Codependency For Dummies
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Abuse is common in dysfunctional families and may take the form of neglect or physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual abuse. Abuse violates your boundaries and seriously damages your self-esteem. The abuser may be a parent, older sibling, or other relative. Sometimes, older siblings emulate a parent’s abusive behavior and vent their unexpressed anger on a younger child.

Abuse is usually random and unpredictable, adding to an atmosphere of anxiety or even terror. Abuse needn’t be illegal or aggressive. Child abuse can be subtle, quiet, covert, and even pleasurable or disguised as play or jokes. Abusers commonly deny their abusive behavior and blame it on their victims.

Victims also deny and minimize abuse they experience because they feel ashamed, even though they’re not at fault. Only the abuser is responsible for his or her actions — never the victim. NEVER!

Adults who’ve been abused as children have particular difficulty when it comes to anger, safety, trust, and authority. Due to denial, many don’t realize that they’ve suffered abuse. Unhealed, they have difficulty experiencing intimacy. Some enter into abusive relationships. Working through their past helps stop the compulsion to repeat it.


Neglect may result when parents are physically or mentally ill or abusing drugs. It’s the failure of a parent to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision that threatens a child’s health, safety, or well-being. Neglected children are robbed of a childhood and have trouble caring for themselves as adults. If they have to take care of a parent, they suffer the added effect of generational boundary violations.

Physical abuse

This includes not only violent acts, such as hitting, kicking, biting, choking, and burning, but also shoving, slapping, pinching, hair-pulling, throwing things, destroying property, and threats of physical harm. Corporal punishment that is done in anger or leaves a burn, bruise, or welt is also abusive.

Most parents have been tempted to strike their child in frustration, but if the urge is acted upon, it’s motivated by the parent’s emotional need, not concern for the child. Corporal punishment doesn’t teach correct behavior. It only instills fear and shame. Tickling or rough-housing by a parent or older sibling becomes abusive when you want it stopped but are overpowered or ignored.

This is domination by the stronger person over the weaker and is humiliating and disempowering. The teased child may not learn to protect him- or herself.

If you witnessed domestic violence or physical abuse of a sibling, you were traumatized as if it happened to you. You may feel guilty for not preventing the abuse. This is termed witness abuse. It includes witnessing a parent violently damage property — like breaking a door. You may enjoy watching your father tear down a room to remodel it but be petrified to witness it when your parents are arguing. His rage is what’s terrorizing.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse can include any inappropriate touching, kissing, looking, nudity, flirting, pornography, peeping, exhibitionism, or sexual innuendo, stories, or jokes. When sexual contact with a child is kept secret, it’s likely abusive, and the secret exacerbates the harm.

Inappropriate sexual contact is abusive because it’s over-stimulating and a breach of trust because you’re being used to gratify the abuser’s needs. Experiencing pleasure doesn’t make it less abusive. Even between an older and younger sibling, the age differential is an abuse of power. Victims of sexual abuse feel self-hatred and shame — especially if they experienced pleasure. As adults, they have problems with intimacy, trust, and sexuality.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse. Emotional abuse can also take the form of withholding love or threatening or enforcing unreasonable punishment, chores, isolation, or deprivation. Some parents are cold and unaffectionate, and others are unresponsive, robotic, and ghostlike.

Emotional abuse makes you feel unlovable and rejected and results in problems as an adult connecting emotionally. If a parent controlled your activities and decisions or was possessive and jealous of your friends and lovers, you’d feel smothered or claustrophobic in intimate relationships.

If you had a parent who was hypercritical, continually advising, criticizing, and improving you, you’d internalize shame and low self-esteem and grow up to be hypercritical. You believe that you’re never enough — not doing enough, good enough, or accomplished enough to secure your parent’s love or that of a mate.

Spiritual abuse

Spiritual abuse can occur in extremely religious families. Some parents neglect their obligations to understand, guide, and teach their children and instead quote Bible dictum that their children can’t understand. Others instill fear of a vengeful God or shame their children in the name of religion. This has happened to many homosexuals.

The reverse is also true where atheist parents forbid the mention of God or shame their children’s spiritual curiosity and yearnings. Other families indoctrinate their children in cult practices that may also include abuse.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in relationships and codependency. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 28 years and coaches internationally. She's a sought-after speaker to professionals at national conferences and in the media.

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