…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We love because he first loved us.
-1 John 4:19
The rejection of your children when they are hurting and clearly need you is a disturbing reality of trauma. All four sexual abuse victims in our home have taken small, and sometimes large, steps to ensure they communicate their lack of attachment to me and Joseph. It is heartrending, to the say the least.
In the beginning, Georgia showed the worst signs of it. She started by running, yes, running away from our car the moment we parked anywhere and needed to walk into a place as a family. Church, the grocery store, therapy, you name it she would burst from the car and either literally run or set a pace so fast that no one could catch her. Even when she and I went clothes shopping together as a mother-daughter special treat, she would not stand next to me for longer than absolutely necessary, and she never once entered and exited a store with me.
Olivia wasn’t as obvious about it, but it was just as hurtful. She began by avoiding eye contact. And then slowly it seeped into walking down to her room or going to bed without so much as a word. No goodnight. No “I love you.” Nothing. It finally settled into her telling me and Joseph that it didn’t matter whether we came to her cello recital. “It’s no big deal, so, whatever.” She practices cello for hours a day, takes private lessons, and is incredibly gifted. For her to dismiss our participation in her recitals was akin to a big fat slap in the face.
Nathan moped and told us, repeatedly, how no one loved him, no one liked him, no one wanted to spend time with him. No one. Joseph would take him for a ride on his motorcycle and upon their return Nathan would calmly say, “No one likes me.” In therapy, he spoke more and more about how hard it was to be the only boy in the entire family. When his counselor pointed out Joseph, Nathan replied by shrugging.
And then Asher. The pain of Asher’s rejection started long before he was sentenced. It didn’t matter how much we worked to provide him with a loving home, positive feedback, joyful experiences, consistent boundaries, or any of the umpteen million other devices we tried to use to communicate our honest love to our little boy. He yelled accusations of neglect and favoritism as soon as he was not getting his way. By the time he was arrested, we were overwhelmed with the pain of trying to reach out and convince this angry youth that we did not have it out for him.
Over the months of therapy, neurofeedback, and ongoing work with Georgia, Olivia, and Nathan we are beginning to see a turning.
You see, abuse in childhood speaks a lie to small people still developing their sense of self and place in the world. It tells them they are not valued and worthy of protection. It whispers the unspeakable – that they deserved this because of who they are. And what’s worse, they believe it. They believe it with every fiber of their being. So, when someone loves them, they steel themselves and remind their hearts that if we knew the truth we would never treat them with kindness. And when we discipline them, they accept it as proof that their fundamental personhood is bad.
Therefore, I don’t think it takes a tremendous amount of imagination to guess at the ramifications that a disclosure creates. Namely, that the truth, which was so ugly and horrific that it couldn’t ever be shared but that now is openly seen, creates a compulsion to push and test and try the extent of the love and acceptance put forth by parents or caregivers to clearly define either: the previously adopted assumption i.e., I’m worthless because, look, as soon as they found out about my shame, they abandoned my emotional needs; or, a new relationship model i.e., I can trust them, because they continue to show me unconditional love even in the face of my shame.
Obviously, it’s not a fair model. None of us enjoys having our devotion tested over and over again. Likewise, none of us appreciates being told we don’t care because we didn’t jump through enough hoops. However, rejection is not simply a two-sided coin with only these two options.
There is another side that can wreak havoc in nearly irreparable ways.
Most of us know by experience, or at least by anecdote, that cornering a frightened animal will end badly. It doesn’t matter that the dog is a cherished family pet whose picture is included on the family-portrait wall. The animal senses danger and all ability to perceive their reality with accuracy flies out the window – along with any training or control. Children under duress act much the same way as your cornered pet. They lash out with intensity lacking any capability to accurately assess the truth of a given situation. However, like the dog bite to the face, the resulting pain from these attacks is incredibly real even while the threat was wholly imagined.
We learned of the lies Asher was spreading about us when he was going through the evaluation process for his disposition. I received the first call from his p.o. (probation officer). She apologized for the awkwardness of her question, but proceeded to say she needed some clarification on a few items our son was bringing to the attention of his evaluators. Then asked if I could, “provide an explanation or reason for why we would strip Asher naked and then lock him outside during the winter (by the way, it snows where we live) as a punishment.”
I was flabbergasted.
I barely remember the rest of the phone call. I spluttered through my incredulity and expressed shock that he would even insinuate something so horrific. During our intake interview with our assigned case manager/social worker, we were providing family background and again a question came up, because Asher purported that Joseph threw him down a flight of stairs. And even upon our first introduction to the group of boys Asher would live with at JCF (Juvenile Corrections Facility), we were confronted with one of Asher’s peers asking us if it was true that we forced Asher to leave our house at dawn and not return until sunset each day with only a bottle of water and his bike.
The idea that we would do any of these things to Asher is terrible, wholly fabricated, and deeply painful. And it isn’t fair to the untold numbers of boys in JCF who do come from abusive, dysfunctional homes where these are not just vicious lies spread to convey a message of rejection but a reality lived. However, these are the things Asher is using to communicate to us that he is angry. He is hurting inside and doesn’t know how to express himself. He doesn’t understand our ongoing pursuit of him and, quite honestly, it would be easier for him if we pushed him away and told him how unloved and unwanted he was. Then he could accept the “fact” that he is worthless and “prove” that he can’t be expected to act any better than his most base self.
But we do love him. And we do want him.