Covert Abuse: Recognizing and Understanding its Impact

(Last Updated On: November 26, 2018)

Covert Abuse: Recognizing and Understanding its Impact

When someone hears the word “abuse”, typically their mind jumps to hitting, punching, or some other form of physical boundary violation. However, studies are finding that abuse covers a much broader spectrum than just physical or sexual trauma. Covert abuse is understood as putting a child in an adult situation by a parent or parental figure as the child is expected to adapt at an adult level. This is exhibited in such ways as a child witnessing their parents arguing or physically harming each other at very young ages, a parent telling their child disparaging things about their other parent, or children being put down by their caregivers in an emotionally manipulative way.

Children who are abused in these situations typically grow into adults suffering from sex addiction, love addiction, alcohol and drug abuse, and potentially victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. These harmful and volatile patterns we might have learned growing up have bled into our adult lives and how we view trusting others in partnerships, both romantically and not. However we may have been affected by these patterns, we ourselves are traumatized. Covert abuse in childhood leads to adult trauma and can greatly impact our mental health and overall well-being.

Other forms of covert emotional abuse include:

  • Gaslighting: making the person being gaslit think something is different than they actually experienced it.
    Example: “Something must be wrong with your memory because I never said that!”
  • Minimizing: making someone feel inadequate or unworthy based merely on how they are
    feeling
    Example: “I don’t know why you’re feeling that way, you didn’t have it that bad!”
  • Intimidation: using threatening language to reinforce a sense of control by the parent through invoking fear.
    Example: “I will wear your butt out if you do not do what I say right now!”

Did any of the above mentioned forms or examples of covert emotional abuse hit home? Have you experienced some form or another of these from your parents or members of your family? As someone who practices family therapy, I am here to tell you that while these may be huge revelations about your past, your current partnerships and the way you love and receive love might have been impacted by these behaviors that you learned indirectly from your family.

These forms of abuse are very common, and it is important to know that if you do come from a homelife where these kinds of patterns were present, they only recently began to be recognized as abusive.

If you feel that these very impactful forms of abuse have in some way impeded your mental health, it is necessary to seek counseling. If we do not fully understand how the negative messages of love from our parents are affecting our current behavior in relationships, it could be very harmful in the future.

Turning The Tides:

  • Give yourself permission to separate: It is perfectly natural to feel some forms of resentment toward the parents or other caregivers who have inflicted these patterns upon us. It can be helpful to give yourself permission to temporarily separate yourself from them if you feel the resentment could potentially pile up.
  • Understanding that they did not know any better: It may help to tell yourself that though abuse may have happened to you, our family did the best that they could with what they knew how to do (of course it does not excuse the abuse or how you have been traumatized).
  • Going to individual counseling: Finding a counselor who works with past covert abuse as well as covert trauma can be very helpful if you are realizing you are uncovering some childhood wounds as an adult.
  • Going to family therapy: Going into family therapy makes the most of a safe space where unmet needs, prior abusive situations, and past wounds can have an opportunity to heal. This will not only help the person on the receiving end of the abuse, but it will have a long-lasting positive impact on the family dynamic as a whole.
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