I’m watching cold case shows on a streaming service. The cases feature interviews with people who witnessed crimes, often domestic abuse, when they were children. A drunk dad beats up a mom, then later apologizes and they make up again. This cycle becomes normal in the household until Dad kills Mom. Children, the innocent witnesses, see the abuse cycle as normal. Years later, they say, “I didn’t know any better.”
They didn’t know that parents who drink to excess are failing as parents. They didn’t know that the emotional abuse children suffer as witnesses to assaults is just as harmful as the physical abuse their mom (or other family member) suffers. They don’t connect the anxiety and depression and autoimmune diseases they are coping with later in life to their childhood trauma. I cover this in an earlier post.
As children, they don’t know any better.
During the last few years I learned how my childhood situation made me who I am today. I have T1 diabetes after recurring bouts of fight-or-flight burned out my adrenal glands and pancreas. I also finally admit I suffer from anxiety. Depression began in childhood. The medical community generally ignores connections between autoimmune illnesses and childhood emotional abuse and neglect.
It’s time they woke up.
This thought of “not knowing any better” must be heard in a different way. It’s not a casual dismissal, but a red flag. Childhood emotional/physical abuse is the root of many adult illnesses. What we didn’t know as children can be acknowledged when we’re adults.
Most of us didn’t have “perfect” childhoods. There is no perfection in child-raising. Parents have a duty to keep kids safe from verbal, physical and emotional harm. Justifying practices for punishment, for example, as “That’s what my dad/mom did to me,” just perpetuates the cycle of abuse.
While at work, I witnessed a mom hit her kid with a heavy purse. The child reacted as though it had happened many times before, dropping his shoulders. He looked defeated, and he was. There’s no way a little boy or girl can tell a parent the abuse is wrong.
My parents didn’t know how to emotionally connect with me. They saw parenting as something best done at arms length, with no emotional guidance. I assume that both of them having a British-raised parent (my mom’s mom and my dad’s dad) had a lot to do with it. Keep a stiff upper lip and all. They thought they were raising me to be emotionally strong by teaching me to ignore emotions.They were wrong. The best way to cope with emotions is to really feel them and know they make us human. They help us to connect with others in a meaningful way. They’re the basis for connection with our future spouses and children.
Fortunately, we can relearn emotional wellness. Tuning into anxiety, fear, anger, frustration and grief can be scary. (Oh my God, I’m dying!) But over time, we start to feel whole. Sometimes it feels like healing will take forever, and I guess it does.
Life is about learning about ourselves, and being happy it all turned out the way it did.
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