Child Abuse and Neglect: How We Reenact What We Experienced

Child Abuse and Neglect: How We Reenact What We Experienced

Unresolved patterns, regarding child abuse and neglect, are bound to repeat themselves. Even in the face of our best intentions. You can’t cheat the unconscious even if you try very hard.

You might have found yourself exhibiting similar behavior as one of your parents that you have sworn to yourself, as a child, you would never do. And exactly within that promise to yourself is the culprit.

Child Abuse and Neglect and How we React to It as Children

Most serious PTSD Symptoms, regardless of adult life traumas and upsets, have their roots in childhood experiences. Most often these experiences span periods and are intimately related to the people you have grown up with; your parents, close family, siblings or friends of the family.

An adult mind is different from a child’s mind and how we as children process our experiences. As a child, we are much more dependent on our parents or caregivers for emotional and physical support.

When there was abuse going on, when you were a child, acting out anger generally isn’t a safe option. It might lead to more severe punishment or emotional shut down by the parent or abuser present.

Need for Survival Strategies When Suffering Neglect and Child Abuse

It is at these moments, when we feel overwhelmed and can’t act out our rightful anger and disagreement that we make decisions born out of survival. These might be; to emotionally withdraw and disconnect, to make a statement to oneself of ‘I will never become like that’ or ‘the world, men or women can’t be trusted’ or a combination of all of them.

This internal decision is the splitting away from integrity, creating duality and reenactment.

During that period of time, when abuse was going on, you didn’t have the capacity to stand up to the situation. You could not act successfully to reestablish your boundaries and safety hence you chose the next best thing: To survive!

What is the Pay-off and What are the Costs

You needed to either disconnect or create an opinion about the world or certain people thereby locking opposing emotions into play.

Residual emotions and reenactment later in life show up as indulgence into patterns or behavior followed by self-loathing and withdrawing, only to be followed again by further involvement of the same pattern. And this happens on different levels.

At the core of it is fear of meeting one’s own anger, based on the experiences and the emotional memory we hold onto, that keeps reenactment alive.

Child Abuse and Neglect and How Reenactment Plays Itself Out

Maria grew up with her mother often shouting and belittling her. As a child, she concealed her anger toward herself about her mistreatment for fear of repercussions and instead vented it on her little sister or acted it out as self-harm.

As an adult, she has children of her own and she notices how she acts out the same behavior as her mom; shouting to her kids when she gets stressed. From an adult perspective, she does not want to, but she finds herself impulsively doing it.

While working with her we find out that it is a repeating pattern that is kept in place by her child-self that hasn’t yet faced up to the fear of her mother and the anger she has repressed. As we work with that, somatically and cognitively, her symptoms and relationship with her partner and children start to change for the better as well.

» Dive deeper into this topic by reading The Trauma Essential Series →

In which areas of your life do you notice you are reenacting your past? Write your comment here below.

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  • Neall says:

    This describes the situation as I know it.

  • Daniel says:

    My father was someone who was always quiet when in the house and I have found myself sometime just to go silent in the presence of my family,though I know its bad.

  • Hele says:

    I think, for me, it would be what I call “flash anger” or “0 to 60 anger”. My mother did this as well. It happens (less now) when I am challenged, and maybe for other reasons, but I can”t think of any just now.

  • Darlene says:

    We were discussing this in our women’s class at church. The women who have children all admitted they play out what they experienced with one or both of their parents on their children. Of course, I’m perfect because I’m single and I don’t have any children to mess up! Joking aside; I’ve had to do a lot of inner child work because Little Darlene was controlling my life. Whenever mother and my aunt argued it seemed to me it was always over me. It made me very angry as a child and caused me to do a lot of work as an adult. I like the article. Thank you!

  • Terry wall says:

    I tend to re enact by becoming attracted to and attract relationships with people with addiction issues…my parents were addicts..I had to do a lot of care taking for them …and now I have become aware i do the same thing with such people now as an adult.

  • Patti says:

    There has been awful generational trauma and addiction in my family. My own struggle has included a massive breakdown around age 40 after a ten year court battle, trying to protect my daughters from their abusive Father, my x. It wasn’t until 8 years later That I was diagnosed w/C-PTSD. Fa st forward. Those daughters grew up, one had kids, married an abusive man and within 4 years was addicted to heroin. Her daughters suffered a lot of trauma. They have been out of her custudy for 3 years. The last two years they have been with me. Thay are 11 and 7. Both have C-PTSD and its especially hard to deal with, with the older one. I see a lot of re enactment and I have no clue if someone her age can get beyond it or be helped by therapy. She was also recently diagnosed w/RAD & ODD, which I consider to be a part of the PTSD spectrum. When she isn’t triggered she is a sweet, kind, loving girl but this past year there have been increasingly disruptive, rageful and violent behavior. Its gotten so bad I think DSS may try to put her in residential treatment. I said all of that to say as the 60 year old grandmother swing with this do you have any advice. She was in therapy but is not resistant. I try to just do as ma y fun activities as possible bcs I know that helps with mood. She won’t take medication. Patenting her is like mission impossible. I encourage her to do breathing techniques, taking a break, and body awareness to be in to head off triggers but I do set how much can this child do. We don’t have financial resources for quality treatment. I don’t want to lose her to her symptoms.
    Thanks

    • Niki says:

      Idk if this will be helpful for you but after reading your comment I think I remember how I felt growing up(weird I don’t have many memories.. well until now) I remember I felt many emotions… i put up this big strong wall so ‘no one could mess with me! No one could hurt me! Or I’d hurt them first! ‘ but really… I wanted someone to care enough to kick down the damn walls and hold me and cry with me and tell me it’s normal and healthy to feel the way I do and that I’m not alone and you won’t ever leave me. I wanted someone to tuck me in and read me a story or tell me a story about themselves. Someone to
      Come to basketball games and choir recitals and talent shows and all that. To care about what I learned in school and not the grade. If it’s a bad grade I wanted to hear “that’s okay. you didn’t get the grade you wanted…. yet. Next time. I can work with you on it if you’d like that” and To be proud when I came home and got awards or did really well at something and to ask me without having to tell them sometimes. To be concerned with where I am , who I’m with, what I’m doing. When I make a mistake tell me you’re disappointed because you know I’m capable of so much but give me a consequence and explain everything.. but don’t “punish” or blame me. Tell me that people make mistakes, and that I can learn from it and grow but even if it happens again that doesn’t make me any less of the amazing and worthy and talented and smart and kind and lovable and deserving of belonging and joy. Tell me those things and believe in me always. Those are some things I wanted growing up, that I needed.
      I believe kids need to feel they are worthy and deserving of love and joy and belonging. ( Brene brown ted talk on shame is amazing) encouragement to talk about what they feel even if it’s uncomfortable, consequences for bad behavior or whatever but in a “not yet” “where/why/what did you feel” “I am here, we can work it out together” , connectedness – when something embarrassing happens or shameful or regretful or whatever tell them a story of yours that similar to show you’ve been there and that it’s normal and human. They’ll respect that eventually … good luck.

    • Ebony says:

      Hi Patti, I don’t know if this helps but as a teen I would often act out because of trauma. Something that has always helped me keep my head on and stay calm is music. Over time I’ve learnt to somewhat regulate my emotions and behaviour; by just listening to my favourite tunes.

  • Terry Wall says:

    I have realised after reading marias story just like she was still trying to work out how to deal with her anger, I am still trying to work out how to have boundaries with problematic people.

  • Tracee says:

    I get angry and upset at times and feel like I can’t trust men I am too scared

  • LynnAnn says:

    My anger today always feels threatening to me. I see now how the feeling of anger always takes me to my mother’s narcissistic and sexual abuse. My association to that makes me more angry than a situation might call for because I tell myself I won’t be abused like that again. Then, I seem to reinfect myself with the last. This article helps shift my focus. I’m learning how to honor anger and use it to identify my boundaries and make changes.

  • Gina says:

    Wow – Well this one IS me. I don’t know if you get these still – but Wow. I have to buy your books. I was belittled, guilted, shamed, forced to do – forced to get, then beat up for it — you name it. I was either feeling everything or nothing and it still persists. I have such a difficult time with emotions. This Roland seems insurmountable. I live now basically in hiding. I react with people over and over even after 25+ years of conventional therapy. I have had some very good therapists too. The last one abandoned me. I’m sure I made it happen. He did not help. I want to be well so badly. I’ve worked so very hard. Somehow I found your work. There must be a reason. I’m so tired of the repeating of the patterns – and having no life. Thank you Roland.