Incest and the Traumagenic Family
What a horrifically challenging experience for a family to deal with! Someone who is loved in a family has violated someone else within the family and now the consequences of incest are descending which adds weight to an already over-stressed family system. Many families that experience incest already have behaviors that interfere with or interrupt normal social, emotional, psychological and physical development. This traumagenic family structure increases the likelihood that taboos and society accepted boundaries may be violated. This is not to say that all incest occurs in a multigenerational pattern of traumatic dysfunction, only that it is more common and frequent in these family structures.
Traumagenic families are those families that have an intergenerational pattern of poor quality emotional attachments with high degrees of conflict and boundary violations. Where the needs, wants and desires of the adults tend to supersede the welfare of the family as a whole. An example might be the family where a parent or both parents are abusing or addicted to substances. Those times when the parents are not under the influence of alcohol or some other substance may find them to be much more predictable. Unfortunately, many times this dynamic becomes a concretized into the family culture and then a multigenerational pattern of this dynamic may get transferred from one generation to another. This intergenerational transmission of a dysfunctional dynamic can act as a stressor to children and be related to the emergence of developmental trauma.
Dr. Jeffery Young has laid out a system to explain the distortions created in a family this intergenerational transmission is active. Incest is just one possible problem that can emerge as a result of these destructive family patterns. The following text offers a possible explanation to how this dynamic contributes to the emergence of incest and how it becomes a family dynamic that is frequently handed down in a family.
One of the emotional impacts of being raised in a traumagenic family is a pervasive feeling and perception that one is being repeatedly abandoned, left alone to fend for one’s self, and being repeatedly adrift in sporadic stability. This can lead to family members who have weak connections or attachments, feeling vulnerable and weak, and a strong emotional reactivity. This feeling of abandonment generates fear based drives for connection and puts a child at risk for being seduced into sexual contact in an attempt to meet unmet attachment needs on the part of the child.
Relationships can be characterized as lacking a consistent quality of trust in significant others. Partially this lacking of trust is due to instability in the family dynamic, but it can also be that proper models of trust have not be used in the family and there has been little if any valid trust filled relations within the child’s experience. Those trusting relationships that are present tend to be conditional and also require significant monitoring which can be related to hyper-vigilance in family members. Fractured and inconsistent trust, increases tension and anxiety in family members and can be related to increased conflict and poor problem solving. Having an inconsistent trust structure in the family also means that at times children trust the intentions of family in ways that are inappropriate and put them at risk. In one such case a young woman reported that she remembers being molested by an older brother who was 10 years her senior, from the age o f three until eight. She didn’t like what was happening, but he was her brother and he was always being abused by their father and she felt she should keep his secret so he didn’t get treated worse. This is an example of an inappropriate trust within a family, and a misplaced loyalty.
Emotional deprivation is another common element in the manifestation of incest within a family. Emotional deprivation is common when the attention of the caregiver is focused away from the immediate welfare of the children or family. An example of this might well be the addict, that put’s their need for a drink or a substance above the welfare or emotional needs of their family members. Another posture of this dynamic is the caregiver or parent that engages in sexual behavior with a child to meet their needs for sexual gratification and attachment. This frequently creates emotional damages such as poor self-worth and a sense of being soiled, damaged and unworthy of being lovable, primarily because in the egocentric mind of a child if the parent ignores the child’s wants and safety then the child can’t be that important, lovable, or worthwhile. It is quite common for incest victims to develop an attitude or belief that they are defective, and be ashamed because they are inferior and unworthy of love and attention that isn’t sexual in nature. Sometimes this leads family members to develop insecurities of many types and varieties, being self-conscious and shy and a feeling that their own wants and desires are somehow unworthy and illegitimate.
Finally, a prominent response to this family dynamic is a withdrawal or isolation from others, especially family members. If left unchecked a sense of paranoia and expectation that other people will take advantage or intentional inflict hurt if they have the opportunity can become prevalent. This generally creates a binary response in the child as they mature, one response is to find and use mechanisms to create distance and safety and the other is an increase in promiscuity and acting out in sexually provocative ways.
Community behavioral health settings have a very high representation of incest as a contributing factor in treatment of children, though it is seldom the problem that the child presents with. One might say there is also an emerging awareness that a substantial number of their clients are incest survivors. There are studies that have estimated that 37.5 percent of all non-schizophrenic girls and around 8 percent of the boys that receive behavioral health services have been incestuously victimized.
The price-tag of these incestuous experiences is very high with in the family and the lives of the individual victim. Many symptoms and behaviors are associated with the experience of incest. The following is a short list of the most prevalent and pervasive problems faced by the victims.
- low self-esteem;
- anxiety disorders and chronic depression;
- eating disorders;
- drug and alcohol abuse;
- borderline and narcissistic personality disorder;
- sexual dysfunction;
- abusive marital relationships where the pattern is frequently repeated
- Incestuous relations in the family of creation.
- Interpersonal (ability to enter and maintain satisfying intimate relationships is lacking)
- Cognitive – increases in compulsive thoughts, ruminations, and thought loops that are self-destructive and self-defeating
- emotional (difficulty managing and regulating emotions, challenges in emotion recognition and utilization of emotions in effective ways)
Incest as a family dynamic creates fear of abandonment and safety as well as bringing into question if one isn’t somehow fundamentally flawed. Traumagenic family members that have dealt with incest many times discover that they lack the ability to allow significant others, especially future partners, to nurture or give to them. This rigidity creates an almost compulsive caretaking role in the relationship or a constant approach avoidance dynamic that allows them to create and maintain emotional distance. The repercussions of incestuous behavior in a family may well be felt for generations, and certainly will bear a relational weight on all future relationships for the victim.