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The Disempowered Child: Patterns of Dysfunction within the Family System - PART II

Part I of this series delved into the inner landscape of falsely empowered children and the dysfunctional cycle that is co-created with the primary caregiver. Part II will shed light on disempowering abuse and the shame that is carried by the children who experience it.

Disempowered children are shamed by their parents either covertly or overtly. In overt disempowerment, children are directly pointed at and shamed into feeling “less than” or “worthless” in some way. This is probably the deepest wounding form of trauma, as it leaves the child with an inherent sense of inadequacy and defectiveness. In adulthood, those who were raised with messages of being “not good enough” will find it almost impossible to generate a healthy sense of value and worth from within, even if they reach highest successes on the outside. As adults, these children often find themselves overreacting to simple, everyday occurrences and experiencing excessive feelings for any given challenging situation. Normal human feelings of anger, shame, and/or fear become so magnified that these adults are in a constant state of hyper-arousal and anxiety. They often engage in a pattern of dysfunctional, enmeshed relationships of codependence.

The other type of trauma is covert disempowerment, when children experience neglect and/or abandonment. Stressed parents who are overwhelmed by life and responsibilities feel they do not have time to parent their children, and, as a consequence, turn their backs on them. Neglectful parents unconsciously do so on the premise that they are “sacrificing for their children’s well-being”, but their children process their insecure attachments to their parents by internally viewing themselves as “unworthy of love”. These children do not see the inadequacies of their parents or their toxic acts, but rather view themselves as deficient in their own whole being. The message the covertly disempowered child receives is that he/she is worthless – not even worthy of the parent’s attention and love. The role assigned to this child is the Lost Child – one who will lead an adult life “in hiding”.

Lost children grow up into adults who follow the path of “contained living”. They symbolically occupy little physical space in relationship dynamics and in their immediate environments, and they prefer to get high on fantasy. They choose to shut down the “defective self” and invent a self that is designed to be “morally good” and “productively perfect” to win others’ acceptance ad accolades. At the same time that these children are earning their value by being “perfect”, they are faced with a deep-rooted fear of being worthless. With a lost sense of self, these children navigate though life with a deep sense of shame, trying to keep their masked worthlessness and falsities from being discovered by others.

Whatever trauma a child experiences in earlier years – whether disempowering, falsely empowering, or a combination of the two – the child is left with a fractured sense of self. Without developing an inherent sense of self-worth, children carry their wounds and their adaptive roles (“lost child”, hero/heroine”, “savior”, etc.) into adulthood, falling into cycles of poor relationships, lack of intimacy, and debilitating unconscious fears.

If in life we can learn to identify the internal voices of our wounding that get triggered in relationships, then we are able to reclaim our authentic selves and to mature in our relationships. Only when we re-write the script of the unconscious patterns will we stand a chance at successful connection and intimacy. This is when we begin to live life authentically, true to our nature.

Living authentically is about changing the narrative that has been placed inside our heads by our immature, unknowing parents. As we begin to understand this, we become acquainted with a mature, adult voice that can mediate our inner voices, celebrate our authenticity, and embrace our imperfections. This discovery of the functional, mature adult voice within us gives us the peace that we all seek inherently and returns us to a place of self-worth and “wholeness”.

But before the functional adult voice emerges, we need to identify the stage(s) of development the trauma was triggered and to summon the “hidden” aspect(s) of the self at each stage. This will be the subject of subsequent parts in this series.

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