Parenting hope and help for mothers abused as children

Child abuse survivor Dr Cathy Kezelman faces the demons of her past to become the best parent she can be.

Children learn how to manage their feelings and behaviour from the people who parent them, generally from their mother. While this article refers to mothers,
many of the ideas relate to others in a parenting role – fathers, step-parents, and foster and kinship parents.

When a mother has not had her emotional needs met in childhood she may struggle to understand them or how to meet them. As a consequence she may
unwittingly look to her children to meet her needs. However, no child can ever fill a mother’s needs, no matter how hard they try. Attempting to do so often
leaves a child feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

If you grew up in an abusive or violent household then abusive behaviours are familiar. It does not mean that you will abuse your children. But it may mean
that you may struggle to trust what you observe, feel and experience. It may also mean that you struggle with relationships, including your relationship with
your child. Over time, however, you can learn to trust your reactions and modify your relationships patterns for the better.

When people think of abuse they often think of sexual abuse. But abuse comes in many forms and emotional abuse can be equally as damaging. It can be overt – shouting at your kids, putting them down or calling them names. It can also be more subtle – using fear to control a child, blaming a child unfairly, ignoring
and refusing to speak to the child.

Children living in a domestic violence situation, even if they are not the object of the violence, experience emotional abuse. When you have been abused as
a child and are living or have lived in a domestic violence situation, you may be desensitised to abusive behaviour. As a result you may unwittingly stay in an
emotionally unhealthy situation, inadvertently subjecting your child to emotional abuse.

In some households adults rage against one another and children absorb the intensity of that rage. A child growing up with destructive anger doesn’t know
what to do with it or how to process it. Children express their feelings and what is happening to them in their behaviour. Bad behaviour is often an
expression of their chaotic feelings.

Children growing up in tumultuous households often go to school and dump their anger on others. This often gets them into trouble. Yet all they are doing
is expressing their distress and confusion. Alternatively they may become shy and withdrawn.

As a child I was emotionally abused by my mother. I grew up scared of her anger. She used it to control me. I tried to avoid it by becoming overly
compliant. I grew up timid and clingy and found it hard to separate and venture out into the world.

Infants whose reactions and feelings are reflected back to them feel safe, secure and understood. They learn to trust what they feel and think. They can
make sense of the world. Nurtured children learn to value themselves. Their self-esteem grows and they develop healthy interactions with the world and

When a mother repeatedly causes a child distress, the child is often overwhelmed by emotions they can’t process. The child struggles to find meaning
in what is happening.

My mother did not acknowledge or validate my feelings. I ignored them to keep the peace and dismissed my thoughts along with them. By my teens I had adopted my mother’s feelings, thoughts and beliefs. Eventually I didn’t even know what
mine were.

As I was out of touch with my feelings I couldn’t adequately understand or address my children’s emotional needs. However, I was lucky. As an adult I found
a good therapist. In therapy I learnt to make sense of my emotional world. This has made me more emotionally available to my children.

No parent can provide for a child’s emotional needs all of the time. However, if your childhood has left you struggling to provide for your child’s emotional
needs, there is a lot you can do. Mothers can acquire healthy parenting skills from understanding their childhood and its effects on them and their parenting.
Abusive patterns of the past are often alive in the present. Yet with understanding they can be changed. Ways to do this include:

•    Identify there is an issue
•    Acknowledge it and the role you and others are playing
•    Look for help and support
•    Speak to a good friend
•    Find a counsellor or therapist
•    Observe others as they parent
•    Search online or in your favourite bookshop for one of the many excellent resources
•    Enrol in a parenting course.


Dr Cathy Kezelman is Head of Stakeholder Relations, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA).

ASCA is a national charity that supports adults who have experienced any form of childhood abuse or neglect. That includes emotional abuse. To find out more
visit the ASCA website or call 1300 657 380 or 02 8920 3611 for support.