Though I definitely grew up in an abusive household, it was only within the last year or so that I attached the word “abuse” to my upbringing. This realization brought on a cocktail of emotions, including pain, anger, sadness and perhaps most devastating — confusion. How did I not know I was abused?
Recently, I heard perfect metaphor to describe why I was likely unaware. It’s known as the “boiling frog” metaphor. Essentially, if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will instinctively jump out. But if the frog is put into room temperature water then brought to a boil gradually, it won’t recognize the danger, will continue to adjust to the heat and slowly get cooked.
The abuse I experienced growing up was so gradual that it “snuck up” on me. When the temperature of the abuse got hotter, I adjusted. When it got hotter again, I adjusted again. It was only in adulthood that I realized just how detrimental my home environment had been.
I share my experience because unfortunately, I’m not the only one who has lived through childhood abuse. There are many factors that contribute to why children may not recognize they are being abused until they are adults — and it’s important we shed light on the reasons why this might happen. To open up this discussion, we asked our Mighty community to share one thing that kept them from realizing they were being abused. Below, you can read their responses.
Here are some reasons you may not have realized you lived through childhood abuse:
1. You grew up in a well-to-do family.
“We were well-off, so everyone made sure to tell me how grateful I should be. I assumed the emptiness in me was my fault. After all, I should be grateful, so it couldn’t have been my parents, right? It wasn’t until I was adult that I even learned what emotional neglect was and am just wrapping my head around the role it’s played.” — James N.
“Money. The assumption is that rich families must be well-adjusted and good families and that a rich childhood means a very good one. When any wealthy child I knew growing up started showing mental health problems, they were labelled as being spoiled, ungrateful, high-strung, type A, etc. It didn’t occur to anyone that abuse or neglect could occur within our private school community because well-off people just don’t do that sort of thing. Truth sadly is that abuse and neglect are common in wealthy families.” — Heather F.
2. It wasn’t all bad.
“The thing that kept me from realizing I was being abused so much was the fact that there were good times in between. It wasn’t all bad. The abuse, physical and emotional, was awful, but I still loved my dad and family and they still loved me as sick and weird as that sounds.” — Hali B.
“I wasn’t an adult, but a teenager. And because the physical had stopped and because there was a cycle with ‘honeymoon’ type periods, I thought it was because of me, because I wasn’t good enough or that it was out of ‘tough love.’” — Paula H.
3. The abuse wasn’t physical.
“My abuse wasn’t physical. I thought for a long time that physical abuse was the only kind of abuse, and since I wasn’t being beaten, it couldn’t have been that bad. Other people had it worse, so I told myself for a long time that I should just suck it up, and that I was being whiny.” — Katherine H.
“It wasn’t physical abuse. I was used to defining abuse as bruises and cuts, broken bones and visible scars; growing up, I thought it was just my parents being reasonably strict and making their expectations clear. In reality, they were making cuts and bruises on my heart, on my soul. The scars were there the whole time — I just didn’t know what to look for.” — Kristiina M.
“Dissociation… I blocked out almost all of my childhood. I lived my life through photo albums of our family. I made up stories to [go with] the pictures and I believed those stories were true. In my early 30s, I began having suppressed memories come back to me. I began to realize the stories of those pictures in the photo albums weren’t true. My childhood in reality was a far darker place. My mind protected my heart and soul through those pictures so I wouldn’t know what was really happening.” — Robin R.
“I developed dissociation as a coping mechanism at a very young age, and I used it to escape what was happening and hide those memories from myself.” — Jessa L.
5. You were isolated, so you didn’t realize the abuse was “abnormal.”
“Parents keeping me so isolated I assumed everyone was the same. Not to mention the threats if we did tell. Hindsight is always 20/20.” — Becky P.
“Seclusion. We were homeschooled in a church cult where everyone’s lives appeared to be the same as ours. There was no comparison to know that our ‘normal’ was extremely unhealthy and unsafe. There was no one looking out for us (family, school staff, medical professionals, etc).” — Hillary M.
“I wasn’t permitted over to other people’s homes, so I didn’t know it was abnormal. I didn’t truly grasp it until speaking with an internship supervisor when discussing a client’s case. She expressed sympathy and I was confused because it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.” — Lyndi J.
6. The abuse was normalized over many generations.
“The abuse was normalized over multiple generations in my family. My grandma abused my dad and mom (daughter-in-law), she abused me and my parents abused me. I didn’t have other regular sources of healthy relationships to look to to see it wasn’t normal, like a friend’s family or aunts/uncles because I was introverted, depressed and isolated myself all the time. I rarely hung out with friends outside of school hours and only saw extended family occasionally. I didn’t learn until my late 20s that my whole childhood was filled with abuse. To me it was normal and I thought this was how all families were.” — Kathryn R.
7. Your abuser sometimes apologized for their behavior.
“She would apologize sometimes, cry sometimes and I figured if they were really abusive, then they wouldn’t do either of those things. I didn’t think anyone could be such a good liar or so unstable as to be able to cry crocodile tears and say ‘sorry’ just to suck me back into the abuse. “ — Lexi R.
8. It made you feel special to be “so close” to your abuser.
“I assumed my being my mother’s ‘best friend’ was a positive thing. I realized after much therapy how ‘parentified’ I was and how emotionally incestuous she was. I filled the role of partner, friend, parent — everything. That’s not healthy for a child. Especially when some of the subjects discussed were hyper-sexual at a very young age. As a kid, I thought I was special. I never realized how it stifled my own personality and self.” — Monika S.
9. You couldn’t process it as a child.
“I think I always knew, but didn’t have the ability to process it until I was an adult. Once I was able to process and call it out for what it was, I was able to get the proper help to be able to deal with its consequences.” — Christopher C.
10. You were told it was just “discipline.”
“I was always told parents had a right to discipline their kids and that some kids had it worse than I did. If I wasn’t dying or bleeding, I was OK.” — Barbara L.
11. “Abuse” wasn’t in your vocabulary.
“‘Abuse’ was not in my vocabulary. I was perfectly aware that what was done to me was wrong. No one would challenge my abusers. Sometimes they wanted to join in. So. I was not worth saving.” — Sherry L.
12. You thought it was all “in your mind.”
“For me, I think it was all just in my mind. Despite everything I had gone through, I somehow convinced myself time and time again that my parents loved me. They had to love me right? They were my parents after all. And so many other people had it worse, so why would I complain? It’s still a hard pill to swallow, realizing they never did. Sometimes I feel vulnerable enough that if I saw my birth mom tomorrow and she apologized, I would let her walk right back in to my life.” — Rachel R.
13. You loved your abuser.
“Love. You’re often ‘blinded’ by love. Plus, being young and not knowing any better. If you grow up with something by seeing it and breathing it every day, it is all you know. It becomes the norm.” — Brittany J.