Abuse begets abuse

Today’s column was inspired by the many clients I have met with over the years who felt abused of neglected by their parents. In exploring their histories, the question of what made their parents into the people they became always comes up. Often the impact of an abusive experience can last far longer than one generation. But by trying to understand how victims are affected when they themselves become parents, we can sometimes help minimize the ongoing impact on their children.

Abuse begets abuse

(Source: L’abus engendre l’abus. Journal Métro, January 11, 2011)

If a child is neglected or abused – either sexually, physically, or psychologically – it is a normal human reaction to feel sorry for that child. Even if they misbehave we have a tendency to be tolerant. But what happens when they become adults, or even parents themselves?

People who were neglected or constantly belittled may not have the ability to parent well. The abused child sometimes becomes the abusive parent. They may become neglectful or overly critical themselves. Thus their children – the third generation – can sometimes suffer, in a second hand way, from the abuse of the first generation.

The children of the damned

Sometimes these third generation individuals are very angry with their parents. They expect more from their parents and are constantly disappointed. The problem with this approach is that such parents are simply unable to show love in a normal way as a result of their own abuse. Their children remain constantly frustrated by the fact that their needs are not met.

Forgiving the abused parent

If our parents developed Alzheimer’s disease and started forgetting our names or those of other family members, we would certainly feel sad and hurt but we would never get angry with them. It may be just as unreasonable to feel angry with a parent who was abused.

When victims of abuse become parents, their histories will make them angry or neglectful at times. When I work with third-generation people, who were raised by abusive or neglectful parents, one of the goals is to understand why their parents – who may have been abuse victims in their own right – are the way they are. When they can understand the consequences of abuse they tend to become less angry. They of course are very hurt and affected, but at least they stop feeling like their parents are just out to destroy them.

One of the most difficult things for victims of abuse or neglect to do is to forgive an abuser – especially if that abuser is a parent. Understanding what made that person neglectful or abusive – his or her own history of neglect and abuse – can certainly go a long way in helping third-generation victims better accept the past. This will help them detach somewhat and lower their expectations of their parents. It will also reduce the torment caused by unattainable expectations – expectations such as having strong loving parents. Instead, they may take comfort in the realization they have parents who are doing their best with what was given to them – not as strong or as able to love, but still caring in their own way.

Tagged as , , .

Posted in Anger and conflict, Depression, Relationships.

Posted on 11 Jan 2011

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2 comments to Abuse begets abuse

  1. Sandra
    On Sep 6th 2018 at 13:26

    Alzheimer’s patients can’t help the symptoms of their disease, most abused children on the other hand do not CHOOSE to abuse their own children…false equivalency, and an offensive one at that.

    • Camillo Zacchia
      On Jan 14th 2019 at 16:17

      I think you misunderstood the spirit of my article. I wrote it for a client who had been abused. She felt she was now unable to love her children properly. I disagreed. She was a good person and a loving mother.