At the most basic level, emotional abuse robs you of your sense of security and value. In an attempt to bring order out of chaos, even the regularity of abuse can be substituted for a sense of what is normal.
One of the deepest needs of children is for consistency, including the certain knowledge that they are unconditionally accepted and valued by those who love them. Small children crave the repetitive, constant nature of certain stories in which the same words or phrases are used over and over again. Children know what to expect, anticipate with delight the coming use of the word or phrase, and feel in control of the story when they can repeat along with the storyteller the right words at the right time.
Toddlers will often ask for the same book to be read over and over again until parents are so sick of it they could just scream! What is boring to adult minds may be very comforting and affirming to children. The story always ends the same way. Life has order. By knowing the ending in advance, children have a sense of security and safety. They learn how it feels to be right, to know what lies ahead, and this produces a sense of control.
With emotional abuse, whether through purposeful or inadvertent neglect, children soon learn that anything is possible. They never know the ending in advance. There are no boundaries for behavior directed toward them or attitudes thrust upon them. And where there are no boundaries, there is no security.
A study of children’s reactions to physical boundaries on their school playground found that when a fence was present in their school yard, they happily played right up to its crisscrossed edges. They knew where the boundary of their world was and took advantage of every inch; it allowed them to relax and play in safety. When the fence was removed, the children huddled together close to the school building and did not venture down the hill to where the fence had been. Without the fence, they did not have a clear sense of boundary, of security. Instead of the removal of the fence promoting greater freedom, it produced heightened anxiety and unpredictable behavior. The presence of the boundary brought freedom. Removal of the boundary brought fear.
When a child lives in a household in which there are no boundaries on adult behavior, fear is the immediate result. Never safe, never secure, the child learn to expect and anticipate the sudden, the violent. A physical or verbal blow can come at any time. Accomplishments can be met with apathy, passive-aggressive indifference, or outright aggressive disapproval. It is best to be left unnoticed. Life is safer that way.
The above is excerpted from Chapter 3 in Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse by Dr. Gregory Jantz.