Written by Dr. Joannie DeBrito, Family Support Specialist
We live in a broken world, and that brokenness often begins in the family. Patterns of addiction, abuse, sexual immorality, greed, and selfishness can start within family relationships and be passed on from generation to generation and transferred to the greater culture at large.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. God desires for us to live in unity with one another and to forgive one another.
A member of the Legacy Coalition team recently expressed concern about some friends who were struggling with their children and grandchildren. She felt that the problems were rooted in some hurts and wounds the grandparents brought from their childhood years and had never dealt with.
In this two-part blog, Dr. Joannie DeBrito shares her story of how she was able to let go of some emotional baggage she brought from her childhood and have meaningful relationships with her children and grandchildren.
In this post, Dr. Joannie will share her story up to the point of leaving home.
I look back fondly on my childhood with gratitude and the realization that I came from a good family and had many enriching experiences that other children didn’t have.
My parents and grandparents brought me up in church and encouraged me to trust and believe in God. That represents about 70 percent of my childhood, for which I will be eternally grateful.
However, as is the case with many adults, some very painful aspects of my young life account for about 30 percent of my early years. (Let me acknowledge right here that I am aware that for many people, those percentages are reversed with 70% or more of their lives being painful and only 30% or less made up of fond memories.)
To begin with, I was born into a family with three older brothers. Additionally, our first neighborhood was full of more boys than girls. Therefore, I spent much of my early years alone. My brothers weren’t lining up to play with their little sister, and my mother was not particularly engaged.
This instilled in me a feeling of often being left out, a sense that maybe something was wrong with me that would make others not want to be around me, and a sensitivity to any perceived rejection.
To compensate, I learned to be friendly and engaging so I had a lot of friends at school. However, whenever I was left out for any reason- usually just a casual oversight- I was deeply hurt and experienced the lack of inclusion as a deep wound to my soul and a good reason to isolate myself for a few days.
Then, once I began to change and develop at about 11 years of age, my mother started to attack me with a barrage of criticism, daily. I wasn’t tall enough, thin enough, cute enough, popular enough, smart enough, or good enough in any way, in her opinion. She compared me to my peers after learning about them from her friends in bridge clubs and other social groups.
Mom let me know how inferior I was to them. This constant exposure to verbal abuse resulted in me becoming very reclusive as I began to believe my mother’s perceptions of me.
In elementary school, I had been a student leader, got very good grades, and was known for being kind to my classmates, always sticking up for kids who were being bullied. However, my mother’s critical remarks caused a blow to my self-confidence, and at one point, I thought that I needed to distance myself from my peers so my defective parts did not damage anyone else.
By the time I graduated high school, I likely qualified as depressed.
Power of Words
However, I kept from sinking into a deep pit of despair because of the compensating positive comments I received from my father, a brother who made me feel special, and a youth leader at church.
This youth leader- without disparaging my mother- presented her perception of me and God’s likely picture of me that was closer to what I believed about myself than my mother’s descriptions. Looking back at pictures and recorded comments from my friends through my high school years, I realize now that I was an attractive young girl, although slightly rounder than some of my peers, and well-liked.
My mother’s criticism, however, had resulted in a very distorted view of myself. At times, she also teetered on the edge of physical abuse, frequently slapping my hand if I made a mistake when working on homework, cooking, or trying to master a new skill. Honestly, though, the slaps never hurt as deeply as the verbal abuse.
Thankfully, during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I spent some time living in Denmark as a foreign exchange student. Then right after graduation, I went off to college in Colorado.
In both experiences, people responded to me differently than my mother had. They pointed out my strengths and encouraged me to work on developing them. I also began to hear other family members confront my mother about how inappropriate her interactions were with me.
Over time, I began to realize that I wasn’t so bad after all.
On a few occasions, while home on breaks from college, I heard my father and uncle yelling at my mother and telling her to stop berating me. In my adult years, I have learned that several people who had observed the verbal abuse I endured tried to get my mother to stop, but those conversations just seemed to make her criticize me more.
Therefore, once I left home, I vowed to find ways to spend time with my father and stay out of my mother’s way so as not to give her any more fuel for her verbal attacks.
I began to resent my mother, and that was disturbing to me because I didn’t want to go through life having a distant relationship with her.
I recognized that my mother had contributed many positive things to my life, despite the verbal abuse. She taught me to make good decisions and to have a very practical approach to life. My mother had been a music teacher and in between slaps of my hand, she had provided some good tutoring on the piano and had arranged for me to take violin lessons from her college roommate.
She showed me the value of volunteer work and the importance of living out my faith in service to others. She was also very bright, and she often impressed me with her intelligence and challenged me to never stop learning.
There was this odd contradiction- the daily criticism and the occasional message that I had gifts that I should take the chance to develop. For several years, I vacillated between having intense anger toward my mother and being grateful for her good contributions to my life.
Do you see how painful experiences like these could affect other relationships? What are some of the painful experiences you may have experienced in your childhood? Could they be affecting your current relationship with your family?
In Part 2 of this blog, Dr. Joannie shares how she realized her desire to stop the cycle of abuse and move toward healing relationships.
Editor’s Note: If you are struggling with relationship issues, consider joining with other grandparents for times of prayer. Christian Grandparenting Network has many resources on prayer as well as how to start a Grandparents at Prayer group in your church.