It is the emotional pain we hold on to -- the time we had a fight with our best friend, the death of a grandparent, a broken engagement, perhaps the words and facial expression of a rejecting parent.
Most of us have a healthy forgetfulness when it comes to much of the physical pain we suffer, whether it is a pinched finger, a scraped elbow, or an emergency surgery. When it comes to emotions, though, the pain can haunt us forever.
Why? Probably because hurt feelings so often involve people we care about and whom we need to care about us. And our sense of worth as a person -- which is at the center of our whole-person health -- is almost totally dependent on the messages these people give us. If they tell us we are lovable and capable, we will probably grow up to be reasonably healthy and happy adults.
But if these people tell us we are unlovable and incapable, or tell us nothing at all, then we can grow up scarred for life. We will be convinced we can neither love nor be loved, that we will never be good enough.
That's why emotional abuse is so potent. It strikes at the very heart of who we are. Coming from parents, it is especially devastating to a child's developing self-concept.
Why, then, do parents -- often parents who sincerely love their children -- revert to emotional abuse? There are a number of possible reasons. I'll suggest just a few.
Some parents resort to emotional abuse simply because they were emotionally abused themselves. We first learn about how to discipline by being disciplined by our own parents. If we grew up with emotionally abusive language, we are likely to adopt it as one of our disciplining techniques as well.
A second reason may be our frustration at our inadequacies as parents. Sometimes we're going to feel totally overwhelmed by our kids. It's easy to get angry when that happens -- angry at ourselves for not being perfect parents, angry at our children for reminding us of our shortcomings. That anger can come out as abuse.
It is also possible that our abuse of our children has roots in our marital relationship. It is not uncommon for marital problems to get played out through children. We take out on our kids the frustration and anger we actually feel for our spouse.
Similarly, stress from outside can spill over into our family life. Job problems, conflict with friends or relatives, etc., can lead us to abusively vent our feelings on our children.
Sadly, some children are simply not wanted. Unplanned, unwelcome, such children often experience very real and intentional emotional abuse by their parents.
Finally, at the root of much of the hatred expressed by some parents toward children is their own self-hatred. When we feel unlovable and incapable ourselves, our self-loathing permeates all facets of our life, including the way we relate to our kids. Tragically, the emotional abuse that arises out of our own feelings of worthlessness serves to perpetuate these feelings in the generation to come.
There are a multitude of other reasons. What's important is to recognize that emotional abuse is a tragic and prevalent part of many families; that it can produce emotional scars that last a lifetime, and that it doesn't have to happen.
If abuse -- emotional or physical -- is part of your family, get help. A competent family therapist can help you get to the bottom of this family tragedy and work with you to undo much of the damage.
The longer you wait, however, the harder it will be. Get help today.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."