I haven’t seen anything written specifically about spiritual abuse and teenagers. This blog will be an attempt to raise the pertinent issues. It is my theory that during the teen years some unique manifestations of spiritual abuse take place. These unique manifestations can have a lasting impact.
Spiritual abuse is about establishing power and control over an individual. All members of a controlling group will be exposed to the same techniques, but the form of the abuse can vary. The primary techniques used are isolation, threats, intimidation, blaming and shaming, sexual abuse and financial abuse. I have written about them here.
Erick Erikson’s theory of development identifies the teen years as a time when the main developmental task is to answer the question, “Who am I?” During this time, they can achieve an identity that allows them to slowly separate from their parents and move toward adulthood, where their next task is to develop intimacy. With proper support the teen will have a strong sense of self and not one of inadequacy.
The teen years are a time to try new things and experiment. The website childdevelopmentinfo.com describes the process this way:
“Erikson believes that during successful early adolescence, mature time perspective is developed; the young person acquires self-certainty as opposed to self-consciousness and self-doubt. He comes to experiment with different – usually constructive – roles rather than adopting a “negative identity” (such as delinquency). He actually anticipates achievement, and achieves, rather than being “paralyzed” by feelings of inferiority or by an inadequate time perspective. In later adolescence, clear sexual identity – manhood or womanhood – is established. The adolescent seeks leadership (someone to inspire him), and gradually develops a set of ideals (socially congruent and desirable, in the case of the successful adolescent). Erikson believes that, in our culture, adolescence affords a “psychosocial moratorium,” particularly for middle – and upper-class American children. They do not yet have to “play for keeps,” but can experiment, trying various roles, and thus hopefully find the one most suitable for them.[i]
Let’s look at how spiritual abuse can impact how the teen answers, “Who am I?”
Spiritual abuse denies the exploration of larger culture, which can lead to an adult who does not know who he or she is, or worse yet has had it crushed out of him or her. There are constant reminders that things are off limits. I remember my younger friend, who loved the movie Star Wars. He was bullied by church leaders. They tried to kill that spark of delight in him, and he sat depressed in his bedroom, playing Dust in the Wind. It is easy to see how such abuse can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
Spiritual abuse prohibits rites of passage that are developmentally designed to help the child break away from their parents and prepare for adulthood. Team sports, proms, dances, and field trips provide a safe and supervised environment to mingle with others. Friendships are formed and in doing so new beliefs are exposed. Spiritually abusive groups cannot allow this. Their youth are isolated. Their children are pulled in and denied opportunities to learn, ask questions, and even make mistakes. An unintended consequence of being denied is, the teen will sneak. Sneaking can lead to high risk behavior, and at times heavy consequences, like teen pregnancy and addiction. It’s difficult to come away from isolation without feeling ashamed or inadequate about who you are or what you did.
Spiritual abuse inhibits personal dreams and the development of talent. There is no need to dream and develop skills because the life is already prescribed. Instead of awakening to possibilities, there is awareness that the usual things are off limits. There is a grief in watching others head to college and live into their dreams, while inwardly watching your own dreams die. I think of another friend who gave up a college scholarship to go proselytizing. She gave up her education and her talent in photography. Limiting education can condemn the teen to a life time of being a low wage earner, and to the development of depression and suicidal ideation.
Spiritual abuse wrecks healthy sexual development, causing shame about the body and its natural functions. Imagine being a youth who is awakening to the fact that he is gay, and who sits through sermons lambasting homosexuality. But sexual abuse doesn’t start or stop there. Masturbation, pornography, premarital sex, are also highlighted as sinful, and for young women in polygamous groups, there is the dread of knowing her choice in partner will not be her own. There is no proper outlet for sexual development or even learning about sex. Sex is reduced to “that thing you don’t do until your wedding night, and then you can do it all you want.” The person is denied the wonderful ideas of consent and mutual choosing.
For the person caught in spiritual abuse, due to parental choices, two routes through the teen years emerge. Comply and be retained as a group member or break the rules and voluntarily leave (or break the rules and be expelled). Those who choose to stay, may be aware that the religion is not right, but stay out of fear or due to indoctrination. Those who awaken as teens may face parents who try to force compliance. The teen may not yet have an identity other than, that is not for me, and be cast out of the group or the family. Those who are expelled can become homeless while also being ill prepared to make it in the world. They enter society with social and economic deficits.
Healing from these kinds of abuses can take a lifetime, as the former member tries to answer, “Who am I?” It may literally take enrolling in school as an adult, or seeking therapy, to overcome feelings of inadequacy. If you have recently awakened, you may have to experiment to find out what your strengths and desires are. Be patient with yourself as you work to figure out who you are, but also realize that people change and reinvent themselves as they learn and grow.
Look for your biggest qualities. I came up with some like these: I have integrity. I am a seeker. I am honest. I like to help people. The more you can identify about your core qualities, the closer you are to having an identity that no one can shake. What you experienced in your youth is only one thing that helped to write the person you are today. Don’t be discouraged. Your story is still being written.
[i] To read a brief overview of all the developmental stages, please look here. https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/child-development/erickson/#.WM8aWIHyvIU 3/19/2017
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1(800) 273-8255