Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Overcoming Childhood Neglect And Abuse

March 5, 2006

Resilient. Don't you like that word? It has an uplifting bounce to it. The word is a compliment - a tribute on the human capacity to adapt to adverse circumstances. People who lead secure and happy lives despite childhood histories of parental abuse and neglect are resilient.

The importance of early attachment. Before we examine their pathway to mental health, let's look at the traditional path to positive mental health - a nurturing childhood history. Parents who are consistently loving, attentive and responsive build a foundation of security and trust in their children. The quality of that relationship becomes the mental and emotional blueprint for how a child views him or herself and what to expect in fixture relationships.

The need for psychological safety and security is carried over into adult relationships. Our childhood relationships create certain expectations about caregiving in our relationship partners. It affects the way we relate as adults to our mates, friends, colleagues and children.

Parents vary greatly in the way they give warmth and affection while giving protection and control. Parents walk a fine line between giving unconditional love and acceptance and giving respect, freedom and responsibility while maintaining structure and monitoring. The attachment bond grows when parents love, sacrifice and meet their children's needs as they experience pleasure and enjoyment with them.

The results of defective parenting. What if the parenting was lousy? What happens when parents ignore a child's basic needs and signals such as calling, crying, seeking, and making physical contact? What happens when a child is rejected, reacted to with hostility or responded to inconsistently?

The child can become anxious and move away emotionally from the parents. This lack of security shows up in a child’s behavior at home, school and in social situations. They develop a style of relating that parallels what they experience in their parent/child relationship.

Being negative and permissive can cause problems such as self-centeredness and lack of self-discipline. Too much control causes problems such as anger and withdrawal. Rejection and hostility cause problems such as anger and detachment. Too much love without consequences causes problems such as dependency. Inconsistency causes problems such as anxiety and fear.

As adults they may:

- avoid intimacy, lack trust and be compulsively self-reliant,

- become too anxious, obsessed, possessive and jealous,

- become angry, withdrawn and detached.

Overcoming the past. Some people who have had difficult childhood histories have as much strength of character and enjoy quality friendships, marriages and close relationships as much as those secure adults who have had happy, nurturing childhoods. They have arrived at a mentally healthy position in life by intellectually and emotionally integrating their past difficulties into a positive view that the self is worthy and that others are trustworthy.

How did they become secure in their relationships? When did it happen? What does it mean to work through a difficult childhood?

The most probable pathway was when they experienced a meaningful relationship with someone who was emotionally responsive and trustworthy. Someone treated them with respect and encouragement. The relationship provided safety and a chance to process thoughts, memories and past emotions.

The relationship itself provides concrete evidence that the self is OK and that others can be trusted. The emotional meaning of the relationship replaces the faulty blueprint for relationships that came from poor parenting. They rear their own children with love and security.

If they haven't experienced this type of relationship before, as adults they take the responsibility to seek out a counseling or therapeutic relationship to work through their difficult past. They just don't sit back and passively blame their parents.

Working through the past means understanding the influences in their lives. It means accepting and grieving the losses and coming to terms with the past. As adults they seek to understand and put into context issues such as parental death, separation from a parent due to divorce, frequent absences of a parent, an unpredictable and harsh parent, or a parent who gave insufficient attention.

What kind of people pick up where the parents failed? It could be a spouse, a best friend, an older sibling, a grandparent, a concerned aunt or uncle, a Big Brother or Big Sister, a religious leader, a teacher, a coach, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a counselor or a mentor.

It is someone who takes a special interest to form and sustain a one-to-one relationship. They show appreciation for how special the individual is, express admiration, believe in them, give encouragement, show delight in accomplishments and offer unconditional acceptance and love.

That is where resilience comes from. That is how people escape from ghettoes. That is how abuse victims gain a sense of worth and trust. That is how lost children are reclaimed for happy and productive lives. It comes from a real person willing to relate and provide a corrective emotional experience.

People don't have to carry on unhealthy relationships because of past insecurity. They can be just as secure as people coming from happy childhoods. Their stories are inspirational. Their legacy to the success of succeeding generations is a wonderful heritage.

With the help of just one other person, they show how resilient human beings can be. You could be that person.