The term ‘child abuse’ opens a Pandora’s Box of definitions and meanings. From words like neglect to domestic-, emotional-, physical- and sexual abuse; to bullying, genital mutilation, exploitation, trafficking, grooming – the list goes on. These definitions describe the behaviours of the perpetrators: words for what ‘they’ did. Not what ‘we’ did…
But this post isn’t about definitions of behaviours. I wanted to write about the invisible side of child abuse: the lasting effects of others’ behaviours that stay with us into adulthood when the perpetrators may have long gone from our lives. And our outward appearance has long since been transformed from child to mature adult. Through time the child ‘disappears’ from view under the outer layer of adult physicality.
Unfortunately, for many people who have experienced mistreatment, abandonment, emotional neglect, and the wide variety of other ways some people find to inflict suffering upon children, the effects of this mistreatment tend not to disappear. Instead, they tend to linger behind the adult facade, like shadows cast by ‘him’ or ‘her’ or ‘them’ in our psyche: darkness that isn’t ours. The injured child often still remains, often still neglected, often still injured, often still longing to be made safe and secure, whilst the ‘outer adult’ is expected, by virtue of simple appearance and the passage of time, to be able to function in the Rat Race like everyone else.
This duality of experience – between the wounds and insecurities that we as children endured, and the outer expectations upon us in society as ‘grown ups’ – can make life all the more difficult for us. After all, we not only have to take care of ourselves, we also have a wounded child to take care of as well. And in the separation lies part of the difficulty of functioning in the world as an adult survivor of childhood mistreatment or abuse, because sometimes it can feel as if we have to take care of two people.
Why two? Well, children aren’t typically as able as adults to make sense of intense emotional experiences, particularly traumatic ones that involve someone else doing something awful to them. As such, there can be a backlog of emotions and thoughts and memories in a holding pattern, separated off from everyday life, and waiting to be sorted out, or to explode….some day….maybe. Nevertheless, they are not dormant, and unfortunately tend to influence and steer what is happening now, like a rope caught on a rudder, even though they may have nothing to do with the present moment.
Likewise, there are many other effects of childhood trauma or mistreatment that can create a feeling of division and fragility inside:
- Developing the belief “They treat me badly, so I must be bad”, taking responsibility for the abuser’s actions. Such beliefs can get in deep, even before we’ve learned to speak.
- Internalising the abuser due to being unable to clearly distinguish who is responsible for what, over-identifying with the abuser e.g. “They neglect me, I neglect myself” or in some cases ‘acting out’ the abuse by having the urge to inflict pain on others that doesn’t make too much sense to us.
- Dissociating from the suffering, sometimes to the degree that they:
- lose a connection with our emotional integrity
- lose full awareness of the physical body, mistrusting the body and its feelings and intuitions. This can be much more profound when a child has suffered rape and other extreme forms of abuse.
- lose touch with a full awareness of all of the suffering and consequences of the abusive or traumatic experiences, becoming completely dissociated with it as it sits in a compartmentalised form within the psyche.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of impacts upon the child, and by extension, the adult survivor who carries the stigma of something they themselves did not perpetrate, but which was perpetrated against them. But it gives a starting point for understanding some of the complex difficulties that many abuse or neglect survivors struggle with as adults. These can include:
- Chronic low self esteem and self-loathing
- Chronic depression and mood instability
- Chronic physical illness
- Loss of a firm senses of direction, purpose or identity
- Self-harming and risky behaviours, including self-starvation and manipulation of the body by other means
- Feelings [that often conflict with their beliefs and values] of wishing to harm others in a similar way
- Feelings of self-blame, sometimes reinforced by family members in a perverse reversal of responsibilities
- Debilitating levels of shame or guilt if [involuntary] sexual pleasure was experienced during sexual abuse (due to the fact that our sexual organs can respond to stimulation even when it is forced upon us against our will)
- Chronic insecurity, vulnerability, hypervigilance, anxiety: feeling unsafe in the world
- Social awkwardness or difficulty reading social cues due to hypervigilance to threat or dissociation/ numbing
- Difficulty regulating our feelings and thoughts, impulsiveness or anger
- Allowing oneself to tolerate unhealthy relationships as adults
- Mistrusting others to such a degree that we have difficulty forming lasting relationships
- Allowing ourselves to stay in toxic or abusive relationships as adult survivors
- Facing the complexities of relationships that are adversely affected by those aspect of our identity that are split off from our full awareness, thus suffering the additional problems of abandonment by friends, family or partners, or accusations of having a ‘split personality’ etc.
- Forming insecure attachments with others
We have to remember that when some or all of these effects happen within and around us as adults, particularly when witnessed by other people who don’t know what we’ve been through as children, the experience can be incredibly isolating. How do we explain our behaviours? How can we even be fully aware of all of it? How can we rely on others to give us reassurances or honest feedback so that we can ‘fix ourselves’? Should I just tell everyone I was abused as a child so that they can understand?
When we have suffered as children we can also be held back in life from achieving everything we otherwise would have if not hindered by the emotional and psychological burdens we can carry. It is like having our energies divided in two directions; one pushing forward, and the other pulling back. The effects upon children of even so-called ‘mild’ abuse or neglect are often brutal and unjust.
*Above video is an excellent illustration of how childrens’ behaviours tend to reflect their family environment
Some of the therapeutic tasks you might expect in beginning to address your childhood wounds, however traumatic or ‘mild’, might include finding safe ways to examine such events in order to re-assess what happened by:
- learning how to be grounded and embodied again
- clearly distinguishing and clarifying who was responsible for what, when the abuse or neglect happened. This can involve ridding ourselves of the internalised abuser and taking back what may have been ‘stolen’ from us, psychically speaking.
- Reality-checking each event in detail once it feels safe to do so, by examining the beliefs and assumptions we may have formed as a result of those events
- bringing some measure of mental and emotional closure to the events and unifying our energies in meeting our current needs and those old needs that may have been unmet
- rebuilding trust in our minds and bodies
- overcoming feelings of helplessness by learning how to protect ourselves in the world and take good care of ourselves without feeling bad or selfish for it
- learning to use our emotions and intution as a healthy form of social ‘radar’ that can protect us from toxic or predatory people in the present or future whilst allowing us to know when to trust those who are good for us
- Learning how to recognise genuine love and to accept it without feeling guilty
- learning to re-integrate and take responsibility for aspects of our identities that we have cut off from full awareness
- understanding the guilt and blame we feel and realising where and who it comes from
- applying new ideas and learning to present situations in order to consolidate new skills in dealing with the world that help us guard against future abuses
It can be a task in itself to even find a psychotherapist to work with whom trust enough to even begin to sit with them and discuss things with them. Psychotherapy isn’t for everyone, but if you find the right person, it can be the difference between a lifetime of enduring suffering, or a clearing in a wood that allows some of the sunshine back into our lives.
Some things that any adult survivor of child abuse or neglect needs to know:
You did not deserve what happened to you. You were not responsible. You are not to blame. It’s not necessary to continue suffering because of someone else’s behaviour towards you and you can overcome this. As a child you were physically and emotionally not able to protect yourself the way you can now as an adult. But as an adult you will find healing and be stronger by what you suffered. You are capable of love and of being loved in a genuine, uncomplicated way that isn’t tainted by ambiguity or the past. You are safe and it is entirely possible to experience this safety in a felt, grounded way.