Understanding How Dysfunctional Families Prime Children For the Experience of Shame (Leading To Victimization)

Understanding How Dysfunctional Families Prime Children For the Experience of Shame (Leading To Victimization) September 15, 2015

Undermuchgraceby Cindy Kunsman from Under Much Grace

Originally published January 2012. This is part of a series on Understanding How Emotional Development in Childhood Affects Adults: Fostering Spiritual Abuse via the “Roots of Victimization”

There are many excellent Christian books concerning dysfunctional family dynamics — that is besides the Book of Genesis which contains the best archetypal examples of how you should NOT relate to other family members! One of the most interesting families to draw out on a relationship diagram is that of Jacob, Esau and their parents, and some of the Christian self-help books in this genre look at many of the Old Testament patriarchs to explain how triangulation in relationships works.

My favorites include titles on the topic of family relationships include Love is a Choice (by Hemfelt, Minerth, and Meier) and Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves (Stoop and Masteller) and many others which are discussed at some length on the OvercomingBotkin Syndrome blog (posts which you can find by looking for the author near the top of the tag list). I also like Sandra Wilson’s Hurt People Hurt People, too. And specifically related to boundaries, the Christian books by Townsend and Cloud shouldn’t go without mention, either.
Image from Under Much Grace
Image from Under Much Grace
These posts offer learning tools to the survivors of Hephzibah House (HH), though they are quite applicable to most people in the types of religious groups addressed here most often. With the Hephzibah Girls in mind, I think that the approach taken by a fellow nurse speaks a bit more clearly to the specific needs that they have as they look back to put their experiences into perspective. Conditions at HH fostered problems with self-protection and issues related to boundaries suffered by girls after leaving, but the roots go deeper, back into childhood.
Understanding the Roots of Shame
Pia Mellody approaches this topic by looking at the five basic, natural characteristics of childhood, which when successfully developed and honored by the parent, form the basis for healthy and mature characteristics in adulthood.
Children are:
  • Valuable (Value becomes peace and what Jesus called the love of self in the mature adult who finds their stability and worth within themselves instead of finding their worth in performance and circumstances.)  


  • Vulnerable (Forms the basis of experience which allows adults to be intimate along with the appropriate level of vulnerability required to engage in emotional intimacy.)


  • Imperfect (Lays the foundation of the adult’s ability to feel comfortable with themselves and accountable for the impact that their actions have on others.) 


  • Dependent (Provides for the ability of the adult to care responsibly for their own basic needs and to be interdependent with others, because we are unable to meet all of our needs independently.)


  • Immature (Proper care and parenting teaches two types of boundaries to the child: internal self control which governs the adult’s behavior, as well as what one chooses to allow into their lives. Mastery of maturity also provides for a healthy sense of spontaneity.)
Image from Under Much Grace
Image from Under Much Grace
Pia Mellody in Facing Codependence (pp 78 – 80):
In addition to misdirecting these three characteristics, dysfunctional caregivers do not respond appropriately to children’s five natural attributes of value, vulnerability, imperfection, dependency, and immaturity. Instead these caregivers either ignore or attack children for the very essence of who they are, creating an intense experience of shame in the children. Inordinate shaming happens to children when they lose contact with the sense that they are adequate and have value from within, even when making mistakes, having needs or being immature. . . .
Children are naturally innocent, inexperienced, naïve and believe that their caregiver can do no wrong. But in fact, caregivers often attack or abuse children for having the normal traits of imperfection, dependency and immaturity. As a result, the children lose their own sense of value (since they can’t see that the fault might lie with the caregivers). Also the fact that abuse is occurring means the parents aren’t demonstrating boundaries, so the children don’t develop their own boundary systems properly.


When the caregivers ignore or attack children’s natural characteristics, children develop dysfunctional survival traits to keep from feeling crazy and yet still maintain the belief that the caregivers are always right.


Excerpt from
Pia Mellody’s
What It Is, Where It Comes From,
How It Sabotages Our Lives
Harper One/Harper Collins, NY (1989; 2003)

Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

Read everything by Cindy Kunsman!


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  • Nea

    Isn’t it fascinating to apply this to how the Pearl and Duggar kids are turning out?

  • SAO

    For the Duggars, I’d say that they were not valued as individuals (with the possible exception of a few) by their parents. However, they had considerable parenting from siblings, which changes matters.

    Imperfection was not accepted, thus it was hidden. The combination of not being valued for himself and having imperfections not accepted is probably why Josh Duggar became such a sneak and why I think he’s incapable of intimacy. For emotional intimacy, you have to be comfortable with yourself and share it with others. I get the impression that some of the same is true with Jessa.

    All large groups of people form cliques and these weren’t shown on TLC, but I’m sure they existed in the Duggar family. The idea that there were no cliques, rivalry, jockeying for position, bickering, is as realistic as the idea that that upbringing turned them all into Perfect Christians ™.

  • Melody

    I love your 2nd paragraph. It is why I understand these Duggar kids a little. This idea of having to be the Perfect Christian 24/7, trying not to lose your cool, always be polite and friendly, swallow your anger etc. I was not raised nearly as isolated as they were, but these kind of teachings were very much present. Not just because of Christianity and being a good witness, also because of simple suppression of any fierce or vehement emotion on my father’s part (mother not so much) and his insistence on our (the kids) help in keeping my mother happy as she was vulnerable sometimes and had some mental health problems. We needed to be perfect, not just for God, but also to keep our mum from becoming ill again. I learnt to keep nearly everything bottled up inside and sneak around for the rest.

    Shame was a huge thing in my upbringing, I don’t think my parents did it on purpose, I believe it was a huge thing in their upbringing as well, and in the church too. It was simply everywhere. I do blame my father for making us children responsible for our mother’s welfare: it was very irresponsible and although she fortunately didn’t have to be hospitalized again, it was highly innappropriate to suggest that our behavior had anything to do with her mental illness returning or not. I sometimes felt like I couldn’t breathe with all the pressure, and being the eldest also meant that I had to be the most responsible so it often ended up to be my fault.

    So sometimes when I see these Duggars, I do recognize some stuff. How the children have to parent and are not allowed to be real children or to make any mistakes. How they seem to be Stephord wives rather than normal people: always smiling, always polite, hardly ever a sign of the actual living real person underneath all that. It wasn’t as bad as that for me, but in some things it came close.

  • Julia Childress

    Melody, I don’t know how old you are, but I was born in the 1950’s. My mother suffered great tragedy in her young life, and it left her mentally unstable. As she aged, she became fanatically religious. You couldn’t read a book or have a conversation without Jesus fitting into the picture somewhere. My father was a man of faith, but he wasn’t all in like she was. They would have episodes of violent arguments, and we could never figure out the triggers. So, like you, we were children who tried to make ourselves responsible for our parents’ behavior and do what was in our power to keep them from exploding. Of course, on Sundays, we were a shiny, happy family filling a church pew. The reason I mentioned age, is because there were virtually no mental health resources available for my parents. In our world, you just didn’t seek help for such a personal problem. Then add in the risk of cracking the Christian façade that their church friends idolized, and there was just no way. What’s sad is that there is more mental health treatment available now, but people like the Duggars won’t utilize secular treatment.

  • Melody

    Julia, I was born in the ’80’s. My mother did have some help when she was hospitalized but not much after. Her family wasn’t much help and so she and my father basically had to deal with everything by themselves with the limited knowledge they had about it all. After a while, my mum stopped going to church because she felt that she didn’t fit in. She was very ashamed about having been hospitalized for mental health problems. She was also afraid child services would take us away, so we had to be on our best behavior at all times and, like you mention, pretend that everything was well. She had triggers as well; she could suddenly become angry when we played and teased her, she could take our jokes for a while and would then flare up out of the blue over nothing. It made me wary because whenever she joked around with us, I would be worried that she might suddenly change. The religious surroundings made things worse because it increased her shame and guilt and some people had been mentioning demons and such in relation to her disease so it didn’t feel like a safe environment. As my brother and I are both adults now we have been able to talk about some of this with our parents and they understand that it was hard for us too. They tried their best and didn’t really have much support themselves either.

    It is a shame that even though the services are there, they are still unreachable for very religious and often isolated people. Secular treatment is distrusted severly but religious help can have some negative results especially when they focus on sin and demons as causes for disease.

  • Brad O’Donnell

    “Seemingly there are two forms of Christianity. One that the
    historical Christ is said to have taught (love and forgiveness) and one that the
    Church teaches (guilt, shame and blame)…

    Traditional (Roman) Christianity has taught that hope and solace… (are only
    possible through) the redemption from sin by the vicarious
    sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, for all those who acknowledge His
    teaching…but it is precisely this form of the doctrine of
    salvation… that rests almost exclusively on the work of Paul, and
    was never taught by Jesus.” (On Guilt, Shame and Blame in Christianity, by
    the White Robed Monks of Saint Benedict)

    According to Parade Magazine, 24% of Americans have left church
    for spiritualism… and most of those are still Christians seeking
    the religion of love Christ came to announce to the world…
    Thomas Jefferson believed the church “perverted the purest religion
    ever preached to mankind” for the purpose of manipulation and
    profit…So leave the church, but don’t abandon Christ because the church
    twisted His message… He really only told us that God was love and
    just asked us to love and help one another…

    Brad O’Donnell, author “Where to Now Saint Paul?”

  • Brad O’Donnell

    No longer Quivering…” wonderful, what a find!

    Congratulations on breaking free of the church’s guilt trip manipulation, but I
    submit that that was never the intention of Jesus Christ. Roman
    Church Christianity was not the teaching of Christ anyway… It was
    a completely different religion created by Paul and a pagan
    Roman emperor, by the name of Constantine in 325 AD.

    Joseph Ratzinger (pope) quit his first seminary
    because it conceded that there were two separate and opposing
    Christianities in the second century. One was the Jewish
    Christianity of Jesus and the other was the Roman gentile
    Christianity of Paul. They noted that “Paul was indifferent to
    the teaching of Jesus, and the opponent of the religion of love
    Christ came to announce to the world.” Catholic Encyclopedia

    Fact: For the first 250 years Christianity was only a religion of brotherly
    love and charity…there was no judgment, Satan, hell, Easter or Christmas…
    this was all pagan religion added by the Romans when the commandeered
    the faith in the 4th century.

  • Nea

    Brad, a few comments on your comments:

    1) Proselytizing and saying “no true Christian” (even with a historical gloss) doesn’t advance the conversation.

    2) This conversation is about Botkin and Gothard, who are nominally Baptists, not Catholic theology.

    And a few comments about the commentariat here

    1) None of us cares about your beef with Catholicism.

    2) Not all of us are Christian or will tolerate being told what we must or must not do about Jesus.

    3) A few of us are familiar with American history and know that, among other things, Jefferson was hardly a classic Christian, considering he took a razor to the Bible itself and cut out a lot.

  • Kitty

    I wish I could up-vote this more.

  • Kitty

    Hey Brad. I had the most amazing burrito for lunch today. It had beans and pico de gallo and just the right amount of hot sauce. It was perfect. You see, I don’t eat meat. Meat causes a lot of health problems and environmental problems, not to mention the suffering of livestock. You can still eat delicious food and not eat meat, and your body, the earth and the animals will all benefit. Isn’t that wonderful?

    Did you appreciate my off-topic, vegan rant? No? Now you know how everyone who wasted their time reading your posts feels.*

    *I apologize to everyone but Brad who wasted their time reading this post. In my defense, trolls piss me off.

  • Brad,

    One thing I love about NLQ is the respectful atmosphere that supports pluralism as many of us come together from many backgrounds including Catholicism. I’d like to think that everyone who participates here has a place at the table of discussion — but that discussion concerns the common experiences we’ve had in the Quiverfull Movement.

    Many online forums invite discussion of the topics you’ve introduced here. I respect your beliefs, but out of respect for the many Catholics who participate here (current, former, and undecided alike), please take Christian Reconstruction, politics, and comparative religious criticism to another forum. Many people who have left Quiverfull have found solace in “spiritualism” too in their transition out of the abusive aspects of the lifestyle, so your comment does them a great disservice, too.

    The journey out of these high demand religious groups takes people to different places and through many transitions. So long as it doesn’t result in abuse, more power to them as they find their way. And if God is who you believe Him to be, He will get everyone to the place of peace and faith where they need to be. Pray for us — as even most atheists understand prayer as a gesture of kindness. But please — out of respect — limit your comments to those that encourage people to get free from Quiverfull as opposed to defending your own religious preferences.

  • ConcepcionImmaculadaPantalones

    Even those of us whose only experiences with the Quiverfull are from reading here and the Duggars, whether raised in a home that followed another religion or simply mainline-middle-of-the-road Christianity (myself being the latter), participate in the discussions here. I do because I feel that there is a danger in not educating oneself on not just the groups themselves but what they’re doing and how it harms.

  • KarenH

    Me, too. And three. 🙂

  • KarenH

    What PantalonesDeLaJusticia said.

    Awesome name, btw 😀

  • KarenH

    mmmmmm pico de gallo……

    My family thinks I’m nuts because I’d much MUCH rather have a mountain of pico de gallo than any saucy salsa. Which means in my family, all the pico de gallo belongs to me 😀

  • Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

    Brad, thank you for the compliment but please don’t bash Catholics or try to promote religion here. We’re a recovery community and don’t allow either.

  • ConcepcionImmaculadaPantalones

    Lol, thanks – I have a habit of randomly switching my name up but it’s all in fun, usually inspired by things that come along in conversation-comments. 😛

    Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it (paraphrased) – with all the crazy stuff going on politically these days, we need to pay attention to a lot of communities around the country that ordinarily we don’t notice much.

  • I just came back from a visit with friends who made the most excellent, fresh pico de gallo for us for homemade breakfast tacos. I ate some of it with a spoon after finishing the taco because it was SO GOOD!

    I’m fine with meat, but I’m allergic to tomatoes. But I do eat them in moderation. Aside from how fantastic that homemade pico de gallo tasted, I would have eaten it if it were horrible to honor my friends and their effort. Respect and honor.

    There’s a reason why Baskin Robbins sells so many flavors of ice cream. We all have our preferences because we are delightfully diverse people which makes the world a wonderful place. Think about how boring life would be if we all had the same opinion.

  • Brad O’Donnell

    I am truly sorry that you were so offended by my comments…and will cease any further dialog, but after seeing your headline, “Healing from Spiritual Abuse,” and reading Suzanne Calulu’s article, I’d think you’d be sympathetic why I believed we had some common cause.

    I have to say, in parting, that you’ve got me all wrong…

    You said, “None of us cares about your beef with Catholicism.” Are you sure? You’re toxic about patriarchal religious abuse of women…??? Roman Catholicism was the source of it…

    You said, “Not all of us are Christian or will not tolerate being told what we must or must not do about Jesus.” I didn’t tell anyone what they “must or must not do about Jesus”… I only wrote that He only said God was love and asked that we help on another.

    I was spiritually abused and am now a spiritualist who utterly supports any person having any sincere religious pursuit…or those who opt out of religion altogether.

    All I did was make a case for those spiritually abused by the ‘church culture’ to not abandon Christ because of that abusive “church culture…” Was that so different than Suzanne’s comments here…?

    “I’ve lived so much of my life in a dream-like state known as ‘church culture’, and finally the real love of God has opened my eyes to how much rubbish has been substituted for the simplicity of following Jesus. Christian culture too often blinds us to the unadorned call to love God and love others… Living Liminal Blog September 1, 2015 by *Suzanne Calulu*
    “The real love of God has opened my eyes to how much rubbish has been substituted for the simplicity of following Jesus.”

    Nea… this is precisely what I was saying in different words…

    My apologies for the offense…??? Brad O’Donnell

  • Brad O’Donnell

    Thank you for that civil and constructive response… much better than the rude and sarcastic ones I got from Nea and Katy… I just stumbled on your site last week, and didn’t know much about it…Brad

  • Lots of traumatized people here who were beaten beyond imagination with the Bible, doctrine, and by hirelings who just didn’t care about anything or anyone but themselves. Priority One here at NLQ is all about getting free from the abuse and the abusers and the lies.

    I believe that truth is transcendent, and all truth belongs to God. Other people best make sense and find peace and a meaningful life in ways that are quite different from the way that I do. As long as they are good, decent people, I’m happy. It’s the people who think that they have a corner on truth that bother me. And I hope to live well enough that if and when people are interested in more specific religious stuff, they’ll ask. 🙂

  • Kitty

    Roman Catholicism is not the source of patriarchy. Protestantism (which includes the Quiverfull movement), Judaism and Islam are all guilty. The Abrahamic religions are just not great when it comes to the treatment of women and children.

    As for you precious Jesus, he endorsed all the horrors his father was so enthusiastic about, to include slavery and women as property. “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” ~ Matt. 5:18

    The fact that Jesus never came out and said that his dad is a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive blood-thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully is enough to make me hate him.

    Jesus was not nice. If he were nice, he wouldn’t have worshipped his father. No one nice would worship the god of the Bible. To worship the god of the Bible is to admire pure, unadulterated evil. I, personally, think Satan is the hero of the Old Testament. At least he was pushing back against that horrible bastard.