to fulfill a sense of obligation is also important. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout is a big part of supporting adult caregivers under any condition (and this also applies to those supporting the caregiver, who may burnout in their own support processes). Unpacking a sense of helpless entrapment and layers of familial guilt are work best done in therapy, even if it’s not going to be a quick process. Families will always be our most complex systems, and the ties of embedded obligation among the most difficult to unravel.

Emotional abuse

One of the hallmarks of emotional abuse is the use of gaslighting, defined as, “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.” While it has long been held as something of a truism that “truth is subjective” by philosophers, psychologists, and scientists alike, gaslighting is an abusive tactic that uses subjectivity against its victims by causing them to question their own perception and understanding of events and feelings… and often themselves at the core.

There is some science behind the brain’s fluid ability to accept new information as factual, as truth. “Cognitive ease“, sometimes also called “processing fluency“, defines the speed with which our brains process and integrate new information. When exposed repeatedly to specific, targeted messages in familiar contexts, we’re more likely to accept the message as factual, as truth, even when on some level we know this isn’t necessarily either factual OR truth. This has been a longstanding, fundamental principle of marketing; in the past two years we’ve also seen this practice play out on a global scale as politics have infected media and journalism to the point where the message, however inaccurate and untruthful, is still repeated in targeted ways to specific audiences… who then accept the message as their subjective truth whether it is factual or not. Anyone active on social media sees this happen on an almost daily basis as friends and family share misinformation as if it were fact, because they believe it to be true.

Where this becomes particularly influential on a personal level is when it feeds into particular cognitive biases, reinforcing internal beliefs a person may not even know they hold until “supporting evidence” becomes readily available. In short, “the things we’re exposed to constantly feel more true.” This is part of the devastating effect of gaslighting, even in the short term; the abusive statements are repetitive, and delivered with an air of authority or force that imply the abuser knows whereof they speak better than the victim does. This is part of how seeds of doubt come to take root. “What if they really *ARE* right?” is a question we, the support workers, hear from victims all the time, and it is a devastating effect on self-esteem when the gaslighting attacks and distorts a person’s self-worth at its very foundation. Part of what makes gaslighting behaviours so powerful to so many is that the abusers are very effective observers of their fellow humans and find weakness to exploit fairly swiftly. These weaknesses may already be well-tied to internal value scripts the victims carry about themselves; this is where the manipulative agenda meets an existing confirmation bias and exploits the victim’s processing fluency to introduce a whole new set of behavioural routines. And voila!, we have a perfect storm of devastating emotional abuse.

When we look at gaslighting in relationships, we start with noting the abuser’s behaviours, including emotionally-destabilizing tactics that may commonly (though not exclusively) manifest as a push/pull, “I love you/I hate you” or “come here/go away” attachment behaviour. When the victim is uncertain about their place in the relationship system (see also: sick systems), it becomes much easier for the abuser to introduce reframing perspectives and interpretations that support their own positions and agenda while effectively dismantling the victim’s views, values, and ability to trust their own judgments. Gaslighting practices often also go hand-in-hand with isolating behaviours, in which the abuser works to cut off the victim’s connections to outside influences and perspectives that may undermine the abuser’s distorting control. Gaslighting works best when there are few or no effective outside influences working to support the victim, and abusers will use the victim’s emotional turmoil resulting from any attempt to reconcile two conflicting sources of information as a way of keeping the victim uncertain, and unable to act decisively in their own defense.

When we work with victims of gaslighting in the counselling room, the very first steps we take, almost always in this order, are: (1) establish the client’s safety, first and foremost, and (2) validate their experiences and feelings as real and authentic. From there it’s often a case of re-establishing some baseline understandings: abusers often attack their victims at the level of who they are, as much as what they do, so we counter that in counselling by establishing that “this is a thing that happened because of who the abuser *IS*, not because of anything you said or did to deserve this treatment.” NO-ONE DESERVES THIS BEHAVIOUR, EVER. Not from parents and care-givers, not from teachers and leaders, not from employers, not from lovers and partners. It may be true that many abusers choose their victims carefully, but the truth is, they are often going to exhibit some or all of these behaviours to everyone in their world, to some degree, at some points. Romantic abusers will certainly repeat these patterns in all of their relationships; parents continue toxic behaviours with their adult children; toxic bosses will continue to be tyrants in the office to some or all of their employees as long as *their* bosses tolerate it. THIS IS NOT BECAUSE OF THE VICTIM, IT IS ONLY BECAUSE OF THE ABUSER. But the nature of gaslighting means that we often have to reconstruct some fundamental beliefs in our victimized clients’ own sense of self-worth and good judgment, and that takes time.

Rule number one in dealing with abusers who engage in these kinds of behaviours is to cut off all contact as safely and swiftly as possible. There may be reasons why this is not entirely possible (shared custody of children, financial entanglements, etc.), and for this reason we might often suggest seeking legal assistance as soon as possible, as well as documenting any and all forms of contact and their nature. We often hope this record never needs to see the light of day, but in the event of things needing legal intervention, the more the survivor of the abuse can document, the clearer a window of contact they can provide to the police or courts as required. Maintain a copy of all written contact, but don’t respond any more than absolutely necessary for logistical purposes; stay out of emotional engagements at all costs. Come vent at the therapist, at friends and family, anywhere there is dependable safety to do so. Don’t vent online; it’s imperative to keep oneself clear of social media platforms where the written word can be captured and shared without consent to the one person you might most NOT want to see what’s being said about them. It’s most important to stay safe, and that means not opening oneself up to further assaults as much as possible.

It’s important to note, this does NOT mean survivors need to stay silent. Part of our role as therapists is to provide safe space to process the horrors of this kind of experience, to make space for a voice that’s been buried in self-doubt for long enough. It’s hard enough to dissociate from the abuser and the abusive situation without needing to suppress those feelings any further. Getting to safety, regaining perspective, re-establishing self-trust; these are our goals. And we help support, as best we can, those who for whatever reasons are not in a position to safely get clear of such situations just yet.

Emotional abuse

We sometimes talk about, or hear people talking about, toxic relationships. In short, toxicity is short-hand for behaviours and values that we experience as consistently diminishing the joy in that relationship and eroding our sense of connection, also probably (to one extent or another) our sense of self. Toxic relationships *hurt*, but we often feel like we can’t leave them, either because we’re trying to fix something or because we feel trapped and unable to leave.

In no particular order, these are some useful links I’ve been collecting both on how to identify toxic relationships, how to call out that toxicity and but some language to the experience, and (if necessary) how to extricate yourself from some of those situations.

You Deplete Me

How Successful People Handle Toxic Ones

Recognizing Toxic Behaviours in Ourselves

Two from one of my favourite relationship bloggers, Mark Manson:
6 Healthy Relationship Habits People Think are Toxic
and the counterpart:
6 Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal