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Reframing “Others Had it Worse” With Childhood Abuse

Childhood is a critical time for becoming who we are, and our lives are undefined potential. Our dependence on others and need for nurturing are pivotal; the way in which we experience this support in childhood determines our ability to ask for help later. Sometimes our caregivers and communities are very good to us when we’re young, and other times we are not so lucky. When someone is abused it can cast a shadow through the rest of their lives and affect their connections with other people. There are some who know exactly what happened to them and how wrong it was, but there are a lot of us who are left wondering about how bad we actually had it. Their parents may have never felt close or said I love you, but they always had a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs. They never hit us, yet frequent angry outbursts left us feeling something bad may happen at any moment. What do we make of these inner signals?

Occasionally, I’ll run across a client who says to themselves, “Things weren’t really that bad. My friend/cousin/parent’s parent would hit them.” They might have the thought, “Why am I so troubled? It’s not like someone sexually abused me.” It’s admirable on the part of the person to try to normalize their pain, which helped them survive a difficult living situation. This protects them from acknowledging their hurt, because they weren’t “seriously” abused. They get a pass on admitting the loneliness and isolation that comes with having survived an abusive caregiver. It may seem very smart to them in that moment, but there comes a point when they can’t figure out why life still feels so dangerous even years after the troubled times have occurred. They wonder why they can’t make relationships work or why they spend so much time alone.

An analysis of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s database was conducted in 2014 that used a sample of 14,088 children called Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Outcomes. Due to the large and diverse data set, the study was able to compare the outcomes of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, as well as neglect. What is unique about this large review was they were able to measure outcomes for people who were only physically abused and compare them to people who were only emotionally abused, in addition to other kinds of abuse. Their results were surprising when it came to the effects of psychological maltreatment in childhood.

Compared with sexual, physical, and sexual + physical abuse groups, people who were psychologically maltreated showed similar and sometimes elevated outcomes as a result. There were some behaviors that were specific to the form of abuse, for example, “sexualized behavior” was more prevalent in people who had been sexually abused but was less present in the psychological maltreatment group. However, psychological maltreatment were never the lowest score in almost all outcomes measured. This means the effects of neglect and emotional abuse in childhood should be taken as seriously as sexual and physical abuse. In fact, according to the study, the effects of emotional abuse tend to outlast other forms of abuse. There are indicators that psychological maltreatment outcomes are actually stronger, such as the tendency for victims of emotional abuse to become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

What this study proves to the person who says “others had it worse than I did” is that all forms of abuse have one thing in common, abandonment. When another person abandons you in childhood, its painful and has consequences. It gives those of us in the grey the proof that we should take our pain seriously, even if we weren’t physically or sexually abused. Our pain was not imagined or dismissable, it is real and we get to talk about it. Ultimately, it is the feelings we deal with that matter and help us heal.

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