When you reflect back on your own childhood, what do you remember? Days that made you smile? The sad reality is, not everyone experiences a loving childhood filled with wonderful memories. Some parents are suffering from the effects of child abuse and neglect. But there is always hope. Being an adult survivor of child abuse and neglect does not mean you are destined to treat your children the same way. Studies have shown that no matter how abusive your childhood was, you
still have the ability to prevent the cycle of abuse.
The rise in child abuse and neglect
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies (Copyright Commonwealth of Australia), there are five types of child maltreatment: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment, neglect and witnessing domestic violence.
In the Child protection Australia 2011-12 report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the figures state that during 2011-12, there were 48,420 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect. 37,781 of these cases were children. Since 2001, the total number of substantiations have almost doubled.
Living with an abusive childhood
Studies have shown that the effects of child abuse and neglect can continue on to adulthood and pose physical, cognitive, psychological, behavioural or social consequences.
Sally-Anne McCormack, a clinical psychologist in Melbourne, Victoria, says that a troubled childhood can really impact an adult later in life.
“It sets up who they are as a person. If they're mistreated as children, it writes on the slate of who they are. The lesson that they learn is that they didn't deserve to be treated any better. So those parts of the brain and being doesn't flourish or grow the way that you hope it would over a normal childhood.”
According to Dr. Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell's book, 'Parenting from the Inside Out' (2003), learning to overcome your past is essential to developing a loving relationship with your children.
"The way we communicate with our children has a profound impact on how they develop. Our ability to have sensitive, reciprocal communication nurtures a child's sense of security, and these trusting secure relationships help children do well in many areas of their life.”
But when we have trouble moving on from the past, our children suffer too.
“Experiences that are not fully processed may create unresolved and leftover issues that influence how we react to our children.”
Never lose hope
Maggie Dent is living proof that you can move past the pain. Dent is an author, educator, and parenting and resilience specialist. Growing up with an alcoholic mother, her childhood and adolescence were shadowed by low self-esteem.
“I made the decision that my mother didn't love me and that I obviously wasn't worthy of being loved, that I wasn't good enough to love and that it was my fault,” Dent says.
But after getting involved with personal development and therapy, she reassessed those negative feelings and saw her childhood from another light.
“I was able to come to a place that recognised my mum gave me as much nourishment as she was capable of,” she says. “My mum probably had post-natal depression six times and was never diagnosed. In the end, she used alcohol to moderate her behaviour. When I saw it through a different mature lens, I was really able to forgive the lack of truth in that world...”
Dr. Siegel says: “Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not determine your fate. If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions with your own children.”
He says: “We can't change what happened to us as children but we can change the way we think about events.”
Preventing the cycle of abuse
Mark, 37, a father of four from Perth, endured verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather.
“I felt worthless,” Mark says. “I hated myself. I just wanted to die.”
Although his mother showered him with love, the abuse from his stepfather traumatised him. He vowed that he would never treat his children the same way.
“I adore my children. I am very protective of them if I feel they are at risk of bullying. I've never felt anything other than absolute love for my children.”
For Mark, it was his awareness that helped him to move forward. After his marriage failed and he was diagnosed with Depression, he realised that his attitude would be the catalyst for change.
“It was the realisation that I was the only person who could fix the way I felt. I realised that I held the power to change that part of me.”
If you are seriously struggling and your parent-child relationship is being affected, it may be time to see a professional.
Having someone there to help explain your emotions might be the key to overcoming your pain.
McCormack says, “Therapy isn't for everyone but if it's interfering with your functioning, then hopefully it can help you to accept what happened and find a way of moving forward.”
Maggie Dent's suggestions for parents who are survivors of child abuse:
- Find a safe trustworthy person to explore your 'child' story of the painful moments of childhood, so that the story can then be viewed through adult eyes and be transformed.
- Pursue personal growth and healing by reading, listening, doing seminars, doing on line trainings, sharing your vulnerable self with people who hold a safe harbour.
- Learn to love, accept and appreciate your self and your uniqueness.
- Find forgiveness for yourself and others who caused you pain.
- Leave the past behind and embrace today.
- Be the parent you wished you had when you were a child.
- Surround yourself with warm, caring people - let go of the others.
You can break the cycle
You may not have experienced the childhood that you deserved, but you are still capable of moving forward. Remember that others have broken the cycle. You and your children can too.