Isolation is a form of emotional abuse that can be tricky to put a finger on but still influences our adult life. Sometimes it was obvious, like threatening violence if we didn’t come right home after school or forbidding us from having anyone over or from going to other people’s houses. Sometimes, though, it was more subtle, like monitoring phone calls, constantly criticizing people outside the family, or ignoring our requests to go to summer camp or the local pool when they had the finances to do so. Such isolation causes more than just loneliness. It can really make it difficult for us to relate to other human beings in a healthy way later on in life.
Reasons for Isolation
Isolation behavior on the part of emotionally abusive parents begins with mistrust. They’re suspicious of most people outside the family, sometimes assigning strange motives for their behaviors or suspecting some hidden agenda. They may, for instance, tell their kids that someone is racist and therefore dangerous when that person has never demonstrated any kind of prejudice. These abusers likely believe they’re being good parents by protecting their children from anticipated harm. Their assumptions, though, have more to do with their own hostility towards others than with reasonable safety precautions.
A slightly different, but related, motivation for isolating children is a fear of having their kids influenced by others. Isolation is an effective way for emotionally abusive parents to control their children’s environment, which makes it easier to control their beliefs and behaviors. Exposure to people with other worldviews could encourage them to think differently and eventually rebel against the worldview that the family rules are based on. All of this threatens the fragile family structure.
Jealousy is also a motive for isolating a child from others. Emotionally abusive parents who have dependency issues may resent the idea that anyone else should give their kids what they need or make them happy. They may also fear that other adults will break through the all-knowing, almighty image that they’ve set up for themselves and do things better than them. Some of us, for instance, have heard our abusive parents challenge us every time we spoke of something one of our friends’ parents did or said, as if we were comparing them to those parents when in reality we weren’t.
Effects on Children from Isolation
Just as isolating parents often justify their behavior as being responsible, as children we may have convinced ourselves that our parents were doing it out of love. If this was accompanied by hostile behaviors like constant criticism, name-calling, and ridicule, we may even have clung to isolation behaviors as proof of our parents’ love and concern for us. This, of course, distorts the motivations underlying all of the emotional abuse we had to go through, making other abusive behaviors somehow acceptable.
Isolating kids from their peers and those around them can also make them feel like they’re misfits. They see other kids making friends and spending time away from the family, and they may not understand why it has to be different for them. They may convince themselves that they’re “special” and somehow “above” other kids around them as a way to explain what they intuitively know are odd rules.
Closing kids off from contact with other kids who live differently reinforces the assumption that abusive behaviors are “normal.” These kids can’t help but assume that the pain they endure goes on in every family, so the justifications emotionally abusive parents give for their behavior must be true. Imagine how enlightening it would be for a child to witness a non-abusive parent comfort and encourage a teammate after he bombed in a soccer game instead of criticize him and make him feel bad, the way his emotionally abusive parents would.
Eventually, isolated kids may end up believing in a hostile world that they feel vulnerable in, which may keep them tied to their parents when they should be exploring their independence. They may also develop difficulties in relating to others in an authentic way because they’re always suspicious of other people’s motives or scared that they’ll be “exposed” as not worth knowing. In some cases, they may end up feeling completely overwhelmed and go right back to our isolation.
In extreme cases, isolation in childhood can lead to social anxiety. According to the Social Anxiety Institute,
[s]ocial anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.
Given that emotionally abusive parents are often judgmental, these judgments reinforce their efforts at isolating their children. These kids then have trouble thriving as young adults. They can’t build a social network to help them deal with the many changes that happen during those years or explore their identity as kids should in their teen years.
Isolation of Adult Abuse Survivors
The isolating behaviors of our childhood can still go on, in a different form, in adulthood. Although our abusers can’t physically isolate us anymore, they can replace that with a psychological form of isolation by putting other people in our lives down or instilling discomfort, if not downright suspicion, in our minds about someone.
This becomes a real problem when it involves our partner, as it so often does. Emotionally abusive parents often feel threatened by “intruders” into the family. A partner may be thought of as such by virtue of coming from outside of the family. Abusive parents may assign ulterior motives to what your partner does from the beginning. For example, if your partner tends to watch the budget more closely than you do, an abusive parent may try to convince you that they’re miserly and will limit you with money even more if you get married. And emotionally abusive parents rarely stop at just one mention of this kind of thing. They nag and nag about it multiple times, hoping to wear you down with their “concern.”
Another weird dynamic that can happen regarding abusers’ attempts at psychological isolation is the “love you at first, hate you later” game. Upon first meeting someone, whether it’s a partner or a friend or someone else important in your life, abusive parents see in them a world of possibility for getting them on their side. Note that this isn’t always conscious. It’s the way many emotional abusers think. They see characteristics in the person that they sense they could use to their advantage. When, however, they learn that the person truly has your interests at heart and supports you against them, the isolation games start.
This kind of thing can get very destructive when your abusers convince you that their weird ideas about the other person are right, and you may even destroy potentially healthy and supportive relationships. Emotional abuse survivors have broken engagements for potentially healthy marriages because of the persistent story-telling from their abusers. It’s easy for others to judge us in such situations, writing us off as weak-willed, but it’s more complex than that. We’re accustomed to not trusting outsiders. Our abusive parents fan the flames of our fears. Although it’s true that it’s ultimately our fears that lead us to destroy potentially healthy relationships, many of us could have worked through those fears if it weren’t for the persistent psychological isolation from our abusers.
Isolation cultivated in childhood can become a way of life in adulthood. Some of us may continue the pattern because it’s safe. Others of us may gravitate towards partners and friends who essentially repeat the isolating behavior (which is not uncommon in domestic abuse relationships). Like all emotionally abusive behavior, it ultimately serves the emotional needs of the abuser. The abuse victim is left feeling lonely, confused, and oppressed.