Reasons Why Some People Don’t Understand Emotional Abuse

I once read a discussion on a website for moms. A woman described abusive behavior by her brother-in-law, asking if it was emotional abuse. He ignored and invalidated his kids’ feelings, forbade them to do things for no reason, and was just plain mean to them. The majority of responders, some of them quite rude, told her it wasn’t emotional abuse; it was just parenting.

I see this kind of thing going on all over the Internet. Because emotional abuse leaves no scars, it’s difficult for many people who haven’t experienced it to understand it. Some survivors even go so far as to wish they’d been physically abused or sexually abused just to get people to take what they experienced seriously. I want to explore reasons why some people don’t get emotional abuse.

Sanctity of Parenthood

The fifth commandment tells us the following:

Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (Exodus 20:12)

The commandment essentially makes a threat: If you don’t honor your parents, your life will be short. While we may not exactly believe that our life will end prematurely if we don’t honor our parents, many people accept this commandment without reflection. I’ve heard many abuse survivors brush aside the pain that their parents have caused them based on this commandment.

Part of this may be the vision of parents as sacrificers. Responsible parents spend a great deal of resources taking care of their children. They work to earn a living where a significant part of it goes towards children’s needs (food, clothing, things, activities). They spend time taking them places, cooking for them and feeding them, teaching them right from wrong, and doing things with them. A significant amount of their energy goes towards doing things with and for the kids.

For people who can’t accept that this is a natural part of responsible parenting, anything hinting at criticism of a parent is seen as ingratitude. No matter how badly the parents treat their children, as long as they don’t beat them or molest them, the kids have no cause to complain. To these people, emotional issues pale in comparison to material needs. They therefore deny that emotional abuse has any merit because the material needs of children, in their minds, outweigh their emotional needs.

Obligation to the Parents

Related to the sanctity of parenthood is the obligation that some people feel kids have towards their parents. This becomes a major issue when the child becomes an adult and the parent becomes more dependent on the child. Even in Western society, where older people have a diminished place of importance, people expect children to take care of an aging parent.

This idea of obligation, in their minds, outweighs anything the parent says or does. Abusive parents often get worse as they age because they have to deal with things that stress anyone who ages, such as ill health and their approaching death. Abuse is a way for them to cope with stress, and these are some of the most stressful situations anyone can face. Elderly abusive parents often become more demanding, more degrading, more combative, more insulting, and more selfish. Yet the adult child is expected to ignore all of this and act as though it’s all acceptable. To these people, adult children have no right to complain about emotional abuse because they have an obligation to put up with it.

Terror of Permissive Parenting

People who don’t get emotional abuse may actually be terrified of showing support for permissive parenting. Permissiveness is seen as compromising a parent’s control over a child. These people may blanch at the thought of a child controlling a parent rather than a parent controlling a child. Anything to avoid this scenario is, in their eyes, good parenting. They often cover up their fear with the excuse that authoritarian parenting is for a child’s own good.

Some people who deny the existence or importance of emotional abuse may also see permissiveness as the fault of everything people don’t like to see in kids: manipulation, disrespect, impulsiveness, selfishness. They prefer to see obedient kids and interpret even reasonable self-assertion as disobedience. In their minds, hurtful punishment is not only good for the child but also for society as a whole, saving future generations from the corruption of present generations. They treat the validation of emotional abuse as being poisonous to society because it validates permissive parenting.

Kids Are Out to Get Us

Related to the terror of permissive parenting is a suspicion of kids’ motives. People who won’t acknowledge emotional abuse may believe that kids have no control and are only interested in what they can get out of adults. If given a choice between right and wrong, kids will always choose self-interest, as if morality has no meaning to them.

To these people, kids are robots that need to be fed rules in order to make them human. They may justify denying children’s feelings in favor of “raising them right.” To this end, it’s OK to be excessively restrictive to the point of making them feel like puppets because otherwise they’d grow up into immoral monsters. Emotional abuse to these people doesn’t exist because all discipline is a response to the difficulties that children create.

Cluelessness About Child Development

It’s well documented in child abuse research that lack of knowledge of child development is a risk factor for abuse. People who don’t understand emotional abuse may fall into the same trap. They may read a child’s actions as misbehavior when really the child isn’t capable of reacting in a more mature way. Research also tells us that abuse may exacerbate this issue and cause children to regress, making them more impulsive than they should be for their age.

For instance, adolescent egocentriciy refers to tendencies that teens have to think that the world revolves around them to the point of ignoring the needs and feelings of others. Research also shows a link between what’s called illusion of invulnerability and risky behaviors like substance abuse, physically dangerous activities, or even slacking off in school. The consequences of these behaviors just don’t register in most teenagers’ minds.

People who don’t get emotional abuse may see nothing wrong when abusive parents call their teen an idiot and loser when dealing with these behaviors. They may think the teen deserves it and that humiliating them this way will get them to stop. These people don’t understand that the brain of most teenagers can’t make the connection between destructive behaviors and their consequences. Neither can they see that name-calling and humiliation are ineffective ways to teach teens that risky behaviors can have dire consequences, whether the kids end up obeying their parents or not.

These people invalidate emotional abuse because they ignore the context of it, which is an important factor in assessing whether it’s going on.

None of Their Business

Some people see kids as their parents’ property and feel it’s their right to discipline them as they see fit. Besides corporal punishment, they may see no problem in putting the kids down or ridiculing them for displaying undesirable behaviors. For instance, if someone reveres humility and modesty, they may see nothing wrong in humiliating a child for displaying what they consider to be immodest or prideful behaviors. What they feel is right takes precedence over the way a child feels. These people ignore the possibility of emotional abuse because they believe that no one has the right to comment on a parent’s upbringing.

Too Subtle for Them

I think the subtlety of most emotionally abusive behaviors is a major factor in misunderstanding it. Many people don’t notice that a parent’s cruel behavior isn’t justified or that a cruel reaction is excessive given the situation. They don’t recognize that the parent is reacting to distorted beliefs or assumptions about what’s going on. Some may feel that the abusive parent’s behavior is a bit excessive or odd, but they accept the parent’s justification for it.

For instance, I once read about an incident where a 6-year-old snuck into the kitchen after his parents had gone to sleep and ate some cookies. As punishment, his parents made him eat the rest of the box until he got sick. Some people making comments on this story admitted that perhaps the parents’ reaction was a bit mean but then quickly shifted attention to the parents’ justification, which was to prevent their child from overeating on sweets. They didn’t consider that this was an excessive reaction to a minor “crime,” which is typical of abusive parents. Because these people can’t process what isn’t obvious, they don’t recognize the existence of emotional abuse.

Only What’s on the Surface

Many people who don’t get emotional abuse have trouble looking beneath the surface of the situation. They focus instead on the behaviors of the child and the parent’s response. They don’t think about the child’s emotional needs that are being denied. They don’t see the situation in a larger context with long-ranging consequences.

To be fair, behavior is more concrete than feelings. It’s easier to identify and thus relate to. However, we have to recognize that being human isn’t just about behavior. Kids have legitimate emotional needs, but they’re often less sophisticated in expressing them, which could irk a lot of adults.

This is also true with teens. For instance, when they need encouragement, they boast. When they need validation, they nag. When they’re angry, they act out in one form or another. When they’re sad, they mope around. Many emotional abusers feel so uncomfortable with these feelings that they’ll do anything to take them away: ignore them, invalidate them, tell the teens that it’s their own fault, or force the teens to stop having them. These people argue against the existence of emotional abuse because they judge the situation based only on what they see on the surface.

You Can Choose What You Feel

As adult survivors of emotional abuse, we’ll often get eye-rolling when we try to talk to others about our experiences, particularly when we talk about how our abusers make us feel or how difficult it is to resist their manipulation. They’ll tell us we can choose what we feel and how we react. They make us feel like we’re immature because we can’t “get over it” and weak because we can’t take control of the situation.

This has something to do with the outlook of Western society, which champions free will. Social norms tell us we have complete control over ourselves and our lives. This can be a really difficult argument to resist, to the point of taking us back to a place of invalidation. We may ask ourselves what right do we have to feel bad about the effects of our past and present (if we’re still in contact with our abusers) when we don’t have to feel bad.

But the situation isn’t that simple. People who claim we can choose our feelings and our actions are ignoring the way emotions work and the context of the abuse experience. Processing the pain of emotional abuse isn’t the same as hanging onto it, but people who sing the “you can choose” song have trouble understanding that.

People who don’t get emotional abuse invalidate it. This is wrong, but we can at least try to understand why they do it. Unless someone has experienced emotional abuse firsthand, they may not be able to see the signs. They may naively accept the explanations the abusive parents or society gives to abusive behaviors. Although it’s still frustrating for an emotional abuse survivor to have to deal with these kinds of reactions, it helps to understand why they happen.

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