What is it about the abuse of a child that twists and stunts their emotions for life? I know that it does, but why does it? Why does an imbalanced relationship in a time of vulnerability hamper us decades later? Why does neglect in childhood make it difficult to share tenderness as an adult? Why are sexually abused children uncomfortable sharing intimacy later in life even with those they love?
I always thought it was a simple case of putting up walls for self protection. When trust or love is violated children learn quickly and horribly that vulnerability is dangerous so they lock their feelings in a vault to protect themselves against future abuse. By the time they grow older, the feelings have been locked away for too long. They want their feelings to emerge, but they can’t find the key.
This makes sense, but it can’t be the entire answer. If the problem was merely finding the key it wouldn’t be so difficult for so many to find it. The problem is much deeper than identifying a way out. Abused children often don’t even know they have feelings, they have never experienced them. They need to learn from scratch how to produce and manage emotional output.
Children require nurture. The love that they receive from those they trust builds their sense of self. The trust that they receive from those they love builds their self esteem. The nurture builds their confidence and allows their feelings to flourish. Under its warm treatment their emotions mature and they learn how to allocate them correctly.
This is the role of parents and teachers. But, when children are used as a source of nurture for the very people from whom they seek nurture the entire paradigm collapses and the child is simply robbed. In every instance of abuse, the abusers steal what they need from the victim. The abuser might need to dominate and uses the victim to that end. The abuser might need to express love and foists it on the victim. The abuser might need to express rage and uses the victim as a punching bag.
The pain inflicted is bad enough. It causes the victim to build up walls that take years to come down. But the reversal of roles is far more harmful because it reaches much more deeply. The child is not ready to offer nurture, comfort and succor to the adult in need. On the contrary, the child needs all that from the adult. When adults help themselves to the child by force, it amounts to emotional rape, stunting whatever nascent emotions the child might possess.
Abuse can even take the guise of love. Love given because the giver feels the need to give it rather than because the child has a need, to receive it, is a form of abuse. The message that no child should ever receive is that he / she is there to serve the adult’s needs. It is the single most abusive message a child can receive and one with the longest lasting impact no matter what form the abuse takes. Whether it is innocent or angry, loving or violent, the child is used and abused.
The Timing of A Promise
This helps us understand a curious segment of Jewish history. After our ancestors worshipped the Golden Calf, G-d came down hard on them. Moses destroyed the calf and rebuked the people. Those, who participated, were roundly punished. Moses played the stern leader filled with righteous wrath.
Then we read of a sudden pivot. Moses begs G-d to forgive the Jews and G-d does. This, in and of itself, is not unusual. It is the next part that surprises us. Moses asks G-d to promise that He will never abandon the Jews and that He would distinguish them from all other nations. In effect Moses asks G-d to promise that He will never exchange the Jews for anyone else.
It is sufficient that G-d consented to forgive, but was this the right time to ask for an undying commitment? Did the Jews really deserve Divine assurances after their sin? Moses should have asked for this at Sinai when the Jews were in a far more deserving state. Why Now?
The Nature of Religion
The relationship between G-d and human in organized religion is centered on G-d, not us. The driving force of religious worship is to ask not what we can get from G-d, but what G-d might want from us. It is not about what we need, but about what G-d wants. If we approach religion with expectations of self gain, we will certainly fail. Religion teaches existential truths and we must adapt ourselves to them.
Religion demands that we align our priorities with those of G-d. It prompts us to realize a higher ideal and believe that creation is best served when it is in harmony with G-d. This attitude does little to nurture our sense of self. If anything it draws us away from ourselves and draws our attention to G-d.
Yet, if we introduce religion this way to our children it can be disastrous. In youth we teach our children the rewards and benefits of religion. We show them that G-d is good for them. It is only in adulthood that we begin to talk about setting selfhood aside and aspiring to something higher. Should we introduce this in childhood it might stunt the child’s ability to relate to G-d and to appreciate the warmth and tenderness in His relationship with us.
When our ancestors worshipped the Golden Calf they were in national infancy. They had committed a terrible sin and were justly punished, but it was critical at this point, immediately after the punishment, to point out that G-d loves us unconditionally and that He would never abandon us for anyone else.
A child receives this reaffirming message with an open heart and with glowing affection. No matter that the child was just disciplined, the parent’s declarations of nurture, love and commitment, melt the child’s heart, dry the child’s tears and erase the anxious concern about the future.