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How 'Small' Childhood Abuse Can Dangerously Escalate

Emotional abuse is insidious. There is always something obscuring your view from the truth when you’re in it. As a child, it is hard to see the patterns and notice that what you’re experiencing is not normal. In the formative years, often the only people you have to learn from, to trust, are those who brought you into the world. Abuse isn’t a concept until someone else points it out to you. Often, no one points it out until you’re well past the point of psychological damage.

It usually starts small, things that just become a regular part of your everyday existence. My parents were no strangers to corporal punishment; I just found the emotional discipline far more damaging. I can only speak for my own experience, but if you identify with mine, know you are not alone.

My first taste of the power dynamic in my home was the random things my parents would ask me to do. If they weren’t working, they usually spent all day in their room and didn’t come out to interact with us much. If they did, it was rarely for a good reason. A parent asking you to get them something to drink once may be innocuous, and as a child, you are eager to help. Then, it becomes constant, they never leave their room, and suddenly you’re the menial errand-runner. “Turn off my light. Hand me the remote. Make me a sandwich.” The list goes on and on. At first, they’re friendly about it… until it becomes an expectation, and any attitude was met with immediate disdain and possible punishment.

Then came the endless list of chores and expectations that seemed to only apply to the children, mainly me. My older brother is disabled, and my younger sister is the baby of the family. Not to say my sister wasn’t also subject to these things, I just can only speak on my behalf. In addition, I was often expected to watch my siblings, cook for them if my parents weren’t around, and clean regularly. Now, chores are one thing, but as a child myself, I didn’t believe I should also be responsible for my siblings. Add all of these things to the expectation I excel in my schoolwork to get a scholarship to go to college, and there you have a very stressed-out kid.

When I knew I didn’t meet the expectations set forth for me, instant dread would set in. A missed dish, a call from the school, a bad grade, or even being home later than expected would fill me with fear. Sure, I could handle the inevitable spanking (with a belt) or slap to the face; it was the yelling, the anger-induced screaming lecture, and the name-calling I couldn’t always handle. In my home, there was no voicing an opinion. Not to explain yourself, not to say that something was unfair, and if you did anyways, it was deemed back talk. Back talk often came with its punishment, too. I’ve been called ungrateful many times, a thief whenever something went missing, lazy, smart-mouthed, selfish, and so many other things. My mother’s favorite move was to grab me by the neck of my shirt, yank me real close, and yell just inches away from my face. The harder I struggled to get away, the stronger the grip. I hated it more than anything.

I would cry, but that wasn’t always allowed either. At least, not in front of my parents. That was often met with, “Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about,” as if they already didn’t. I want people to understand that “small abuse” rarely stays that way. It is indoctrination, a method, and ultimately will lead to worse things. Emotional and physical abuse don’t always go hand-in-hand, but they often did in my childhood. One rarely came without the other, and on the off occasion they didn’t happen at the same time, I would lie in wait for whatever would be coming next. The fear never really goes away, it lingers in your body releasing cortisol until you are plagued with near-constant anxiety. Every little thing can be seen as an intentional misstep, as direct disrespect to an authority figure. Home slowly became a place I didn’t want to be, but was forced to stay in.

I would often threaten to run away, call the police, or even child protective services (CPS). None of these things phased my parents. “Go ahead and call them, they would just separate all of you and you would never see each other again.” The threat of running away was met with being told to go and not come back. Abusers find one way or another to make you depend on them. but when you’re a child, they are the only thing you have in the world to depend on. You take what they say as fact because you don’t know any better. So, I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to be separated from my siblings or have to live on the street. After all, my parents provided food, clothing, and shelter — all the basic necessities. Surely there were others that had it much worse than I.

I know now it doesn’t matter who’s had it worse. Who suffers more than someone else. Abuse is abuse, no matter the degree. My parents would most likely disagree and call it discipline instead of abuse. The truth is, whether or not it is abuse is not determined by the abuser, but by the survivor. I know my truth. It is pain I still heal from to this day. Abuse may change how you see things, but it doesn’t have to change who you are.

Getty image by dmbaker