When growing up in an abusive environment, control becomes an important issue. Clearly, in the beginning, control rests with the abusive parents/caretakers, so children will adapt to their environment the best way they can. In the process, however, children become very attuned to high levels of stress—so much so that their autonomic nervous system is affected. They develop strong reactions to even relatively low levels of stress, and then it takes longer than normal to return to a restful state.

In addition, children get caught between two conflicting situations. The first is children being subjected to invalidation by their abusive parents/caretakers. This means that the expression of his/her feelings is not accepted by their abusers as accurate. The abusers will say things like “Oh, you are so stupid.” OR “This is ridiculous. There is no reason for you to be angry.”

Even if children’s feelings are accurate, they are ridiculed and told they don’t know what they are talking about. The adult will say, for example, “I’m not angry. Why would you say such a thing?” OR “That didn’t hurt. Stop crying.” So, children don’t learn to accurately label their own feelings or to make valid interpretations about what is happening to them or around them.

The second conflicting situation involves children placing a high value on self-control and self-reliance. Abused children are normally not helped to cope with stressful situations. And since they have not been taught to trust their own feelings, they will many times flip back and forth between shutting down all of their feelings or expressing very strong emotions to have their feelings acknowledged.

With this combination of not being able to label their feelings accurately and the need for control over their stressful environment, these unresolved conflicts are carried into adulthood. Survivors, then, find themselves trying to cope with high reactions to stress, an inability to label their feelings, and either shutting down or having strong emotions to cope—all of which is very tiring and frustrating.