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Sadly, many survivors of childhood physical or sexual abuse find themselves as adults terrified of having children. While this complaint can be an actual fear of childbirth for some, for others it is more of a fear of parenting. Still others fear repeating the abusive treatment they endured. Why may victims have these fears? Is it simply the same fear everyone has surrounding becoming a parent but magnified?
For many female abuse survivors, the entire nine months of being out of control of their bodies can be quite frightful. Survivors know that they won’t even be getting a one-minute break from pregnancy "having its way" with their bodies, which they are powerless to stop. Ironically, this pushes many victims to the point where they look forward to the birth only so they can have their bodies back to themselves again. Additionally, many survivors are traumatized by the medical check-ups and procedures that are a standard part of American prenatal care. Sexual assault victims who reported their abuse to the police may have flashbacks of "rape kit" medical exams that they endured after notifying the police.
Of course, it’s normal for women to fear childbirth. The difference for abuse victims is in fearing that, in addition to the pain of birth, the experience will trigger memories of their abuse. Again, those who have been through this trauma fear being out of control of their bodies during childbirth-like they were when someone was hitting or molesting them. In the same way that dental work is a common trigger, victims fear being forced to lie down-immobilized-while others are probing inside their bodies. Vaginal rape victims in particular may particularly fear a vaginal delivery.
Parenting seems to be more of a fear for people who were abused by their parents but may also be an issue for people who reported outside abuse to parents who failed to protect them. Either way, being responsible for someone else’s life may not be something a victim is ready for. Abuse drains away a survivor’s power and control, and, depending where they are in the healing process, they may not yet feel empowered enough to be a parent. Another reason childhood abuse victims may fear becoming parents is because being around small children can remind them of how innocent and helpless they themselves were when victimized. Someone violently beaten at age five may never truly be comfortable around five-year-olds, as they can trigger flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. For some, the mere nature of the parent-child relationship itself is a trigger, reminding them of the power imbalance between themselves and their abuser at the time of the incident.
A Family Tradition?
A plethora of studies show that domestic violence and child abuse are more likely to occur in homes where the abusers also grew up being abused or witnessing abuse. What happens is that child abuse victims learned that violence and aggression were how problems and tensions were addressed. While a potential parent may have never abused anyone prior to considering starting a family, they know that abusive behavior is ingrained in them at some level.
"What if I were to angrily lash out at my child when I felt frustrated the way Mom used to do to me?" they may ponder. This can seem absurd to someone who did not grow up with abuse in the home, but survivors have no doubt come to understand that their parents did love them at least on some level. To them, this means anyone could become abusive because, after all, their parents loved them and were still able to hit them. Furthermore, some adult survivors of child abuse have come to realize that when their parents were abusing them, they were out of control of their anger, perhaps in a daze. For this reason, these adults may now fear having children because they’ve seen what people are capable of when they lose control. "What if I were to get so upset that I too lost control?"
Beyond these two solid fears about why victims may end up abusing their own children, the mere knowledge that their grandparents probably abused their parents proves that abuse is handed down- that it is cyclical. Regardless of if the other reasons mentioned above are present, this one fact in and of itself can be enough to prevent survivors from having children. Survivors think, "I’m going to stop this cycle for good. The abuse ends here!"