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Child Development

How Do You Begin to Break the Cycle of Abuse?

Part 1 of 5: What you can do to break the cycle of abuse.

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“I have discovered that we are less a prey to …the repetition compulsion if we are willing to acknowledge what happened to us, if we do not claim that we were mistreated 'for our own good,' and if we have not had to ward off completely our painful reactions to the past. The more we idealize the past, however, and refuse to acknowledge our childhood sufferings, the more we pass them on unconsciously to the next generation.” —Alice Miller, For Your Own Good

In my previous blog post, "Breaking the Cycle of Abuse," I introduced the concept and the importance of actively working on breaking the cycle of abuse if you have a history of being neglected or emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as a child. In this blog post, we begin the process.

It can be overwhelming to take on the task of breaking the cycle of abuse. For this reason, I offer the following suggestions for where to begin focusing your energy:

1. Tell yourself the truth about your abuse history. This will require many of you to come out of denial once and for all about exactly what was done to you as a child and the impact it has had on your life.

2. Become aware of your risk factors, including identifying and changing the negative attitudes and beliefs that create a victim or abuser mentality.

3. Decide whether you are a good candidate to become a parent and learn parenting skills that will ensure that you will not become an abusive parent and pass on neglectful or abusive family patterns.

4. Work on developing more empathy for others and more self-compassion for yourself.

5. Continuing to work on healing from the abuse or neglect you experienced.

6. Learn to identify and manage your emotions—especially the emotions of shame, anger, and fear.

7. Work toward having equal romantic relationships.

I will not be able to elaborate on all these steps in this blog series, so for further help, refer to my book, Breaking the Cycle: How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuse-Free Future. For now, let’s focus on the first five steps, starting with number one.

Step 1: Tell Yourself the Truth

One of the most important steps in being able to avoid developing an abuser or victim pattern is to face the truth about the abuse and/or neglect you experienced either in childhood or later in life. (While most of our patterns develop from childhood experiences, sometimes traumatic experiences in adulthood, such as rape or domestic violence, can cause us to develop a victim or abuser pattern.)

Denial is a powerful defense mechanism intended to protect us from having to face intense pain and trauma. It is what allows us to block out or “forget” intense pain caused by severe physical trauma. Survivors of childhood abuse and neglect tend to deny what happened to them and minimize the damage it caused them because not to do so is to face the sometimes unbearable pain of admitting that their parents or other family members could treat them in such horrendous ways.

One of the main reasons why adults who were abused or neglected by one or both of their parents refuse to acknowledge the truth about what happened to them is that children love their parents so much that they tend to idealize them. The conviction that parents are always right and that even acts of cruelty are an expression of their love is deeply rooted in each of us. It is based on the process of internalization that takes place during the first months of life—that is, during the period of time preceding separation from the primary caregiver. Children are so dependent on their parents’ love and care that it causes them to push any action on their parents’ part that is unloving or cruel out of their mind. They will go to great lengths to construct an explanation for their fate that absolves their parents of all blame and responsibility.

All of the abused child’s psychological adaptations serve the fundamental purpose of preserving her primary attachment to her parents in the face of evidence of their malice, helplessness, or indifference. To accomplish this purpose, the child resorts to a wide variety of psychological defenses. By virtue of these defenses, the abuse is either walled off from conscious awareness and memory, so that it did not really happen, or minimized, rationalized, and excused so that whatever did happen was not really abuse. Unable to escape or alter the unbearable reality, the child changes it in her mind. The child victim prefers to believe that the abuse did not occur, so she tries to keep it a secret from herself.

Unless you are able to admit that you were abused or neglected and acknowledge the damage it has caused you, you will be unable to heal. Furthermore, you will be blind to your own tendencies to be abusive or neglectful, and you will be less able to spot abusive or neglectful behavior in others. If you suspect you were abused or neglected, it is important to trust those feelings instead of trying to talk yourself out of them. Working with a therapist trained in trauma can help you allow the truth to surface.

It is important to understand that witnessing abuse is just as damaging as being abused. In one study, it was found that 73 percent of batterers witnessed violence as children. When children witness abuse or are abused, they are seeing, hearing, and learning about violence. They learn that the people you love most may hurt you, that living in fear is normal, and that violence is the way to handle conflict.

When we finally do face the truth about what happened to us as children, we are often overwhelmed with grief, sadness, and anger. Allow yourself to feel these emotions. Don’t try to fight them off. You’ve probably been doing that for too long.

Allow your emotions to flood out of you. Let the sadness wash over you. Let the tears come. Let the anger burst out. Cry for the little child who was mistreated in such terrible ways. Get angry at how the little child you once were was used or abused by adults who should have known better—adults who were supposed to protect you.

In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss learning what the risk factors are for repeating the cycle of abuse.


For a complete list of the types of child abuse and neglect, refer to any of these books: Breaking the Cycle, It Wasn’t Your Fault, or Healing Your Emotional Self.

Engel, Beverly (2005). Breaking the Cycle: How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuse-Free Future. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.

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