Why do children that grow up with Childhood Domestic Violence (CDV) develop the feeling of toxic shame?

Children who grow up with domestic violence (DV) often feel guilt and worse, shame. They grow up to have and accept guilt that they do not deserve. These children grow up thinking that what they experienced in their home was something they could have prevented. They may even blame themselves as the source of all violence and pain within the home.

But there is more than just the lingering guilt that many of these children will develop and grow up with. And that is Shame. Toxic Shame. Author John Bradshaw, in Healing the Shame That Binds You, breaks it down the best. He says:

“Abuse creates toxic shame – the feeling of being flawed and diminished and never measuring up. Toxic shame feels much worse than guilt. With guilt, you’ve done something wrong but you can repair that….With toxic shame there’s something wrong with you and there’s nothing you can do about; you are inadequate and defective.

Toxic shame is the core of a wounded child.”

Why does this toxic shame manifest in the first place?

A child facing DV has a developing brain. They do not have the realistic expectations of what an adult would think of with a more mature brain. They do not understand what they are experiencing and why they are not able to live up to what they think they should be living up to.

This is because that part of the brain that fully develops by the age of 7 or 8 is primarily that which serves emotion. It is several more years that the rationale is fully developed in a person. The inability for a child to control their own reason, let alone adults’ reason, leads to overwhelming feelings of guilt, and then shame.

It is this inability to prevent or change the violence that leads to high levels of stress. And when stress is not considered motivational stress or manageable stress that can be supported, it then becomes toxic.

With more adversity in childhood, that is continual, toxic stress can lead to mental and physical conditions starting in childhood. And more research is being produced that shows that a child’s brain will rewire itself whether they are the target of abuse or the one seeing it and feeling it. The impact on the developing brain patterns is the same!

The Truth and Lie about Toxic Shame

Why would a child feel guilty that they could not stop the violence? And why would they feel shame that they were so weak, or that there is something truly wrong with them in not being able to change anything?

As simple as it may seem, this is the lie of toxic shame for a child of DV. And for many adults who grew up with CDV, these feelings will linger, impacting their ability for peace and contentedness, knowing something is not right, even if they can’t label it.

The battering of toxic stresses on a child’s body and brain, these stresses not even an adult should have to endure, rewires the brain, causing the child’s life views and perspective, even reason, to be manipulated.

But there is a truth and as simple as the solution could be for many, it is yet life transforming. Adults and children alike, need to hear and need to reiterate, be it in therapy or with someone who cares about them, or simply to themselves, this truth: it is never the fault of a child when adults fight.

The guilt you feel or have felt is false. You are stronger and more courageous than most children have ever had to be. The shame you felt, or still feel is the lie- there is not and was not anything wrong with you growing up in this home.

Greater awareness on a national level is needed

Toxic stress and shame in childhood has an impact on society. Without the reversal or mitigation of these in children, mental and physical health can be impaired into adulthood, impacting every aspect of an adult’s ability to thrive in the aftermath of their toxic childhood.

Fortunately, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatricians are taking notice that prevention and mitigation has to be accomplished by working in a multi-pronged approach with policy makers and social service providers. At the Center for Healthy, Resilient Children at AAP, the center will take data on toxic stress and incorporate it into medial practice and policy, while building collaborations with education and social service sectors. Read more about how AAP is changing how physicians help their patients tackle toxic stress.

Adults can recover and thrive after a childhood of toxic shame 

You grew up living in a home with domestic violence. You lived with toxic stress for years, which led to toxic shame. Perhaps now, you are finally discovering that you are not alone in your sense of shame and that there truly is nothing wrong with you because you couldn’t stop the violence.

Action is freedom made visible. Freedom is not something you can actually see, but those who are free – free of guilt and shame – choose to use their freedom to take action in ways that move them closer toward their full potential.

~ Brian F. Martin, founder of Childhood Domestic Violence Association

Take action, move forward, work on getting over regrets, make changes and try new things in life. This is the first step in moving past a life lived with toxic shame and shedding the lies that you held for so long.

Self-expression and sharing can help release shame – there are degrees of sharing such as writing a story – consider sending us your story and be our next CDV Champion. We have followers that respect and thrive from sharing this common journey, this journey that starts with childhood and doesn’t always end there.

But even if you do not share your story publicly, journaling in private is a great step to self-healing and self-discovery. A caring therapist that you can share your journaling with, can also be part of the healing process.

Share Your Story!

More Ideas to help your path to healing

Although awareness, self-expression and sharing your story are very important, there are also some other things you can do. Therapy may be the most helpful for many adults. If you don’t know where to start, first talk to your doctor.

Talkspace therapist, Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW stresses what may seem obvious. But for those that have been living with toxic stress or shame, will likely find the reminders helpful:

1. Take care of yourself. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet will go a long way toward combating stress and boosting immunity.

2. Forge healthy relationships. Having a good support system with positive friends and family members is, arguably, one of the best things you can do to fight the effects of toxic stress syndrome.

3. Focus on things you can control. Feeling out of control contributes to stress. Instead of dwelling on stressful events, focus on positive things in your life and take action where you can.

And lastly, visit our library at cdv.org to find  more helpful blogs and stories about CDV, toxic stress and more.