Do People Abuse Because of Childhood Trauma?

Do People Abuse Because of Childhood Trauma?

Originally published July 21, 2021

There is an idea I have seen often in the pro-cancellation discourse that abusers don’t abuse because of childhood trauma but because of control and power alone. I believe this effort is taken to preserve a binary within the cancel culture framework of abusers and survivors as distinct categories, wherein abusers are bad and to be cast out to maintain a mythical safety for those who are labelled as the true survivors.

Were this binary to be disrupted, the logics surrounding who one should sympathize with and is worthy of our time and care would also be disrupted.

This idea that abusers were not actually victims of childhood abuse is something I believed for a long time, and since resources about what abuse is and how it functions are so sparse and subject to interpretation, trying to get a grip on what the root cause of abuse is is exceedingly difficult.

The understanding of abuse that I believe is the most thorough is one laid out by Dr. David Schnarch that weaves together frameworks of family systems theory and interpersonal neurobiology.

For Schnarch, the origin of abusive tendencies are rooted in a multitude of factors from genetic and environmental to yes, childhood trauma.

And to be explicit, this framework understands that children witnessing abuse is a form of child abuse, and is sufficient to create traumatic experiences for children.

The classic example given to demonstrate how interpersonal neurobiology works is to think of a lemon. Imagine in your mind biting into a lemon, and notice how your mouth puckers and you salivate.

You do not need to experience something firsthand to be impacted by it.

When we translate this idea to interpersonal relationships, we can begin to see how we are not only experiencing our relationships through our own lens, but through the lens of the other person as well. We experience the joys and sorrows of others via our own nervous system.

Now imagine a child growing up in a household with an abusive father, witnessing all of the dynamics at play but too young to understand them.

This creates something that Schnarch calls traumatic mind mapping.

Just as we create neural pathways in our brain through action of our own, we also lay down neural pathways in our brain through witnessing the actions of others.

It is in this way that children can witness abuse, manipulation, and power dynamics and go on to enact them themselves, even if they have no conscious recollection or recognition of having been abused directly as children.

However there is no doubt that witnessing this type of behavior is traumatic for children.

Putting aside the fact that, if a child were witnessing abusive behavior that is indicator enough that there are likely unsavory parent/child dynamics at play, witnessing abuse alone can create a phenomenon Schnarch calls “spaghetti brain.”

This is when a traumatic experience creates a neurological rupture in memory recall, where the true mind map of the abuser is irretrievable and separated from the narrative, objective recall of a memory.

This fracture and inability to recall an accurate mind map (that is, a mind map that can recognize something like: “hey, dad was actually getting pleasure out of making mom mad, and he was able to get what he wanted by making her feel crazy”) means that rather than motives being conscious and at the surface, they are buried.

The neural pathways to enact abuse are set, and without intervention and integration there is no conscious ability to understand where they came from and rectify them.

So do people abuse because of traumatic childhood experiences? In short, yes.

Do people abuse because they are seeking power and control? Yes, absolutely.

And to go one further: some people abuse because they get pleasure out of doing so.

The reality is that all of these things are true:

People who abuse are not monsters, they truly were children who were once victims themselves.

But they are also not innocently acting from a wounded child. They are also people who may be hungry for power, who may want to feel important, smarter, or better than someone else, or may derive pleasure from striking fear or causing pain in their victim.

People who abuse both need resources to understand and heal their trauma, and they need to be treated as adults who are responsible for their behaviors.

Do People Abuse Because of Childhood Trauma

Originally published July 21, 2021

There is an idea I have seen often in the pro-cancellation discourse that abusers don’t abuse because of childhood trauma but because of control and power alone. I believe this effort is taken to preserve a binary within the cancel culture framework of abusers and survivors as distinct categories, wherein abusers are bad and to be cast out to maintain a mythical safety for those who are labelled as the true survivors.

Were this binary to be disrupted, the logics surrounding who one should sympathize with and is worthy of our time and care would also be disrupted.

This idea that abusers were not actually victims of childhood abuse is something I believed for a long time, and since resources about what abuse is and how it functions are so sparse and subject to interpretation, trying to get a grip on what the root cause of abuse is is exceedingly difficult.

The understanding of abuse that I believe is the most thorough is one laid out by Dr. David Schnarch that weaves together frameworks of family systems theory and interpersonal neurobiology.

For Schnarch, the origin of abusive tendencies are rooted in a multitude of factors from genetic and environmental to yes, childhood trauma.

And to be explicit, this framework understands that children witnessing abuse is a form of child abuse, and is sufficient to create traumatic experiences for children.

The classic example given to demonstrate how interpersonal neurobiology works is to think of a lemon. Imagine in your mind biting into a lemon, and notice how your mouth puckers and you salivate.

You do not need to experience something firsthand to be impacted by it.

When we translate this idea to interpersonal relationships, we can begin to see how we are not only experiencing our relationships through our own lens, but through the lens of the other person as well. We experience the joys and sorrows of others via our own nervous system.

Now imagine a child growing up in a household with an abusive father, witnessing all of the dynamics at play but too young to understand them.

This creates something that Schnarch calls traumatic mind mapping.

Just as we create neural pathways in our brain through action of our own, we also lay down neural pathways in our brain through witnessing the actions of others.

It is in this way that children can witness abuse, manipulation, and power dynamics and go on to enact them themselves, even if they have no conscious recollection or recognition of having been abused directly as children.

However there is no doubt that witnessing this type of behavior is traumatic for children.

Putting aside the fact that, if a child were witnessing abusive behavior that is indicator enough that there are likely unsavory parent/child dynamics at play, witnessing abuse alone can create a phenomenon Schnarch calls “spaghetti brain.”

This is when a traumatic experience creates a neurological rupture in memory recall, where the true mind map of the abuser is irretrievable and separated from the narrative, objective recall of a memory.

This fracture and inability to recall an accurate mind map (that is, a mind map that can recognize something like: “hey, dad was actually getting pleasure out of making mom mad, and he was able to get what he wanted by making her feel crazy”) means that rather than motives being conscious and at the surface, they are buried.

The neural pathways to enact abuse are set, and without intervention and integration there is no conscious ability to understand where they came from and rectify them.

So do people abuse because of traumatic childhood experiences? In short, yes.

Do people abuse because they are seeking power and control? Yes, absolutely.

And to go one further: some people abuse because they get pleasure out of doing so.

The reality is that all of these things are true:

People who abuse are not monsters, they truly were children who were once victims themselves.

But they are also not innocently acting from a wounded child. They are also people who may be hungry for power, who may want to feel important, smarter, or better than someone else, or may derive pleasure from striking fear or causing pain in their victim.

People who abuse both need resources to understand and heal their trauma, and they need to be treated as adults who are responsible for their behaviors.

The reality of abuse is complex, and simplistic narratives will not serve us in creating a safer world for all.

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