A Short Childhood Story
I was finally old enough to go to school and get away from my mother’s screaming, beatings, and sexual abuse. My older brother and I smiled together as we got on the school bus that day. We were both glad to be getting away.
First grade was the first time in my life I felt understood. I loved everything about school. The snacks, the smell of mimeographed worksheets, learning how to read and write, the playground, and most of all, I loved my teacher, Mrs. King. She was one of the first adults who ever loved me back. It was a glorious year. And then…it came to an end.
I overheard my parents talking. “I can’t stand the other second-grade teachers,” my mother growled. I knew my mother was ramping up for a full-on tirade. She happened to be a second-grade teacher at the school where my brother and I attended. I flattened myself against the wall and continued to eavesdrop.
“I mean it,” my mother continued. “None of them is any good. I’m not going to have it. I’m just not going to have it. That child isn’t going to learn a thing.” Over and over she went.
“Oh, for God’s sake, what do you want?” My father snarled using his usual tactic of intimidation. This was the constant dynamic in my family. My mother would screech and scream their complaint, finally wearing my father down. He would explode and either give her what she wanted or detonate in a rage causing a blanket of silence to fall over the house for several days. He was capitulating early this time. I was surprised.
“I’m going to put her in my classroom next year.” my mother gloated.
My blood turned to ice. All my mother ever dreamed had finally come true. She must have found out how happy I was with Mrs. King. Hated at home, and she was going to see to it that I was hated at school as well.
Second grade passed in a blur. There was nowhere to turn for help. My mother perched herself upon a wooden teacher’s throne, exuding power and total control. Now, not only could she beat me at home, she could beat me all day long at school. And this time, she had an audience of twenty pairs of eyes to witness my shame. The principal had no idea what was going on. Besides, she was my mother, she could do whatever she wanted, and she took the opportunity to focus special attention on me.
She made sure the classroom knew how stupid I was. I did bad work. I had bad handwriting. I couldn’t behave. I was wicked, dumb, and lazy. In fact, on all counts, I was the worst kid in the classroom. I was trash. Worse than trash. I did not deserve to live. All the terrible things my mother did to me during the years I was under her thumb at home happened all day long at school.
Suddenly, my worksheets became indecipherable, confusing symbols. I could not understand the simplest directions or make sense of the math problems. Reading became difficult and nothing, nothing would ever be the same. The joy I felt with Mrs. King faded away never to return. I lay my head on my desk in defeat. My mother won. No matter what I did, my mother was always going to come out on top. For the rest of my academic career throughout high school, I was a strong D student. I graduated—just barely.
Let’s take a step back and ponder the pattern occurring in this story from my childhood. Look at the absolute genius of my mother. It is a perfect example of covert abuse. Placing me in the role of scapegoat, she was able to create and justify all of my shortcomings and thus, her abuse. And she did it in a public way without any reasonable adult the wiser. In fact, because no one ever intervened, in my childish mind, I was sure everything she said about me was true. I had no other experience to measure her lies and abuse against.
Roles in family systems follow a pattern. When you see the pattern emerge, you are able to bring understanding and change. I’d like to answer two questions regarding patterns. How do abusers do it? And why do abusers do it?
How Abusers Commit Covert Abuse
The how. Dysfunctional and narcissistic parents divide and conquer by placing family members into different roles. In my family, my father was the head narcissist and the only person allowed to show anger. My mother was borderline histrionic and mentally ill. Both enabled each others’ behavior. Both focused their main attack on my older brother and I. My father set himself up as the “good” parent but in truth, he was the puppeteer. My mother was designated as the problem and the family orbited around this narrative.
The following are just some of the usual roles found in abusive family systems. They can overlap and apply to children as well as adults. This is just a general guideline.
The Scapegoat– The child placed in the role of scapegoat, as seen in the story above, is chosen to carry the toxic feelings and emotions of the parent. It is a way to distract from or take responsibility for, their own problems and behaviors. It empowers the narcissistic parent and gives them the control and the narcissistic supply which they so crave.
The Caretaker– Also known as the enabler or martyr, the caretaker tries to keep everybody happy. Constantly picking up the pieces, the caretaker child (and sometimes the adult) stands in the way of the dysfunctional family ever facing the truth or the adults ever taking responsibility for their actions.
The Hero- To the untrained eye, the hero looks well-balanced and successful. Seeking to be perfect and to gain high achievement, the hero seeks to calm the dysfunction within the family. To outsiders, the hero confirms the idea that all is well.
The Mascot– The mascot serves as a sort of joker in the family. Using humor to distract from dysfunction, the mascot performs and tries to please and diffuse the situation before the parents have a blow-up or things get out of control.
The Lost Child – In this role, an attempt is made to disappear. By fading into the background, this child tries to find safety by hiding. Parents use both the hero role and the lost child as proof of how wonderful the family is doing. The lost child never causes any trouble.
The Golden Child– Similar to the hero, the golden child is chosen to carry all the positive traits of the family. Especially seen within narcissistic systems, the golden child can do no wrong, but love is always given conditionally and the role is not as positive as one might think. It is filled with fear and anxiety. Never being seen for who they really are, which is the case for all these roles, this behavior destroys a child’s sense of self, their emotional life, and the way they see themselves in the world. It has life-altering consequences.
Why Parents Abuse Their Children
The why. This is one of the hardest questions a survivor of chronic childhood trauma will ever try to answer. Why would a parent treat their own child this way? The simple answer? People resort to abusive behavior in order to avoid dealing with their own emotional turmoil. And it does not stop when the child grows up. Abusers continue to demand adult children continue in the same broken patterns using blackmail and manipulation to ensure that they do. Oftentimes, the only way to stop the abuse and begin to heal is to leave the system altogether and cut off all contact.
Coming to a place where your heart’s belief embraces the truth is a life-long journey. It is the very essence of what it means to defy trauma. You had nothing to do with the family problems and you have no power to fix them. The only power you have is over yourself. The only change you can affect is to change the present—to heal, and to embrace joy for yourself. Come with me on this journey about relationships as we break the patterns of the past and finally find the way to who we were truly meant to be. Defy trauma, and embrace joy.
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Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four.