May 16 2009

Abuse and Neglect: The Two Big Issues for Family of Origin Work

When I do an initial assessment, I ask many questions about family history. Although it is always an ongoing process, after a few sessions, I will usually understand how long parents were married, any divorces or major illnesses, parenting styles, length and quality of clients relationships, educational and career history, and importantly any experience of abuse and/or neglect. Why is this important?

Patterns in our lives can repeat themselves over and over again until we learn and change.

There is a saying “the universe will give us the same lesson over and over until we learn it.”

I’m sure this is based on the fact that most of us have made the same mistake over and over in our lives until we had some type of awakening…some powerful experience of loss or other consequence related to our mistakes.

Our awakening allows us to hear the universe’s lesson finally and we take steps to change our behavior.

Maybe we drank too much until we were finally arrested for a DUI…then we were able to see more clearly the negative consequences of our drinking on ourselves and our loved ones.

Maybe we thought it was ok to fight in our marriages so much it hurt ourselves and our spouse. We sensed it wasn’t a good idea, but just let it whip because we felt entitled to say whatever we wanted. It wasn’t until our spouse stopped fighting back and really started to leave, not just threaten to leave, that we finally admitted we had to stop the fierceness of our attack.

Maybe it was an employee or someone who we had more power in the relationship…we felt entitled to degrade them because…well just because we could…and no one would overhear what we said either directly or over the phone. WE might do this until one day, someone had the courage enough to fight back…hold us accountable for our mistreatment of them…then we might be forced to learn the universe’s lesson that we need to be more respectful in the way we speak to someone.

And so, the adult who comes into my office upset about something in their present lives has the opportunity to explore how their family experience influenced them.

Sometimes it is clear and simple. A parent had a serious drinking/substance abuse/mental health problem and physically, emotionally or sexually abused them.

Other times it is more complicated. A parent may have used more sophisticated psychological manipulations to exert control over their child’s life.

Or maybe a parent was unhappy in their life or marriage and developed more emotional attachment to the child growing up.  This is sometimes referred to as “emotional incest.”

I know that is a strong concept to use, but it does illustrate the negative impact of this type of relationship dynamic.

Also, abuse and neglect impact a child’s ability to learn and grow academically.

I constantly work with adults who are brilliant, but were unable to get it together enough to do well in school…even if they finish high school and do some college, they often do not finish and graduate.

So, family of origin work involves exploring these issues and possibilities.

You can think of it as opening Pandora’s box…letting everything out that needs to escape…then finding hope at the bottom of the box to begin to live life with more success and happiness.

We can go home.

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