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70 NOVEMBER 2004
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Healing the wounded child

Michael Niss

Children who are removed from their parents and placed in an institution or other form of custodial care, may carry with them into adulthood their early experience of removal – together with the experience of the events leading up to the removal. Most children are removed because of dysfunction in the home. It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify what aspects of their experience affects them most. What the literature does show, however, is that children growing up in problem families, manifest behaviourally in different ways. A dysfunctional home can be broadly described as a home that does not provide for the healthy development of its children, or one in which children have to tolerate depriving or abusive circumstances. The family interaction is disturbed by either the open or hidden dysfunction of one or more adults, for example, by excessive drinking or drug taking, aggression, violence, neglect and mental illness. It is important to define this population for those working in the field of child care, so that they have an understanding of the conditions to which children have been exposed. This understanding is vital for successful treatment and intervention, since children who take unresolved childhood patterns into adulthood are likely to repeat those patterns in their turn.

Children who are removed from their families not only have to deal with effects of their problems at home, but must also come to terms with living in an institution. Working with children from a children's home, I have taken an in-depth look at their feelings, thoughts and behaviour – at their experiences of removal and at the influence of living in a group home. While there are unique aspects about each child and situation, there are also certain generalisations which may be made.

Low self-esteem
Any child who has been exposed to the double message of “I love you, but you can’t stay home", has difficulty in distinguishing as to who’s fault it is that they have been “sent away”. The contradiction results in a distortion of the child's sense of self.

Most of the children from problem homes seem to have in common low self-esteem. This is not surprising, since the conditions, which lead to the development of self-worth, are acceptance and unconditional positive regard. Persons with low self-esteem are easily discouraged and feel that they are failures. They often feel isolated, unloved and unlovable.

Low self-esteem leaves them incapable, or at least with an impaired ability, to express themselves and reach self fulfillment.

In the literature of adult children of alcoholics, writers have long recognised that growing up in an alcoholic home causes damage. This article draws on the information from this area, recognising the similarities with children growing up in dysfunctional homes.

The stress which children are exposed to when being removed from their parents is outside the usual range of childhood experience. Being removed from a parent, even temporarily, is considered extreme in itself. However, it is usually the events leading up to the removal which can have devastating effects. In order to deal with the traumas, the child very often denies and covers up genuine feelings. This psychic numbing then results in failure to express feelings, and in isolation and a sense of not caring about life.

To list some characteristics of children growing up in group settings is not intending to label; they are only general characteristics that may apply to some degree or perhaps not at all. An understanding of these characteristics can help heal the pain of their experience, and help them to detach from the problem, at least to the extent that they learn that they are not the cause of their parents' dysfunction, and that they can develop a healthy sense of self.

Children are not sure what “normal behaviour” is
Children from problem homes are not sure how to respond to normal situations and social cues. Their role models are poor and have often been inadequate for them to learn how to manage certain situations. A child who has been exposed only to violence in the home, grows up learning that he deserves to be treated that way by everyone. A sexually abused young girl said that it is only now as an adult that she has learned that the abuse was not her fault, and that it was not a normal experience. She believed that it was expected of her in order to get the attention and love from her father.

Only after she came to terms with this, was she able to let go of her excessive need to please and to understand the foundations of her promiscuity.

Often children feel they do not have a right to their own feelings, and don’t know when and how to express themselves. They trust when they shouldn't, and they fail to trust when they should. They have no sense of self and don’t know how to behave in different situations. They may be aggressive or defensive at times when they don’t have to be. Most situations are interpreted as rejection.

Once the trust of primary relationships has been damaged, there is always a fear of allowing oneself to get too close to others – a fear of being hurt again.

The children have difficulty with intimate relationships
Building up lasting relationships becomes difficult for the children. Once the trust of primary relationships has been damaged, there is always a fear of allowing oneself to get too close to others – a fear of being hurt again. The natural reaction of any species is to protect itself from further pain, and so these children build up defenses. It often takes a long time to build up a friendship, and consistency is difficult to maintain. The children lack intimacy, and often in the adolescent phase they may confuse intimacy with sex. People are seen as objects and are valued for what they can give. When a child care worker leaves an institution after working with a group of children for some time, it is not surprising that some children show little sense of loss and don’t deal with the hurt associated with separation. These children may grow up with poor interpersonal relationships. Very often they manifest behaviour problems which are labelled “conduct disorders”.

The children constantly seek recognition and approval
Recognition and approval, and a sense of well-being, is derived through external approval and satisfaction. The children learn to behave in such a way that pleases others – at any cost. One result is that they often join sub-groups and over-identify with peers to seek approval. One may find a child who will go out of his way to identify with the values of the home. Children who are constantly seeking recognition are often trying to validate themselves, and either proves their worth – or their lack of worth. Mathew, a 12-year-old boy living in a children's home, started smoking weed. When he was caught he openly said that he would do it again, because the people who tell him to stop are the people who took him away from his parents – while his “smoking" friends welcome him as a friend. Mathew interpreted his removal as not being wanted on the one hand, and gained affirmation about himself on the other.

Loyalty even at times when there is no reason
Children from a dysfunctional family do not talk about their family or about the hurt they experience. They see talking about their family as betrayal, even with the background of physical or emotional abuse. The children deny the abuse, and blame themselves in order to protect the parents.

I see this as defending themselves against guilt-feelings over what they might have done, or the shame they feel about themselves. Talking about the family problems is difficult and scary for the child – firstly, because they remain confused about what is normal, and secondly, opening up would mean breaking through the defense of denial and facing the pain of rejection.

The children lack social skills
Children who lack appropriate skills will either compensate for the deficit, or they will minimise them by identifying with a group in which their skills are adequate. They talk about themselves as a collective identity. Anyone working with children in a children's home knows the crucial need for social skills training. This lack of social skills, together with the children's poor sense of self, highlights the difficulty of teaching skills. How can children learn to be assertive when they don’t believe they have a right to anything? There has to be a sense of self and self-worth in order to learn socially appropriate skills.

Healing the wounded child
Until healing takes place, children continue to experience their original pain. They carry with them into adulthood their guilt that as children they failed, and they carry their shame about their family. Very often the behaviours learned in the family are acted out in later life. Children from dysfunctional homes tend not to get their needs and feelings met. They have learned to hide feelings and to push them so deep down that they are safe in their state of not feeling. Healing is learning to feel the pain, It is being able to separate yourself from and put distance between yourself and the hurtful experiences. Healing is being able to evaluate the events and see that as a child you could not have been to blame for your parents” dysfunction. Healing is learning that you have the right to exist and a right to be loved. Being close to someone is normal and one does not have to go hand in hand with abusive or inappropriate behaviour.

After learning to feel, comes anger about past events. This is referred to as the original events. Anger is normal and something that may always have been there, but which was never appropriately expressed. Anger towards a parent because of rejection may manifest itself in many ways, for example, in disruptive behaviour at school, but getting to the source is healing the feeling about the original event.

There may be grief work to do about the losses and in coming to terms with not having had a caring home. This is a very painful stage and one which needs much support.

An important stage in healing is forgiveness – which is based on acceptance. This helps children to stop blaming and frees them up to carry on with their lives with a feeling of self-worth. Trying to heal the pain is impossible while remaining silent. Sharing experiences in a group and telling your story validates your experience and lets you know that you are not alone.

Group therapy is thus a helpful medium to help the child recover from pain. Sharing feelings, and learning that others feel the same, lessens the shame and guilt. Group therapy helps also with bonding and closeness. The group leader should have a working knowledge of group work and understand the concept of the wounded child. Through the group, the members can also learn appropriate responses and boundaries. Very often the group leader’s own experiences and self disclosure can be important in facilitating the healing process.


Rogers, C. (1951) Client Centred Therapy. Boston-Misslin.

Battle, J. (1982) Enhancing Self-esteem: A Handbook for Professionals. Special Child Publications, Seattle.

Whitfield, Charles L. (1987) Healing the Child Within: Adult, children of dysfunctional families. Heath Communication Inc Florida

This feature: Michael Niss (1992) Healing the wounded child. The Child Care Worker ,Vol. 10 No. 8 August 1992. pp 8-9

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