- Unhealthy patterns in families can contribute to negative internal messages children can carry into adulthood.
- Many people are unaware that they hold these beliefs until they notice a pattern of unhealthy interpersonal and romantic relationships.
- Unlearning the beliefs picked up during years of mistreatment can improve self-esteem and improve interpersonal relationships.
When we grow up in chaotic or even dysfunctional families, we learn unspoken rules and messages. While necessary to the survival of a child within that family unit, outside of that environment, these messages do not make sense and can even be harmful as they continue to revictimize trauma survivors.
Following are 5 of the most common unspoken messages that childhood trauma survivors carry into adulthood, often creating harmful beliefs that manifest as unhealthy relationship patterns:
1. You must forgive or even ignore bad behavior. The dysfunction that takes place during our younger years often is filled with examples of our parents, caregivers, and relatives forgiving abusive behavior. It is expected that the next generation excuse and dismiss bad behavior: "It's your mother; you need to forgive"; "Your uncle was in the war, we should ignore his drinking and violence"; or, "Look at all they do for you; don't be so ungrateful." Children who grow up in traumatic families learn that this bad behavior is inevitable and that it is pointless to expect an apology, or any empathy about their feelings or experiences. While it can be true that most caregivers are doing the best that they can with the tools and knowledge they have, it can also be true that the dysfunctional patterns learned in these families teaches us that this does not matter anyway, that we should forgive and move on simply because our caregivers are our caregivers.
2. Relationships will be painful. Growing up around people who are frequently arguing, or even avoiding communication altogether, teaches children that conflict is an inevitable part of relationships. And while this is partly true — human conflict is unavoidable — dysfunctional families teach unhealthy and unsafe ways of dealing with this conflict, and that becomes the problem. In healthy families, compassionate and respectful ways of navigating differences are observed and experienced by children, who learn to mimic these behaviors with their peers. However, when children observe caregivers who belittle, stonewall, criticize, exhibit cruelty, and have an overall lack of consideration and compassion for others' feelings, these are the behaviors that will be learned and repeated.
3. Trust is not guaranteed in relationships. When we grow up in environments in which caregivers are not reliable, such as through emotional or physical abandonment, we learn that we can not depend on them in times of need. Many children who grow up with parents who use substances or engage in illegal activity learn to hide their money and possessions out of fear of being robbed in their own homes. Privacy is not guaranteed, leaving children feeling vulnerable and exposed as diary entries are read, private conversations are repeated, phone calls are monitored, and bedrooms are not respected as safe spaces. Promises are broken, and bad behavior is not changed, which impacts developing children. When boundaries are consistently and intentionally violated, this is emotionally abusive.
4. It's your fault. Whatever it is. Dysfunctional families, particularly ones in which one or more parents have traits of a personality disorder, there is almost always at least one family scapegoat. This person will be used to blame the family's problems on, as it creates a distraction from dysfunction and gives the family the sympathy they crave in social circles. Growing up in an environment in which they are always to blame has detrimental effects on a developing child. While many cultures, and some previous generations, believe that questioning adults is disrespectful, this is a bit different. While many families teach children not to talk back to parents or older caregivers, there are ways to respectfully do so without children being blamed unfairly or instilling a sense of self-blame in a developing child behaving in an age-appropriate manner.
5. It's not safe to turn to families for support. Children who grow up in abusive households learn quickly that they can not turn to their caregivers for support. Whether it be during peer conflict or dating relationships, issues with school, or other areas of their life, these children will avoid turning to a caregiver for support because of fear of retaliation, blame, and even punishment. These children will often be seen hanging out with older peers, who they feel drawn to for protection, and they will often be seen as acting more mature than their actual age. When developing children do not have a safe adult to turn to as they grow and learn, their chances of drug use, unsafe sexual behavior, and other dangerous activities increase.
It is important to remember that these messages were formed due to years of dysfunction, abuse, or mistreatment, and that they are not true. They were not created explicitly; there was no manual or written message given to children upon birth. Instead, a pattern of behavior and inaction on the part of all members of the family contributes to these messages. In my work with families, most people do not understand how their behaviors contribute to these unhealthy messages until they do the work of deep self-reflection.
Doing the work to unlearn these harmful messages can be done through educating yourself, journaling, joining mental health support groups, seeing a therapist, or internal reflection and growth. Unlearning these beliefs and patterns can help improve self-esteem and self-worth, as well as improve one's depth and self-awareness in romantic and even platonic relationships.
Wang, Z. Y., Hu, M., Yu, T. L., & Yang, J. (2019). The Relationship between Childhood Maltreatment and Risky Sexual Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(19), 3666. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16193666. Accessed 4/2/2022.