Never assume that just because you were abused as a child, you are destined to fail in your own journey through parenthood, writes Dr Cathy Kezelman.Survivors of child abuse are as determined as anyone to become good parents. However, parenting does not always come easily to them. They often question their ability to love when they were not nurtured themselves as children.
The reason I know this is that I am myself a victim of child abuse.
My father sexually abused me from the age of about four. Meanwhile my mother, a Holocaust survivor, was not there for me emotionally. I spent much of my childhood anticipating and avoiding her anger, and reeling from her put-downs.
I grew up, got married and became a doctor. When I was in my late-twenties, my husband and I decided to start a family. We had four children over a period of eight years.
My child-abuse issues had not yet come to the fore; that only happened in my mid-forties. So for the first 10 to 15 years of my children’s lives, I had no idea that my abuse was impinging on my capacity to parent them.
Through therapy, I gained valuable insights into my interactions with people, including my kids. This has allowed me to develop deeper, richer bonds with my family.
I also discovered my life’s passion, which is supporting other adult survivors of child abuse. A big part of this is sharing first-hand knowledge about challenges they might encounter when they become parents, and in doing so allay some of their fears.
So what are some of the specific ways in which being abused as a child can affect you as a parent?
“The Baby In You”
Being pregnant and giving birth can put you back in touch with “the baby in you”, triggering feelings and experiences from your own childhood. So for many female child-abuse survivors, having a baby can unleash suppressed feelings and increase the likelihood of post-natal depression.
This didn’t happen to me personally, so effectively were my memories locked away. However, it did for a number of my friends with a history of child abuse. At that time, neither they nor their doctors were aware of the significance of their depression, or of the impact it could have on their children.
Much more is known and understood about postnatal depression now, and that means better support for mothers and children. The best advice is to be aware of the possibility and reach out for help, from your doctor or health professional, and support from friends and family.
Research also suggests that early-childhood relationships are internalised and mirrored in other associations throughout a person’s life. So if the parenting you received wasn’t ideal, this might shape your pattern of connecting with others, including your children.
Everyone’s situation will be slightly different, but for me this resulted in fierce self-reliance. I perceived vulnerability as a sign of weakness, to be avoided at all costs. Also, I couldn’t form deep relationships, because closeness in childhood had caused me harm.
As a result, in my early parenting days I was quite “cut off” emotionally, and dismissive of my kids without being aware of it. I expected them to just get on with life and not dwell on things that bothered them – because that’s what I had to do.
Another aspect of parenting that may challenge abuse survivors is discipline. Often they have grown up with no model of consistent and fair parenting, so they literally don’t know how to set appropriate boundaries, and may end up excessively permissive or strict. Striking this balance is something with which I still struggle today.
You may also feel anxious about protecting your children and keeping them safe. Again, it can be hard to know what is ‘normal’ if you haven’t been given that example yourself.
The good news is that even though child abuse can affect the way a child’s brain develops, studies show that the right sort of help – psychotherapy, for example – can help rewire even a fully developed adult brain and alter the way you interact with other human beings.
The sub-text here is that we can all make changes in our lives. If you were abused as a child, you can learn how to have healthier relationships. Healthier relationships mean healthier families and happier children.
So do not assume that just because you were abused, you are destined to abuse your children and generally fail as a parent. With insight into your own patterns of behaviour, you will become more aware of how best to care for yourself and your family.
About the author: Dr Cathy Kezelman is Chairperson of Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), a nationwide support network dedicated to the health and wellbeing of adult survivors of child abuse and neglect. Cathy is also the author of Innocence Revisited – a tale in parts, a book about her experiences of child sexual abuse.