From an early age we learn to be silent. Embedded deep in our collective thoughts are proverbial beliefs such as “Children should be seen and not heard” and ‘If you have nothing good to say, then say nothing at all.” This “looking away” attitude of society has resulted in generations of adults who suffer the pain of silence -- the pain associated with being a victim of childhood abuse.
How can a child, who must be dependent upon adults for nurturance and guidance, accept the terrible reality that his or her parental figures are non-trustworthy, out of control and capable of harmful abuse? How can such a child, whose basic trust and sense of self was violated, learn to trust another individual or allow for an intimate and bonding relationship?
As a means of survival, victims of childhood abuse learn, early on in life, coping strategies to defend against thoughts and feelings to painful and frightening to put into words.
While these defense mechanisms serve important functions at the time of the abuse, as the child psychologically develops they tend to hinder adaptation to adulthood. The traits and behaviors that were at one time beneficial in terms of helping the child survive an abusive situation become maladaptive when applied to more appropriate relationships. Healthy relationships rely upon basic trust and intimacy – two characteristics survivors of abuse tend to lack.
The adult survivor relives the past in the present as if the environment they currently occupy is as dangerous, unpredictable and uncontrollable as their childhood realities. As a result, many survivors tend to be non-trusting, guarded, avoidant of intimacy and hyper vigilant.
The three coping mechanisms most widely used by adult survivors to defend against painful and intruding thoughts and feelings are repressions, denial and dissociation.
Many adults who have been abused as children are unaware of their own victimizations. They are unable to remember, at least on a cognitive level, their past history of abuse. By repressing these traumatic memories, the individual tempts to go on with life as if the abuse had never happened. “What I don’t know can’t hurt them” is the faulty premise upon which this defense mechanism rests.
Repression, however, can only go so far. The more the individual attempts to push these negative thoughts and feelings out of mind, the more they can return in the form of flashbacks, nightmares and even psychosomatic symptoms.
For example, repressed anger may result in tension headaches, fear of abandonment can manifest as gastro-intestinal problems, and feelings of guilt can appear as back or should trouble, not to mention the array of sexual, dysfunctions, eating disorders, addictions or characterological traits that can signify some form of unresolved issue related to the abuse.
Victims tend to distort the facts surrounding the abuse. They deny their victimizations. They believe they desired, deserved, or willingly participated in the abuse. Many abusers threatened their victims into secrecy, leaving them to carry these concealed burdens well into adulthood.
Certain victims blame themselves for the abuse as a means of gaining mastery over the abusive situation. “If I am responsible for the abuse, then I am also capable of controlling and possibly preventing the abuse.”
Other victims blame themselves for the abuse because they confuse their age appropriate need for affections with abuse they received. “I am to blame because I wanted my father to come into my bedroom and cuddle.” Victims, who blame themselves for the abuse, tend to suffer from excessive guilt, depression, low self-esteem and self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, including suicidal thoughts and gestures.
Dissociation in another coping strategy abuse victims use to defend against painful thoughts and feelings. When adult survivors are confronted with situations or events that symbolically remind them of the childhood abuse, they defend against these intruding recollections by either temporarily losing touch with reality or numbing their bodies so they don’t experience the pain associated with the abuse.
Like a circuit breaker, dissociation shuts down a person’s cognitive and emotional processes in order to prevent an overload of painful stimuli. Dissociation, however, is only a temporary solution; it does not resolve the underlying issues that are triggering the problem. The moment the individual is confronted with internal or external stimuli that bring forth painful recollections, the maladaptive mechanisms arise and prevent the person once again from performing everyday functions.
It is difficult for an abuse victim to seek professional psychological help. They are caught in a vicious circle of maladaptive defenses. To break the silence, develop trust and intimacy with a therapist, and begin to work through one’s pain is a frightening, but much needed process.
Dr. Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. He specializes in the treatment of trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and adults survivors of emotional, physical and sexual childhood abuse.
Dr. Martin Klein is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport and Fairfield CT. He works with children, adults and couples.