All too often parents and caretakers don't teach children one of the most critical lessons of life, and that is how to regulate their emotions in a healthy way. Instead, too many caretakers make it clear that they are to be obeyed, no questions asked without taking into consideration any of the child's needs or preferences.1
Children's perceptions, values, and belief systems are invalidated so much that they become to believe that they are not valid human beings and therefore, don't learn how to best take care of themselves in a way they need and understand.
Let's contrast the difference between allowing a child to identify and manage their own needs versus invalidating the child. First, I'll give a statement or behavior a child might make followed by a healthy response and then an unhealthy one.
- A child cries. A healthy response would be to try and find out what is wrong and soothe the child. Instead, they hear, "Would you just shut up or I'll give you something to cry about!"
- A child says, "I hate it when you do that." A healthy response would be the caretaker would not take that angry remark personally, but would allow the child to express their anger, to explain exactly what they didn't like, and to respond in a way that says talking about it is fine. "Let's see what we can do about it. Instead of: "Oh, for Pete's sake, you're so stupid. Just forget about it."
- When a child says, "I worked really hard on this." A healthy response would be to congratulate them and say something like, "I can tell you put a lot of work into this." Instead of: "No, you didn't. You can do better than that. Go back and do it again."
When children get this type of invalidating feedback all the time, it contributes to them not being able to accurately label their own feelings, they can't trust their own thought processes or make valid interpretations about what is happening around them or to them. It becomes the ultimate emotional betrayal because as they get older, they no longer have to wait for others to invalidate them, they've learned to invalidate themselves.
The big problem, however, is that they reach the point where they associate expressing their feelings with pain. Since people don't want to feel pain, they find ways to numb it. Now when the child becomes a teenager and they are not in the parents' sphere of control when emotional situations arise, a lot of teenagers act out because of low levels of self-control and/or they numb their confusion and pain by using food, sex, drugs, alcohol, and sometimes even by mutilating their bodies.
They have learned not to tell anyone what's bothering them and look in their environment to see how to handle their feelings. A teenager's environment consists of other teenagers, what they see on television, on the Internet, in the movies, in magazines, and the lyrics in the music they hear. And what they see and hear are constant messages of inappropriate behavior.
Adolescent boys are told that it is manly to fight, yell, and push people around if they don't like something. Adolescent girls are taught that to be female means to have sexually appealing bodies. And for both boys and girls, and yes, when they are 12 to 18-years-old, they are not adults, they are bombarded with slick advertising campaigns that it is both desirable and popular to drink, use drugs, and have sex with as many people as possible - no strings attached. When I was growing up, the media wasn't as flagrant and extreme in its messages to young people as it is today, but the same underlying themes were still there. So children like myself when I was a child, watch what is pumped into our culture on a daily basis and grow to believe that inappropriate behavior is normal.
Why is this issue so important? Because by the time they become teenagers, they have internalized these models of inappropriate behavior into their own identity which, in turn means, they carry these behaviors into their adult life. They have unfortunately internalized their abusive parents' and our culture's belief system that this is how people normally live their lives on a daily basis. And so the cycle of abuse and violence continues into the next generation.
We were taught not to open our mouths, that we deserved the abuse, we were shameful people, and that people cope with their problems through violence, degrading sex, and substance abuse. As adults, we now have insecure attachment styles and have serious problems in developing and maintaining healthy relationships.
It is not until we are out on our own, are working to support ourselves, or are living at home raising our children that we believe we have finally gotten over it and can start to look back at what happened to us when we grew up. We usually have no idea how conditioned we have been and how constricted our lives have become. However, when something triggers the memories of our abuse, it is, for many survivors, the point at which all the anguish, rage, and split-off emotions come rushing to the surface.
By this time, too many have acted out in an effort to cope with life's problems, hurt themselves year after year with food, drugs, alcohol, degrading sex, or self-mutilation, have come to believe our abuser's brainwashing that we are useless, and believe that no one cares or will help – just like when growing up.
We decide, though, to finally take that chance and reach out. What we learn is that we have to fight to be heard, and we find it unbelievable and unconscionable the reactions that we get. We are invalidated all over again.
We were told, “Get over it. That happened a long time ago.” We are not allowed to tell our supervisors at work that we are trauma survivors and need accommodations because, for too many survivors, we have to face the implied/actual threats of being fired. And we are ostracized by family members and friends for going public .
The lives of adult survivors of child abuse and neglect will only be changed once action is taken on a national level to educate, lobby and stand up for our rights.
 E Diane Champé Institute, E Diane Champé, 2012