They say sticks and stones break your bones, but it’s the mind that can do the most damage. Psychological abuse is often used to manipulate others, through non-physical contact against a partner, child or an adult of dependent age. Such abuse can be much harder to identify than physical abuse because the abused rarely suffers broken bones, torn skin or bleeding. Although psychological child abuse can rarely lead to physical death, it can lead to spiritual destruction or becoming problematic person.
Psychological abuse can include deliberately controlling the freedom of an individual and undermining or even isolating them. Global statistics, reveal that 6.9% of adults experienced some form of psychological abuse during their childhood, whilst 1 in 14 (6.8%) children aged 11-17 have also experienced this kind of abuse.
This article is intended to raise awareness of psychological child abuse, and to consider behaviors in families that are affected by this type of abuse. We will also explore the ways to avoid this and how to deal with the consequences in adulthood.
Negative childhood experiences of psychological abuse
Negative childhood experiences can be traumatic throughout the growth of a child. Such experiences, including psychological child abuse can have a high impact on adult behavior in later life and the quality of life in general. Family relationships are important to God, because children are a heritage from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). Therefore, the adverse upbringing of a child and living in a dysfunctional family unit are contributing factors to psychological abuse; ‘And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4).
Family dysfunctions that may lead to psychological child abuse include domestic violence, abuse of power and control, emotional blackmail, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, mind games, passive-aggressive behaviour, silent treatment and verbal abuse to name a few. Children who are treated by parents or guardians in this way will often remain affected in the long-term whether in their own marriage and/or in the nurturing of their own children. According to the Word of God, the actions of an abuser are sinful and not pleasing to Him. God is the God of love and the agape love should be evident within a family unit. ‘Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant’ (1 Corinthians 13:4).
Impact of psychological child abuse can be problematic person
Psychological child abuse can be difficult to detect because there are often no physical signs. The 5 signs of such abuse can include:
- Name calling
- Shouting and yelling
- Swearing at the abused
- Exclusion of the abused from various activities
- Threatening behaviour
Children who experience psychological abuse are often withdrawn, depressed, aggressive, self-blamer and have suicidal thoughts. Children may wish to end their lives because of their experience of abuse. Also, children who suffer psychological abuse may lack mental and emotional development later in life and therefore are unable to learn to control their emotions. Children or anyone who has experienced psychological child abuse must be re-educated, firstly by identifying the abuse and then clearly stating what you will and will not accept from the abuser. This requires the abused to:
- Not conform to the demands of the abuser.
- Change the way of think, by renewing mind and applying the Word of God.
Other effects of psychological abuse in childhood can be anxiety and low self-esteem. Anxiety can be defined as an uneasy feeling of uncertainty or even fear. Psychological abuse can lead to fear and anxiety due to stress, but God’s consolation brings joy (Psalm 94:19). God cares about every area of our life, as He allows us to cast all our problems, worries and anxieties on Him because He is a loving Father (1 Peter 5:7).
Psychological child abuse can also cause a person to lack self-esteem and becoming problematic person. Low self-esteem occurs through life experiences, especially in childhood due to the abhorrent acts of parents and guardians. Constant criticism and failing to give a child praise, encouragement and affection results in low self-esteem during adulthood causing their self-worth to become almost non-existent. But God sees the worth of every individual person because you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
How to avoid psychological abuse
A person may not even know they are being psychologically abused. However, there are a number of ways to avoid it:
- It is important that you recognise the toxicity of the abuser. In a marital relationship, it is advisable to not be unequally yoked; “What fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Also, negative childhood experiences may impact on your relationship, and therefore the problem may be with you. It is therefore, important you recognise this and act by seeking the help and support needed (Matthew 7:7).
- Set the boundaries means that you can set limits to avoid the abuse. Do not allow yourself to be hurt as no-one has the right to mistreat you in this way. As difficult and challenging as it may be, demonstrate the love of God to those who hurt and persecute you. ‘But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44). Remember, you do not have the power to change the behaviour of the abuser, but you must protect yourself and those in your care.
- It is important that you also know your rights. Your rights are that you are of equal value (Genesis 1:27) and you have the right to be treated with total respect (Ephesians 4:32). If you have experienced psychological abuse, you may lack inner strength and self-worth. But it is in your weakness that God’s power is made perfect. For when you are weak, then you are strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
What could help to avoid the effects of psychological child abuse in adulthood?
- Praying and meditating on the Word can help you to refocus your mind on the divine power and your ultimate relationship with God rather than the abuse. ‘Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth’ (Colossians 3:2). By setting your mind on the things above, God can bring emotional healing through His great power. Therefore, being disciplined in prayer and meditation will enable you to find peace, extending love and forgiveness to those that hurt you irrespective of the circumstance.
- Believe that God is for you because He died for you so that you can be free. Therefore, psychological abuse is not of God and it is His purpose and will that you will not live in bondage, fear, oppression or slavery. Because He is for you, believe that whom the Son has set free is free indeed (John 8:36). That is, you!
- Know who you are in Christ: You have been given the right to become a child of God (John 1:12). Therefore, knowing who you are in Christ can help to avoid the effects of psychological abuse in adulthood. You are chosen, a royal priesthood, God’s special possession, and because you have been set free you can declare the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
- Talking with others and seeking support may seem the hardest thing to do. The realisation of a person’s abusive childhood experience, may make one feel isolated as if there is no one to turn to in their adulthood. ‘Why are you trying to do all this alone…? (Exodus 18:14). To avoid the consequences of psychological abuse in adulthood, it is important to turn to supportive friends who have a listening ear. You may also benefit from seeking support from external organisations dedicated to dealing with such abuse.
Being able to identify the ideas of psychological child abuse and addressing these negative behaviours in families, will enable you to effectively apply strategies to deal with the consequences in adulthood via the application of biblical Christian principles.