In the struggle to care for herself, one student overcomes internal and external turmoil to generate positive self-perception.
For legal and ethical reasons, “The Rock” has made the following sophomore student source anonymous.
Since the sophomore was 13-years-old, her life has been a roller coaster of unexpected twists, hairpin turns and sudden drops, leaving her feeling like she lost her stomach somewhere along the tracks.
For much of the 10th grader’s childhood, her parents dealt with addiction and substance abuse. Two years ago, when her family situation became too unstable for her and her two younger brothers to handle, she moved into her grandparents’ house. While her family is hectic but loving, frequently spending time together, she said her mother and father isolate themselves.
Her parents, who argued more than normal, lived together for about 10 years after their divorce because she said they wanted their children to feel as if they “grew up with a family.” During this time she said her father was arrested following an altercation between him and her mother. He went to jail for a couple nights after her mother said he tried to hit her with his car, though nothing further came of the incident.
“There would be times where my dad would be super great. I’d want to go hang out with him. We’d have stuff that we did together. He’d take my brothers places,” she said. “And then there’d be other days where it was a complete downfall. He was just sleeping all the time. He didn’t want to do anything with us. He would say, like, ‘Oh, I can’t be here.’ He’d leave and have these random outbursts just at anybody who was around and would get super paranoid that we all thought he was a bad person.”
At the time she did not recognize the effects of drug use in her father. She recalls his visiting her grandparents and, after he left, they would explain to her he was high, not a “normal, tired, grumpy end-of-the-day type funk” as she had believed. After witnessing how substance abuse affected her parents and family, she refuses to be around people who smoke or use drugs recreationally.
“[Living with my father] was almost like living on a roller coaster because everything was so up and down all of the time and you would walk in the door and you wouldn’t know what to do next, and everybody was kind of living on the edge of their seat wondering, ‘Is today the day to not have an attitude? Is today the day that it’s okay to have an attitude? Is it okay to ask for a snack, or is it not okay?'”
“I don’t want to be there whenever you have your bad days, which almost seems selfish,” she said. “But I don’t want to be there whenever you’re grumpy and groggy and can’t remember what you did the other night because that’s just not something that I want to deal with again, especially with kids my age.”
The sophomore’s mother eventually remarried, which, at first, created a more stable and positive environment for their family. Her new husband had more money than her ex-husband, so they lived in a nicer home and could afford more expensive possessions. While she said her stepsisters were great, her stepfather had been in jail before for “drug related issues” and would say “really awful things” to the entire family. Afterward, he would try to cover up his actions, she said. It got to the point where her stepfather would insult and maltreat her mother.
She remembers her mother constantly being upset with him. Her new situation was “almost like living with a bully, but all the time.” Instead of escaping an unstable environment, she had simply been relocated to another arena of anxiety.
“Whenever he started abusing her, we would have to leave the house while the police were there, and we’d come back and he’d be there the next day,” the sophomore said. “So very, like, still the same type of situation where you don’t know what the next 24 hours of your life are going to be like.”
The police came more than once, the 10th grader said, to make sure the family was all right. They would ask her simple questions about the night’s events then file a police report. Sometimes they offered her mother suggestions for creating a safety plan and recommended her family stay somewhere else for a while.
Though the sophomore does not know the extent of the abuse, she said her mother once received a concussion from the man after he threw her down. Sometimes he would hit and bruise her mother. At one point her mother said she was unable to come see her children because “her face was deformed,” but the sophomore is unsure if her mother’s explanation was actually the case.
“It was just really rough because I have two little brothers, and I was their mom. They see my mom as their mother, but they come to me for, like, help getting dressed in the morning, and I woke them up for school, and I did all those things with them. And it was just really wearing down on me,” she said. “And later, whenever I told my grandparents, ‘I don’t want to live in a situation where the police are being called all the time,’ my mom would call me a liar and just things like that, that really weren’t okay to tell your kids, especially about that type of situation. So my grandparents saw it most fit that we don’t live with [my parents] anymore.”
Often the oldest sibling in the home will take on the role of a parent in the house if no one else is acting like a parent, Jennie Bedsworth said. Bedsworth is the owner of The Counseling Palette and a licensed clinical social worker specialising in providing therapy for trauma and post-traumatic stress. Bedsworth said in these situations one sibling will step up to “feed everybody and take care of things” if adults are not meeting these needs. Without a strong system of support and structure, children can have problems self-regulating what is acceptable, and when, as adults.
“As you’re growing up you’re learning sort of how to self-discipline, and when you’re a kid it’s your parent that says, ‘Don’t have that second bowl of ice cream,’ or ‘Don’t stay out too late.’ And as you get older you sort of become your own adult self making those decisions,” Bedsworth said. “But if you didn’t grow up with somebody teaching you that structure, then that can be really hard to do when you get older. So that can affect people as adults, too.”
“I didn’t get to have the great relationship with my parents that some kids did when they were little, and I also, especially now in high school, I don’t want to talk to my grandparents about things I would talk to my parents [about]. But I also know I can’t talk to my parents about those things.”
The transition to living with her grandparents was simple because her family used to live down the street from them. The sophomore said whenever an argument would happen at her house, she would just walk up the road to stay with them until the fighting ended. Because of her close relationship with her grandparents, the 10th grader described changing homes like “moving in with a best friend” rather than a couple of unfamiliar acquaintances.
“I think that I missed out on a lot of things [not being raised by only my parents],” she said. “I didn’t get to have the great relationship with my parents that some kids did when they were little, and I also, especially now in high school, I don’t want to talk to my grandparents about things I would talk to my parents [about]. But I also know I can’t talk to my parents about those things.”
Once the sophomore decided she was no longer able to live with her mother, she said her aunt, uncle and grandparents immediately became the best support system they could and did their best to help her. After realizing she needed assistance from people outside of her family, the 10th grader told some of her friends about her situation. She talked to her counselor at school and to other therapists, finding people who “understood what was going on and were there to listen” rather than tell her what to feel.
“I rely heavily on my grandparents to kind of be there for me when I need them to be, and I go to therapy once a week, and I try to keep as tight of a family connection as I can, which other people might say is weird, because I love spending time with my family,” she said. “I surround myself with my brothers, my aunt and uncle. We go on family trips, and I just constantly want to be around them, so they can be the reminder that I still do have people who care about me.”
Prior to moving in with her grandparents, the sophomore said her mother’s words would “make you scared that she was going to hit you.” While she said her mother “smacked” or “slapped” her a few times, she does not consider that behavior abusive because for her it is not comparable to “kids on other levels.” When these interactions occurred, however, the 10th grader said, they made her immediately not want to be around her mother. The sophomore never came to school with bruises, though she said she did feel the mental effects afterward. One instance in particular stood out. When she was younger, she said she pushed her brother, so her mother pushed her back as an attempt to hurt her daughter as much as the sophomore had hurt her brother, something the 10th grader considered to be a “revenge type tactic” to some extent.
“Whenever I was living with my mom, and she had just came into my room and totally, like, gone off and was yelling all these awful things at me and raising her hand as if she was gonna hit me and was just super awful and just saying these horrendous things that, it almost sounded like the things that you see in commercials that cyberbullies say, that nobody actually says in real life to your face,” she said.
In Bedsworth’s experience, children are able to grow up in an unsafe or unhealthy environment but “legitimately don’t know that things are wrong.” Sometimes it is not until they begin staying at other people’s houses that they see their circumstances are not what the average family is like. As children age, she said they sometimes awaken to the realization that their mother’s or father’s behavior “wasn’t actually okay,” but until that point they were unaware their situation could have been any different.
“Think of [it] like raising a little puppy, and it’s only been around you its whole life, then it’s not going to know what’s right or wrong. It’s just gonna know how you treat it. So it’s kind of the same with families,” Bedsworth said. “Like, we just know what we are exposed to. And then the other thing that happens sometimes is it’s really hard to admit, like, ‘Hey, my mom abused me,’ or ‘My dad abused me,’ and then you look at them differently, and then you might start to kind of question your relationship with them, and that’s really complicated and really hard. And so that doesn’t come super easy.”
How the sophomore’s mother and father treated her growing up decimated her confidence and self-esteem. She asks for forgiveness profusely, internalizes her mistakes and avoids negative interactions whenever possible. Often, the sophomore will apologize when asking for assistance or refuse to seek help entirely for fear of being rejected or angering someone for speaking her mind.
“[Living with my father] was almost like living on a roller coaster because everything was so up and down all of the time and you would walk in the door and you wouldn’t know what to do next,” she said. “And everybody was kind of living on the edge of their seat wondering, ‘Is today the day to not have an attitude? Is today the day that it’s okay to have an attitude? Is it okay to ask for a snack, or is it not okay?’”
Often times parents will help children to make the decision to try new things and gain confidence, Bedsworth said. Pre-teens, teenagers and adults typically learn what they enjoy without parental guidance. For young adults who grew up with little or no consistent structure or support system because of parental neglect or abuse, however, Bedsworth said they will question their own actions and blame themselves for their situations.
“Sometimes people will turn on themselves and start saying, ‘Oh, my parents weren’t there for me because there’s something wrong with me,’ or, ‘I should have been more helpful,’ or, ‘I shouldn’t have complained,’ or, ‘I shouldn’t have had my problems,’” Bedsworth said. “And then we start to kind of turn on ourselves, which isn’t helpful ‘cause it’s never, never the child’s fault what’s going on.”
After 14 years of living with instability, the sophomore said she still gets scared when people raise their hand or their voice, a jarring reminder of her past. The emotional and psychological effects of her experiences did not go away after a few months without maternal contact, and two years later they are still present.
“I just want people to know that that’s something that does happen and that’s something that I just kind of have to deal with,” she said. “And I can’t just say, ‘Oh, sorry. I’ll stop.’ I have to keep going with that.”
To better understand her circumstances and to not allow them to define her, the sophomore worked with a therapist who helped her understand her emotions are valid. Instead of allowing her childhood to dictate her character, she recognizes she cannot deal with people yelling or being aggressive and hateful. While part of her internal identity is intertwined with her past, she thinks other people see her in a different light.
“I wish I could have told my parents that they are worth more than [how they acted].”
“I wish I could have told my parents that they are worth more than [how they acted]. Because, like, I wouldn’t want to tell them that they could do better because they know that they could do better, but I almost want to tell them, ‘You are better than a drug addict and a woman who won’t leave her abusive husband.’ And they both deserved so much more than they got because of their own situations,” she said. “And because of them thinking they were not worth more than drug addiction and not worth more than abuse, then we weren’t worth more than that. So it was kind of like if they would have thought of themselves as worth more, we would have thought of ourselves as worth more.”
The sophomore learned to tell her family when they upset her and to recognize she can “come home at the end of the day grumpy.” After living in an unstable home for so many years, she is still learning positive coping mechanisms for when she feels stressed or overwhelmed. To develop past the point she was at two years ago, the 10th grader took control of her mental and emotional health. While growing up she was depressed because her parents were not a present support system for her, she understands there continue to be other people in her life who step up to fill those long empty shoes.
“If the parents are very distracted by the drugs or alcohol, then they might not have given the support that the child needed growing up,” Bedsworth said. “So there may have been some issues with physical or emotional neglect or even physical abuse because sometimes people under the influence can become violent.”
Each form of abuse has its own physical, emotional and psychological ramifications. Carlos Rivera with Ocean Breeze Recovery, an addiction rehabilitation center, wrote neglect is when a caregiver fails to provide for a child’s needs: basic care, love and support, appropriate moral and legal guidance, adequate supervision and control. The effects and extent of abuse can vary greatly, though its presence may potentially lead to PTSD or substance abuse later in one’s life.
“I was at my grandparent’s house and everything was kind of escalating and my emotions were out of control, and I told my dad that I really needed him there and that he really needed to stay, and I really need the support for the time being, and he just said, ‘No. I can’t do that,’ and left and didn’t turn around whenever I asked for help,” she said. “It almost made me feel like I was unimportant at the time, like my emotions didn’t matter. I was just a little kid that was sitting on the couch crying. I almost felt like I wasn’t there, like he didn’t hear me and had no reason to.”
The effects of any form of abuse depend on whether or not the person has access to the support he or she needs at the time, Bedsworth said. PTSD, which includes symptoms such as nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks and anxiety with social situations or crowds, can accompany abuse. How one’s situation affects him or her reflects the individual’s circumstances at the time.
“If people have ongoing symptoms like these, then that’s usually an indicator that they have post-traumatic stress. For other people it’s possible they could have had good support and help at the time, and so there may not be as many long-term effects,” Bedsworth said. “And then there are variations of effects on people. So some people might—let’s say they don’t have the nightmares or the post-traumatic stress, but they might still be sort of uncomfortable in relationships, or they might have other problems that affect their work or their life or their family.”
Her younger brothers’ tempestuous upbringing generated animosity between them and the idea of motherhood. The sophomore said there have been years when they did not want to celebrate Mother’s Day because of painful memories.
When she is older, she wants to have a family of her own. Living with her grandparents taught her the value of love and respect. Though she believes children should respect their parents, she thinks it is important for them to respect children in return. In her mind, a house should be filled with unconditional love rather than merely discipline and respect.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I can kind of teach [my siblings] that a mom is not just somebody who gave birth to you. A mom is somebody who cares for you and loves you and is gonna help you make your bed and help make breakfast in the morning for you,” she said. “And just seeing that their circumstances are not who they are but rather what makes them stronger.”
How has your past shaped who you are today? Let us know in the comments below.