Childhood Abuse – Why we can’t just “get over it”
The following is a speech I gave at a Women’s conference last year. I was asked to speak about the lingering effects of childhood abuse, why abuse continues to affects individuals into adulthood, and how to finally heal from childhood abuse.
Human beings are incredibly fascinating, unique creatures, which is why I love my job and find mental health so interesting. It is wonderful field for those of us who are called to help others, and the benefit is mutual. I often tell my clients that I get more from them than they do from me. My greatest reward is helping survivors of trauma and abuse to get their lives back, sometimes lives they have never had. For those who have survived childhood abuse, sometimes horrific experiences, they are often unaware of the depth of the impact on their functioning. One particular area of functioning that is profoundly impacted is self-worth.
Every individual has a set of core beliefs that comprises our constructed sense of self. Everyone has a way of viewing who they are as a person. This self-image, or constructed sense of self, is the product of a combination of genetics, biology, and especially the product of early childhood experiences. In particular, healthy attachment and attunement from our primary caregivers has a profound effect on the construction of who we are and how we view ourselves.
Every single experience we have as a child has an impact on who we are. The actions of our caregivers teach us about love, relationships, trust, the safety of the world, what we believe to be true about who we are, and what we believe about our importance and our value. Every single experience, every interaction becomes part of our inner working model of how the world works. Babies and children who have attuned caregivers (meaning – caregivers who react consistently and reliably to the child’s emotional and physical needs), learn that other people and the world are safe, predictable, trustworthy, and that the child herself has value and importance. Love for a child is separate from the concepts of attunement and attachment. A parent can love a child and fail to provide the attunement and attachment needed for healthy development.
If attunement and healthy attachment are crucial to the healthy emotional and physical development of a child, then what happens when children experience a caregiver who is not attuned? What happens to a child who experiences a caregiver who is not attuned and abusive in some way?
For children raised by caregivers who are not attuned or who perpetrate abuse, a variety of factors contribute to outcomes. Interestingly, these outcomes vary widely and may not correlate to the level of abuse experienced. I have seen survivors of satanic ritual abuse who actually function quite well and seen others who struggle with anxiety and depression who experienced parental divorce as life changing. For children who are abused, the messages that are directly and indirectly sent to the child are negative, which, in turn, result in the construction of a negative or distorted belief system.
Think about a baby who is hungry and has a dirty diaper who is repeatedly left crying in her crib for extended periods of time. She will eventually learn to adapt to her environment and she will learn that she cannot trust anyone else to meet her needs. Her adaptation will include refraining from expressing her needs and suppressing them, learning to rely only on herself, and avoid trusting or relying on others. Even a baby who cannot consciously reason may begin to develop a deep-seated, foundational sense of unworthiness. Young children are egocentric in that they only understand the world as it relates to them. With this simplistic model of the world, whatever happens to them is bad because of them. They lack the ability to reason beyond themselves and this misunderstanding forms the basis of a belief system that will be the foundation upon which they build their sense of self.
Beliefs that are common for abuse survivors include “I’m not important” or “I’m not as good as other people” or “I am broken or damaged in some way.” These beliefs are created during the course of abuse and neglect. For example, a child who is ignored by a caregiver when they look up from building a tower of blocks in search of approval will learn “What I’m doing doesn’t matter; therefore, I don’t matter.” These experiences are accompanied by an indirect negative message that contributes to our belief system.
Going forward in life, as we have more and more experiences, we accept and incorporate those examples that confirm our existing beliefs, thus strengthening them, and we reject examples that challenge or contradict our negative beliefs.
Our foundational belief system underlies the manner in which we engage the world. Our core belief system is key in contributing to our emotional responses and our behavioral responses. For example, if I have a core belief that I am unlovable and I am overweight, I will probably feel sad, depressed, unlovable, and worthless. This pattern may contribute to sabotaging or avoiding behaviors when it comes to relationships.
Many people in our society have suffered abuse in childhood, whether it is sexual, physical, verbal, emotional, spiritual, or neglect. Emotional neglect is particularly insidious because it is difficult to identify and articulate but it is incredibly damaging. It is the absence of “something” in childhood that causes pain, and because children have a very small frame of reference, it is impossible to identify until much later in life. Young children do not say to their parents, “You are not meeting my emotional needs and you are violating my boundaries.” Children do not have the understanding to articulate what they are experiencing and only have the ability to express their emotional experience through behaviors. Behind many unwanted behaviors in children is deep emotional pain. Often, children who behave the worst are the ones who need the most love.
Emotional neglect and abuse can be difficult to identify with specificity. What is damaging to one child may not register for another child. A good rule of thumb is – if you experienced it as hurtful, it was impactful and harmful to you. That impact is a sufficient reason to begin the process of healing the resulting childhood wounds.
When abuse is perpetrated against a child, both psychological changes and physiological changes occur. The message that is sent to a child who is being sexually abused is, “My need for sexual gratification is more important than your well-being, and, therefore, your existence. You are worthless. You have no value.” Remember, children have simplistic concepts of the world that equate to: if it’s happening to me and it’s bad – I’m bad and it’s my fault.
These beliefs that are created as the abuse occurs create enduring personal philosophies that are difficult to modify. A core belief has been instilled in a very permanent way and is stored in neurological pathways in the brain. These beliefs are reinforced with recurring abuse. In turn, reinforcement further solidifies the belief. This resulting negative internal dialog further reinforces this belief system and it becomes entrenched. So much so, that it becomes a part of who we are.
For a child who has experienced abuse, events such as failing a quiz, forgetting something, rejection of a romantic interest, not making a school sports team all equate to confirmations of unworthiness, unlovability, and inadequacy. Compliments, successes, romantic interests all become anomalies or may be interpreted as nefariously motived because of our negative experiences with others.
Perhaps you can begin to see the lifelong, deep psychological damage abuse renders on the survivor. This mechanism explains why people can’t just “get over it” because “that was a long time ago.” These pronouncements often come from friends or loved ones in an attempt to motivate the person to move on or they come from a place of frustration when they feel helpless to render aid or assistance. These damaged and distorted beliefs are the nagging residue of unresolved trauma and fuel unhealthy emotions and behaviors. In that way, we perpetuate the pain of the abuse by continuing to visit it upon ourselves. In fact, we often generate the isolation that confirms our unworthiness.
People mistakenly believe that two events need to occur in order to heal; acknowledgment of harm by the perpetrator and forgiveness. Sometimes perpetrators are not available or they have passed away. Perpetrators rarely admit their actions, rarely show remorse, and rarely are capable of the insight needed to understand the impact of their actions. Encounters and letters to perpetrators can actually have the opposite effect and further traumatize the survivor due to the lack of acknowledgement or remorse. In an effort to seek healing and in the absence of acknowledgment by the perpetrator, people often seek understanding from others under the guise of “I need people to know my truth.”
Contrary to popular advice found in Glamour magazines or “How To” articles on Facebook, forgiveness is not the source of healing. Forgiveness frequently comes after self healing. It is much easier to find the desire for forgiveness once healing has begun and the painful, raw, intense emotions begin to subside. What is really needed for healing is the processing of the trauma and challenging and replacing the damaged belief system with a healthy one.
An important concept to understand about childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse, is the transfer of shame and blame to the survivor during the course of the abuse. Shame is one of the most powerful emotions associated with past trauma and abuse. There is a reason why these emotions are a common denominator in abuse survivors and why they linger into adulthood.
During abuse, confusion and chaos are present, especially in the case of severe physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. Our brains are naturally wired to make sense of what we are experiencing. In the absence of an explanation that makes sense to our brains, our brains will fill in the gaps of information. Because children’s worlds are very small, the child brain makes sense of something bad happening with an explanation that they are bad. The child brain says to itself, “I’m bad, which is why something bad is happening to me.”
Due to the intensity and duration of the experience, the belief becomes hard-wired in the brain and it becomes a very strong pathway to which current experiences revert. Going forward, each new experience is compared to this powerful belief system. When a powerful negative belief system is present, one common resulting emotion is shame and it is felt with the intensity of the original experience.
Another mechanism of brain function which fuels damaged belief systems is creating an explanation for the events we experience. Our brains are wired to process information when it is complete. Remember, the nature of abuse and trauma is that it is chaotic and lacks complete information for the survivor. “What is happening?” and “What caused this event?” are two questions the brain needs to know in order to process the event and convert the information from short term memory to long term memory. In the absence of information, our brains will look for information in the environment in order to make sense of the event. In the effort to find reasons, the child brain will look to the self, what they possibly could have done to cause the event in order to fill in the information gap.
For example, if a child experiences a parent hitting them, screaming in their face, and verbally abusing them over a messy room, the child will naturally make the assumption that failing to complete a task (cleaning the room sufficiently and in a timely manner) was the cause of the abuse when, in fact, the parent is the reason for the abuse. Think about a parent who does not pay attention when a child speaks and shows no interest in their accomplishments but notes the accomplishments of other children. The child’s interpretation may be that they need to be perfect in order to be loved and accepted; again, not recognizing the failure on the part of the parent.
These mechanisms in the brain which are in need of an explanation for events is the source of self-blame, and thus, low self-esteem and self-worth. These self-recriminations evolve from “I did” which fuels blame and guilt to “I am” which fuels shame. It often takes experiences well into adulthood to challenge these beliefs. Since these beliefs were formed in relationships, they surface in relationships and intimate relationships are fertile ground for belief issues to appear in problematic ways.
Another dynamic that occurs in childhood abuse is damage to the functioning of the brain and the nervous system. During traumatic events, soft tissue damage can occur in the hippocampus, which essentially wires the brain for fear. When a brain experiences a severe threat or a potentially life threatening event, the brain switches to a state of high alert. The brain becomes wired for fear, which is the essence of PTSD and presents itself as anxiety. Screening for trauma is an important task for mental health professionals when assessing a client. This approach is called “trauma-informed” and today many healthcare professionals are approaching patients and clients from a trauma-informed perspective.
An important mechanism in the brain to understand that impacts adult functioning in terms of anxiety responses is the concept of tagging.
Suppose I am asleep in my bed. I wake up to someone on top of me with a knife to my throat. He has a goatee, is wearing a particular cologne, says certain things, and is wearing a blue t-shirt with a Superman logo. In that moment, the survival mechanisms in my brain will instantly do several things. It will determine if I should fight, flee, freeze, or immobilize. It will also take in all of the information in my environment and tag it as dangerous. My brain does not have time to sort out the relevance of the pieces of information, because time is of the essence in order to ensure my survival. Wasted time means lower rates of survival, so everything instantly gets tagged as dangerous and an intense emotional response is tagged along with the object, as well as the entire memory.
After the event, because my brain has tagged various objects and aspects of the event as dangerous, when I see a blue t-shirt with a Superman logo or smell the cologne or even go into my bedroom, my brain will register those things as dangerous and I will have an intense fear response. This mechanism is crucial to our survival and the brain is actually very sophisticated in this regard. However, aspects of this survival function do not work well for us after the event and we will have fear responses to things that are actually not dangerous. This survival mechanism is the essence of PTSD.
Nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive memories are common, which lead to physiological responses, which lead to avoidance. We push the memories away that remind us of those terrifying feelings. But because the memory is stuck in short term memory, it is always on loop in the brain and can be cued up at any time. This is why it becomes difficult for survivors to feel safe, and over time, their behaviors change to match their feelings.
So how do we fix these physiological and psychological changes that occur during abuse and trauma?
Therapies including Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged Exposure Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy are all effective treatments for adults, and Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the front-line treatment for children. These therapies all assist with the emotional processing of the event or events, help with making sense of the trauma, understanding and correcting the cognitive and physiological changes, and converting these memories from short term to long term memory. As the events of the past are properly processed, physiological and emotional responses begin to subside and symptoms such as depression and anxiety begin to remediate.
Almost all research about childhood abuse addresses the negative impact of abuse, but I would like to close with an interesting perspective, which is the upside of childhood abuse.
Many individuals experience childhoods that were full of physical and emotional danger. For children who experienced various types of abuse, they may have never felt safe and felt like everything was their fault, which contributed to feelings such as being trapped, anxious, and behaviors including the need to escape from the smallest gestures of affection or apologizing too much.
But these upbringings can also lead to the observational skills of a master spy. Abuse survivors can sense when people are hiding something from them, and their reading of the power dynamics in any room comes as if by instinct. They can see how people stand in relation to each other in an instant and see where fear is coming from, where openness is coming from. The skills needed to navigate a turbulent childhood serve a purpose in adulthood in this way.
Interestingly, a difference exists when it comes to an element of executive function in the brain; task switching, which is the ability to disengage from one task and pick up another. For those who grew up amid unpredictability, they are faster in shifting focus without a loss of accuracy. Children raised in predictable environments do not develop this skill as sharply, as their survival did not depend on these faster processing mechanisms.
The trait of task switching, described as the ability to “unstick yourself,” is a type of cognitive flexibility that correlates positively with traits such as creativity. It may be that individuals raised in stressful environments have a greater willingness to leave something undone—a lack of perfectionism that helps them do what’s necessary without dwelling on what could have been—compared with those raised in homes with the luxury of routinely expecting perfection.
Kids who grow up feeling that nothing is under their control may turn into adults who don’t particularly value feeling in control, but they also prove to be highly flexible, demonstrate a willingness to take significant risks with little hesitation, and have a high tolerance for ambiguity.
Evidence of other possible cognitive advantages is gradually emerging. People who grow up in unpredictable environments are better at what’s known as working memory updating; they have the ability to forget information that is no longer relevant and to attend quickly to newer data that is.
Another interesting benefit of growing up with stress is the promotion of certain forms of associative learning—the ability to recognize that multiple elements of one’s environment are connected in some way or that certain behaviors will be rewarded or punished in a given scenario. Growing up in an environment that’s constantly in flux may make people more aware of and responsive to changes in the environment. In one particular research study, these subjects were quicker to perceive that they had been given wrong instructions to a computer game—and changed their behavior accordingly. People who are used to being able to rely on rules and to trust instructions—such as those who grow up in more stable environments – stick with the rules even in the face of negative results. Meanwhile, those from stressful backgrounds may be quicker to explore other possibilities and stumble upon novel solutions.
While we, as a society, would obviously never intentionally perpetrate abuse on children in order to gain these identified benefits, it is important to recognize that not all effects of childhood difficulties are negative. In fact, those who have suffered, those with scars and wounds, are among the most interesting, insightful people you will meet.
One final note today about childhood abuse:
A child raised by attentive caregivers will develop a healthy sense of interdependence with others. Attachment with primary caregivers very much influences the way we view ourselves and our worthiness. If our primary caregivers, those people who are biologically programmed to love us, don’t think we are worth it, why would I think that I am worthy of love? The answer, of course, is that our primary caregivers do not determine our worth.
Our worth as individuals is inherent simply because we exist. None of us are here by mistake. We each have a unique set of gifts, talents, and qualities bestowed upon us. It is our responsibility to learn what they are and use them to the best of our ability. Exploring our belief system is a crucial step to mental well-being. A healthy belief system allows us to identify our purpose and to live it. Beliefs provide the meaning that guides our purpose.
Being honest with yourself that people you love were abusive is not a betrayal. This process is not about blame – it is about healing and recovery.
Kristin Stonesifer, LCSW