Lynne's Lessons on Abuse - a Survivor speaks out

Lynne Coleman-Marshall - A Survivor Speaks Out

Lynne Marshall, a survivor of child abuse Lynne Coleman-Marshall is a retired MFCC (Marriage, Family and Child Counselor). She received her BA from University of Redlands Accelerated Degree program in 1985 and her MS from Loma Linda University in 1988. After her internship, she became a Licensed MFC in 1991 with a private practice in Cerritos, CA.

Her personal and professional experience provides us with real insight into the ugly world of child abuse and how we all can do something to stop the abusive cycle.

She is a survivor of her father's abuse of the worse kind - physical,sexual, and emotional from the age of four to the time she was able to move out at eighteen. Her father was a violent alcoholic who could not keep a job for more than 2 years. Her mother was an emotionally unavailable woman.

The scars left by her father’s abuse has made her life difficult - married three times, drank heavily in her early years, and determined not to have children. But her father's abusive destruction of people's lives went beyond Lynne (as is the case with most child abusers). He physically and sexually abused her three younger brothers. Although Lynne was able to patch up her life through years of psychology, her three brothers were not so lucky. The first was dishonorably discharged from the service, joined the mushroom culture in Washington State, and has not been heard of for over 20 years. The second is a former heroine and alcohol addict. He had two daughters by his first marriage and one by his second. All three daughters, though not abused, have problems because of his instability. The third was a drug addict but now exhibits his disorders by overeating - he weighs over 350 pounds. Only one of the three brothers graduated from high school.

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How Parents Destroy Their Children Emotionally

By Lynne Coleman-Marshall

October 15, 2004

Children's minds are wondrous things, as are their emotions and honesty.

In a perfect world, or at least in a somewhat loving environment, they are able to take in everything around them as well as work through the various social, physical, and intellectual stages of development. And, they are born with an innate sense of right and wrong that is astonishing.

I never had children, for reasons I will go into later, but my awe at children grew in my years in private practice as a psychotherapist. I worked with children from different economic levels, of different races, and at different ages. I also saw adults who had never grown up, that is to say they were still stuck in things that happened to them in their childhood.

Children are naturally joy-filled beings. They are naturally honest. They are naturally inquisitive and want to learn. They want to do well in school. They want to please their parents - that is until they learn differently. And, I cannot say that loudly enough. If children learn to lie, they learn it at home. If children are withdrawn, they are being hurt. If children fail in school, there is a why. If children don't care what their parents think, there are reasons. If children are violent to others, they are extremely angry - bottled up anger about a situation wherein they feel powerless - crazy making behavior in the home.

No, I don't have some utopian beliefs about children. Yes they can be manipulative, yes they can make you want to tear your hair out, and, yes they can be influenced by friends and relatives outside the immediate family. But, the bottom line is, up to the age of seven, children are 100% taught about life by their primary care givers. And, if they do not enter school with some nervousness, curiosity, openness and non-violent behavior, then there is definitely something wrong.

We use the word abuse to encompass the horrible things that adults do to children. It's time we started calling it like it is. Children are terrorized, tortured, and raped. It's nice and neat to be able to fit it all under the umbrella of abuse, but this also causes more questions than answers. There is no question that to terrorize is to cause psychological/emotional damage, to torture is physical damage, and to rape is sexual damage. Of course this bothers people's sensibilities to use these harsh terms, and it should be.

Another popular word that came out of the psychological community is a dysfunctional family. This is simply another way of labeling something that no one really wants to get too close to - crazy making behavior. This, in the context of a family, is behavior that innocent children cannot integrate into their perceptions of good and bad. A child’s thought process:

Mommy (who I love and who loves me) has just held my hand to a flame and burned me. Mommy is always right (because she takes care of me and without whom I would die) cannot be wrong, so I must be very bad to have her do something like this.

Torture of children is crazy behavior. Torture to try and make a child do things differently only causes craziness in their head.

These nice labels disguise the underlying truth; they allow a distance between the general population and the very horrible acts that are committed against our children. And, it allows the attacker to disavow their action. As an example of one case study of a parent I consoled about her five-year old son:

“I would never abuse my child. Yes, I have punished him by locking him in a small closet for the night to teach him not to wet the bed, but I would never abuse him.”

To terrorize a child is crazy making. Children know when behavior is crazy and they cannot assimilate it. A child’s thought process:

Mommy is good (no matter what she does) and she loves me. This craziness is my fault.

Children, about up to the age of seven, live in a black and white world. Something is either good or bad. They are unable to understand behavior around them that doesn't fit - the grey areas. The concept of children being hurt is a gray area for them. A child’s thought process:

Something is wrong (won't fit either good or bad) and since mommy and/or daddy are good, I must be bad.

An even subtler form of crazy making behavior is the area of neglect. If a child, of five or older, is testing their limits with a parent and the parent does not stand firm, the child learns that the world does not have rules. Of course, it is known that neglect means not clean, not fed, deprived of sleep, but few understand the neglect of letting the child raise themselves without structure.

And, since they cannot assimilate what is going on, it produces craziness in their head.

This craziness in their head builds up, if there is no outlet for it, and causes children to be crazy in their own way - that is called "acting out".

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Lynne’s Lessons - Frequently Asked Questions on Child Abuse:

Lynne Coleman-Marshall is a retired MFCC (Marriage, Family and Child Counselor) kind enough to contribute to our Program. She specialized in helping children and adults who were abused and support our efforts on child abuse prevention.

There is a lot of controversy about “remembering “ abuse by analyzing dreams, or a person may say they had dreams of certain kinds of abuse. Does analyzing dreams help diagnose abuse?
Sometimes child abuse is misdiagnosed by the overzealous. Part of this problem is the child's ability or inability to articulate. This is so whether the person is still a child, or an adult who "remembers something". Two case studies illustrate this:
Case Study 1 - Impressionable age:
The patient is a 29-year old male who had extremely vivid "memories" of being in a concentration camp during the holocaust. The therapist took a thorough social history - family of origin, current family, where he went to school, church, etc. but didn't find anything to substantiate the memories. Then an extensive psychiatric/psychological history was done. Other than these memories, he had no other pathologies. He was able to describe events of the gas chambers, other people he knew, daily events, etc. of a life of a person in one of the prison camps. After a couple of sessions, more detailed information about his family of origin reviled that the client's aging grandfather had lived with him and his family from ages of about 4-6. He had spent a great deal of time with his grandfather who had told him many stories. It was a very important relationship for this child at that age. His grandfather had lived through the holocaust, been in the camps, and had told the client, in minutest detail about living then. In fact that was all he talked to the child about. Thus, his grandfather's memories became his.
Case Study 2 - Remembering Physically:
I had a client who came into my office with extreme anxiety. She didn't want medication, she wanted the anxiety to stop. After a couple of sessions, she was able to articulate that she would have tingling sensations across her breasts just before she was going to have a panic attack. Nothing in her recallable memory explained this physical manifestation. After being able to report this, she began noticing new feelings on other parts of her body and she started having dreams - nothing concrete, but very upsetting. The end of this story is not pretty. She came into my office, after about 5 sessions, without an appointment, "falling apart". She curled up into a ball in the corner sobbing uncontrollably, unable to speak anything but gibberish. She had a psychotic break. I had her hospitalized and her psychiatrist reported to me, later, that she had been brutally raped by a cousin and his friends when she was young. She had never told anyone. Eventually she was discharged from the hospital. She recovered OK.
Does abuse have to be physical?
Another thing that is important to remember is that trauma is trauma. There is no worst or least - it is what is perceived by the child. A child who has viewed pornography and has poor emotional reserves can be just as traumatized as a child who has been gang raped. The differentiating factor is the family the child is reared in and the emotional makeup of the child. If there is at least one adult (mother, father; grandparent, aunt, uncle, priest, teacher, friend, etc.) whom the child trusts and is somewhat stable, even the most abused can successfully weather abuse and go on to a somewhat normal life (neurotic but not psychotic). But, if there isn't a stable, consistent adult for that child to bond to, the chances are great that the child will "not make it". And, it is even more damaging if the stable person is also an abuser.
What are symptoms of the abused?
They are the children that are “not making it”. This includes drugs, promiscuity, alcohol, eating disorders, killing small animals (i.e., cats, dogs, etc.), setting fires, withdrawal, depression, suicide (and suicidal ideation), diseases, dropping out of school/life as well as psychotic breaks. A study shows us that over 50% of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) patients are people who were abused in childhood.
Case study of children sexually abused:
A 9-year old girl was referred to me for groups that I had in the primary schools. I had several groups for boys but no group for girls. Boys tend to “act out” in school when abuse is present in their life, so teachers were very aware of them. Thus they got the greater attention as having problems. Virtually all the boys in my groups had, in some form, been sexually abused. On the other hand, girls tend to withdraw socially and verbally, so teachers didn’t label them as a problem. Kathleen was a 9-year old girl who didn’t speak to anyone, had no friends, but got good marks for her schoolwork. When I first met her, she held herself separate from everyone, eyes down-cast, and seemingly did not hear when spoken to. When encouraged to paint or finger-paint, would approach the materials but would not pick anything up to use. Once I pointed these behavioral symptoms to the principal, she then recognized several other girls in the school that had similar problems - all had been sexually molested in their home.
Can a child report abuse from their dreams?
To children, dreams are much more real than to adults. A child can feel certain that what happened in a dream actually happened. If there is a "it seemed like a dream" quality to the reporting of abuse and the dream is repetitive, then there was probably abuse. However, children are very easily intimidated, especially if what they are telling is about someone they love and have, at one time, trusted. Telling a story one time can be as accurate as they are capable of, telling it second or more occasions, they will tend to shade the story. After all, they are possibly talking about a parent whom they may greatly fear losing if the “story is told”. This tends to be viewed by others as “lying” and the entire story gets discredited.
Is it healing to confront the abuser?
Not always. Unless a client is in the "right place", confronting an abuser is always negative. If a person doesn't have any needs of the abuser, isn't actively angry, doesn't have any expectations, then confrontation can be appropriate, but this takes months of therapy just on this issue before that can be possible. Healing can be done without confrontation or even knowing who the abuser was.
Is it important to know what happened?
No. Sometimes it is only opening a "Pandora's box" to delve into the particulars. The mind is a wondrous thing. The reason that memories of abuse have been locked away is to protect the child to whom the abuse is happening. To open up that lock can, in some instances, cause the psyche to break with reality - it is too much stress for that individual to deal with.
What can I do if I learn that a child is being abused?
TELL SOMEONE IN AUTHORITY! You can call the child abuse hotline, you can call the police, you can tell someone who is mandated by law to report (a minister, counselor, nurse, doctor, or teacher. Just don’t slough it off!