The use of the word abuse, particularly child abuse, started in the legal field. Courts used parameters to declare a child abused, such as physical bruises or injuries. Neglect was also a legal term that applied to situations where a child’s physical needs were ignored, such as not feeding a child or not attending to illness or injuries.

When you use the word abuse it is important to remember that you can be talking about anything from the most horrendous of physical acts to poor parenting behaviors that we know are unhealthy, like verbally discounting children or discouraging their independence. What you call abuse is a matter of opinion.

Pia Mellody (1989) defines abuse broadly, identifying it as any experience that was less than nurturing. She says abuse is the major factor in codependency.

John Bradshaw (1989) perceives abuse as an underpinning of toxic shame that results in the inability to have a good relationship with oneself. According to his model, this is the basis for most maladaptive and unhealthy behavior.

Dynamics of Abuse

Studies of abuse suggest that abuse, especially in its extreme forms, is usually handed down through generations. Among the many factors that perpetuate it are low self-esteem, self-pity, feeling trapped, and addiction to the neurochemistry of excitement.

Overt or covert Mellody discusses abuse as overt (out in the open) or covert (hidden, devious, and indirect). Overt abuse is easy to see, even for the child, because it is so obvious. Overt abuse can include yelling and screaming, or cause bruises or other physical damage. This does not mean that overt abuse is identified, acknowledged, or understood by anyone involved. It is just more visible.

Covert abuse is more subtle, devious, and manipulating. Mellody includes certain kinds of parental neglect as covert abuse, like not addressing the child’s emotional and intellectual needs.

Recognizing abuse When we use the term abuse, we mean that level of behavior beyond partial neglect or insensitivity (like not having ideal parents), when the relationship becomes adverse or destructive to the people involved.

You have been abused if someone physically harms you, if you feel in any way threatened, or if you have a sense that “something is very wrong here.”

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse includes neglecting a child’s needs, verbal abuse (such as name-calling), and extreme over- or underprotectiveness. Emotional abuse is probably the most common form of abuse.

Physical Abuse

Anything that causes bodily damage, especially if accompanied with violence, is physical abuse. Incest and rape are physical abuse. We also consider any serious threat of physical damage to be physical abuse.

Violence Any act that injures or damages a person’s body is abuse. We excuse it by calling it discipline when it comes to children, but an untold number of children continue to suffer serious physi cal and psychological damage at the hands of their “disciplinarians.”

How damaging violence is depends on several factors. Is the act habitual or an isolated incident? How old are the children? Do they fear for their lives? Is there anyplace they feel safe?

Incest Incest and other types of sexual abuse of children wreak psychological havoc. Incest is possible in all dysfunctional families, especially where one or both caregivers are violent, authoritarian, or chemically addicted. Among women with eating disorders, estimates of sexual abuse range from about 25 percent to about 75 percent. These figures are shocking. Unfortunately, you would find about the same rate of incest in any other addicted family as well as in many psychiatric disorders.

Incest is a special kind of abuse because it involves not only the powerful feelings around sexuality and childhood fears but it also disrupts the very fabric of the family. Once incest meant sexual activity between people who were closely related biologically. Recent studies, however, indicate that an emotional bond as well as a blood bond can determine what is incest. There is a violation of an ongoing bond of trust between a child and a caretaker (Blume, 1990). See the module on Incest for more information.

Rape Rape can result in both psychological damage and devastating physical injury. Our society is beginning to understand that rape is an act of violence more than an act of sex.

If rape involves physical force or obvious violence, it is more likely to result in criminal prosecution of the rapist. But even the threat of violence can be extremely traumatic, and besides the need for justice, the victim(s) probably will need assistance with the healing process, such as a counselor and a support group.

Date rape Rape that happens while on a date, or with someone you know, is still rape. The courts are beginning to make it clear that regardless of the relationship, sexual activity must be voluntary or it is rape.

There is also sexual activity that is common in addiction and dysfunctional relationships. If you consent to sex with someone because of poor self-esteem, romantic addiction, or to obtain drugs, alcohol, food, or other addictive substances or activities, it may not be called rape, but you are still being abused, and the resulting emotions can perpetuate your sense of powerlessness and shame.

Recovery from Abuse

Any degree or type of abuse warrants attention for recovery and healing. Bringing repressed or forgotten experiences into conscious awareness can help you understand your present feelings and fears. You may be using a lot of energy to keep these memories down.

Recovery from abuse is a process. You must identify abuse and experience feelings associated with it. You need a safe, supportive place to express the fear, hurt, anger, hatred, and other emotions that come with your awareness. You can then move through the negative feelings and attitudes to acceptance, letting go, and eventual forgiveness (but not forgetting) and healing.

Freedom In abuse recovery you do not need to forget what happened, place yourself in peril, or maintain a relationship with the person who abused you. Yet hanging onto resentments (literally, continuing to refeel) will block you from the emotional, mental, and spiritual freedom that recovery has to offer.

Therapy Professional help may include individual and group therapy with siblings or family, family reconstruction, or other techniques to work through the issues. Brief therapy, say, four to six weeks of inpatient or outpatient treatment, is not usually enough to resolve the trauma of abuse or incest — you should be referred to a competent therapist for continuing work. Abuse and incest especially require the attention of an experienced, trained, professional therapist. Personality disorders can result from these traumas, and they tax the expertise of any counselor to the limit. These are not issues to try to resolve with an amateur.

Abuse, see also: Acceptance, Adolescents, Affirmations, Amends, Anorexia nervosa, Attitudes, Behavior, Children of addicts, Codependency, Control, Crisis, Defenses, Detachment, Emotional aspects, Enabling, Family of origin, Fetal alcohol syndrome, Forgiveness, Guilt & shame, Incest, Intimacy, Love & caring, Power, Psychological problems, Relationships, Resentments, Sabotage of recovery, Self-image, Step Four, Survival roles, Therapy & treatment.

Updated 11 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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