Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
In Relation To Child Abuse Survivors
Trauma specialists believe that "what is most tragic about child abuse and neglect is the exploitation of the child's attachment to the parent." To be sure, it is far easier to abuse one's own children, precisely because their love and loyalty to the parent render them much more compliant than they would be to a stranger. It is exactly this attachment exploitation that teaches children they are not safe in a relationship to other human beings.
Physical abuse itself does not cause trouble. Most people have had physical injuries, fractures or burns during childhood due to purely accidental causes and they have not been harmed by it because they have been comforted and cared for by good caregivers at the time of the incident. Damage comes when the injuries are inflicted by those to who one looks for love and protection, and there is no relief from the trauma. It is the emotional and psychological setting in which the sexual maltreatment occurs, and with whom it has occured, that makes the difference and causes lasting damage.
Children are born into the world absolutely dependent and helpless. They depend on others for food, warmth, cleanliness and protection from threat. Children's natural and healthy helplessness is transformed into terror and dispair when those needs are ignored, or when a parent plays "let's make a deal" with those needs.
Childhood should be a time of no-risk dependency. Many children, in desperation, learn to care prematurely for themselves...at the expense of trust in others, emotional growth and self-acceptance. Unfortunately, try as they might, such children can never absolutely ensure their survival, simply because it is never absolutely within their control.
Try as they might, parents cannot always protect their children from trauma. A relative dies. The house burns down. The child witnesses a fatal car accident. The child is molested by someone outside the family and terrorized into keeping the secret. Yet, children can survive intact emotionally if adults provide them with a sense of safety and well-being in the aftermath of traumatic events.
Realistic, protective and compassionate treatment by adults can become more meaningful than the trauma itself, thus lessening its after-effects. However, when the source of the trouble is within the family, realism, protection and comapssion are usually in short supply. It is often not so much what actually happened that causes the "persistant negative effects" of trauma, as it is the absence of healing responses...what didn't happen afterward.
Suppose that in the midst of a tornado a child sought comfort and protection from his parents and was told, "What tornado? It's a beautiful day...Go outside and play." That's how crazy and unsafe the world seems to some children. Some survivors have tried to tell the truth about the abuse and were called liars or accused of being responsible for the abuser's behavior.
When a victim or survivor is disbelieved, shamed, threatened into silence, or when the disclosure is minimized or becomes cause for punishment, the trauma inflicted by willful ignorance compounds the original trauma. Children can withstand a lot with the help of other people; conversely, the denial or rejection of children's normal thoughts and feelings about trauma can cause as much pain as the original trauma.
To minimize the damage of trauma, children also need protection from further harm. But in troubled families it is not in the abuser's best interest to teach the child how to prevent further abuse. The nonprotective parent who denies or minimizes the abuse is usually passive. The child is usually left on his own to figure out the best way to protect himself.
Survivors rarely, if ever, benefitted from the compassionate and reasonable reactions that would have lessened the effects of their troubled childhoods. Given the enormity of what didn't happen after their traumas, it isn't surprising that they entered adulthood numb and anxious, or both. Protective numbing and reactive anxiety are, after all, normal reactions to abnormal situations.
Clearly, people were not meant to be physically or sexually abused. Human beings are not equipped to understand abuse as it happens, not to feel the full force of their physiological response at the time. And they cannot, at that moment, find meaning in the experience of the abuse. Each of these important elements of accomodation can only happen later, in distinct stages.
Survivors commonly speak of how they endured trauma by pretending that their mind and spirit had gone to a safer place, leaving the body behind to endure the abuse.
Abused children abandon reality, dissociating mind from body so they won't be overwhelmed and their ability to cope won't be shattered. Even a relatively minor trauma can provoke dissociation until a person is later able to integrate the experience. "Later", in the case of chronic abuse, particularly where the child has no support, may mean years later.
In the short run, dissociation is a very effective defense, walling off what cannot be accomodated. Sometimes the actual memory of the abuse goes into deep freeze. An incident in the present may trigger strong feelings that really belong to an incident in the past. The survivor may become enraged by what merely annoys others, devastated when others are momentarily sad, panicked when others are just worried. Present events tap into a deep well of feelings whose source remains alusive.
When asked what the worst memory from their childhood is, many survivors reply, "My worst memory has yet to surface."
Sometimes only the feelings go into deep freeze. Some suvivors have perfect, excruciating detailed recall of the abuse itself, but are numb to their feelings. Their hearts are in deep freeze. They do fine when they are not provoked to feel too much. They may avoid friendships and romance, or enter into them only on their own terms. They believe their feelings are as troublesome and overwhelming today as their parents once told them they were. They are numb to feelings as a way to keep control.
Many survivors ask, "If I don't remember the trauma, or if I don't have strong feelings about it, isn't that better?" Dissociation eventually takes far more effort than it is worth. The more we try not to, the more feelings and thoughts assert themselves, unconsciously demanding our attention. It takes an enormous toll to keep perfectly legitimate memories and feelings about childhood trauma in deep freeze. In the long run, one is better letting the thaw happen, and with the support of others, participating in some manner of "cure" that will allow life to go on.
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