“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”
**This article comes with trigger warnings**. One in four adults has been abused as a child.
Why does it take so long for someone to reveal that they have been abused as a child?
This is a question that I get asked a lot. It is the question that every abused adult hates to hear. There are many reasons why someone does not report childhood abuse. It is a complex and multilayered issue.
In this post, the word ‘abuse’ refers to sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, neglect and emotional abuse. All are horrific, all are damaging and all are the enemies of a fragile developing personality.
The World Health Organization distinguishes four types of child maltreatment: physical abuse; sexual abuse; emotional (or psychological) abuse; and neglect.
Myths: Let’s get the myths out of the way. These myths are all untrue and yet are still upheld by our current society.
1: It is only abuse if it’s violent.
- Child abuse does not necessarily involve violence or anger.
2: They are making it up to get attention.
- Research shows that it is extremely rare for a child to make up an abuse report.
3: Children usually tell someone.
- Most children do not tell anyone. They are often silenced through threats or fear of not being believed. Some children don’t have the words to speak about what is happening to them.
4: You can just get over it
- You can’t just “get over” it. Survivors need the right care and support to overcome the impacts of abuse, recover and live full and healthy lives.
5: You can’t forget child abuse
- For over one hundred years, traumatic amnesia has been documented amongst war veterans, survivors of natural and man-made disasters, and adult survivors of child abuse.
6: If they were really abused why didn’t they report it or tell someone?
- The average time for a victim to speak out is 22 years after the last incidence of abuse, but it can be much, much longer.
- The Australian police used to have a ‘Historical Sexual Crimes’ unit. It is now called the SOClT Coordination Team because it became obvious that most of the reports of childhood abuse were historical. SOCIT stands for Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams.
In our society, it seems that people see violent sexual abuse as the top of the totem pole and rarely give value to other forms of crippling abuse. Along with that thinking comes the value placement of the types of sexual abuse. This in turns devalues the abuse that a child experiences. If they have not been raped or experienced full on sexual intercourse, is it really abuse?
- “Oh he only used to come into my bed and massage my breasts every night, it really wasn’t that bad”.
- “He didn’t rape me, he only used to rub himself against me whilst he inserted things inside me”.
- “Mother used to give me enemas every week as a child, it was very painful, embarrassing and uncomfortable but I guess I was constipated a lot as a child. She could be quite mean to me and used to call me names like “Her little skunk, and her fat little piggie””.
In my experience, the ‘abuses’ are usually woven together in a complex web of fear. Children rarely experience one form of abuse at a time. Recent research by McGill University (2015) showed that emotional abuse of a child may be as harmful as physical abuse and neglect, while child sexual abuse often occurs together with other forms of maltreatment.
Emotional abuse is also called psychological abuse (maltreatment). It is the most common form of child abuse. It is also experienced by children witnessing domestic violence. Emotional abuse often occurs together with physical and sexual abuse. Many parents and caregivers are emotionally abusive without being violent or sexually abusive (source)
Along with the abuse comes verbal conditioning from the abusers – enter psychological and emotional abuse.
- Normalisation: if it is a parent or sibling the child grows up thinking that this is just how every family operates. It is normalised. They have no world view or perspective. This is what happens in their family. How are they supposed to know otherwise?
- Minimisation: The abuser often coos sentences like – “I love you, I don’t want to hurt you”. “This feels good, doesn’t it?” “If you love me you will help me”. The child feels guilty. It’s not that bad.
- Fear and threat: “If you tell anyone I will hurt your baby brother”. “If you tell anyone about our secret you will be put in jail”.
- Pain: Pain is a powerful protector of abusers. The pain usually causes a child to dissociate. They repress the pain into another place so that they can function. Pain partners with abuse and plunges memories into a deep dark place that never sees the light of day. If this happens often enough it creates a condition called DID. Dissociation Identity Disorder. Experienced and serial abusers will purposely harm a child, breaking bones and or causing extreme pain because they know that the child will never tell if the child never remembers.
Dissociation – is a protective response to overwhelming stress and a common feature of diverse forms of trauma (Howell & Itzkowitz, 2016: 35).
Experience too overwhelming to be processed is dissociated, and becomes inaccessible to consciousness, and may subsequently intrude unexpectedly (be `recovered’)and consciously recalled.
- You can read more about dissociation here.
Why does it take so long for someone to reveal that they have been abused as a child?
Let’s unpack this question a little more and look at some of the reasons why an adult who has experience childhood abuse does not report it.
1: He/she does not know they have been abused.
I suffered neglect and maltreatment as a child. I was 50 before I realised this. I had spent the last 10 years unpacking sexual childhood abuse, abandonment and spiritual abuse, I didn’t realise that neglect and maltreatment were also present at the party.
2: Shame. If the child does remember who does she tell. Who will believe him?
Abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing. The natural reaction to abuse is a feeling of shame. As a self-conscious emotion, shame informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonour, regret, or disconnection. So it is no wonder that shame avoidance can lead to withdrawal or to addictions that attempt to mask its impact.
3: Language. The child does not have the language or understanding of what is happening to him/her. Imagine you are 5 years old and someone is sexually and psychologically abusing you. What words do you have at five or six to make sense of your world? About all you can do is understand that: 1: It hurts. 2: It is scary 3: It feels wrong but you don’t know why. 4: You don’t want anyone else to get hurt.
4: Confused reality and abuse of power. The abuser is still in my life and everyone loves them. What if the abuser if a very charming and charismatic mother or father. What if your uncle is beloved by all. What if your pastor or school teacher is a powerful person that everyone admires? Who is going to believe your confused memories of what happened to you? What will be the cost? More shame. More confusion. More rejection and anger? Better to stay quiet.
5: The need to forget. Childhood trauma – particularly child abuse by primary caregivers – is the most obvious context in which ‘forgetting’ provides survival value. Because children depend on their caregivers for survival, the need to attach to them is paramount, regardless of how the child is treated by them. ‘Many studies have demonstrated evidence that it is common to forget, and later remember, parts or all of the serious traumatic events such as child sexual abuse’ (Barlow et al, `Trauma and Memory’). While our brains are wired to remember experiences important to survival, in some circumstances ‘forgetting’ may assist survival (source).
Forgetting abuse preserves the attachment relationship when the victim depends on the abuser. Although there are various ways to remain blind to betrayal, perhaps the most effective way is to forget the event entirely’
(Freyd & Birrell, 2013: 58)
“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defence. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself, and in any case, it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”
(Peter Levine, `The Fabric of Memory’ 2015: 15).
`It is crucial to appreciate that emotional memories are experienced in the body as physical sensations’.(Levine, 2015:22)
- Memory is not a single entity which only relates to conscious recall. There are different types of memory which stored in different areas of the brain
- `Explicit’ memory is conscious while `implicit’ memory is largely unconscious
- Explicit (conscious) memory can generally be expressed verbally while implicit (largely unconscious) memory is not verbalised
- Implicit memories are elicited by environmental cue/s such as a fragrance, sight or sound, and embodied in activities (e.g. sleeping) which occur without conscious awareness
This analogy helps us to understand the types of memory:
`The kind of memory that enables us to ride the bike is called implicit memory; our ability to recall the day we were taught to ride is explicit memory’.
The pleasant implicit memory of a happy summer’s day – emphasised by the smell of freshly mown grass.
A trigger such as an environmental prompt (in this case the smell of freshly mown grass) can re-traumatise someone who was assaulted in a field in which the grass had just been cut.
Trauma `triggers’ may seem minor to those who do not experience them in that way. But the traumatised person remains vulnerable as long as the trauma remains unresolved.
7: Betrayal Blindness: Betrayal blindness happens to both children and adults. The need to survive, to keep the family unit together trumps remembering and exposing the traumatic event.
Another important factor is safety. It may not be safe to disclose or acknowledge the memories of trauma even years after the initial trauma has occurred.
- Depending on the context and conditions, both remembering and`forgetting’ may be healing and/or destructive (Stavropoulos P.A. & Kezelman C.A.)
I hope that this has helped bring some understanding and language around the horror of childhood abuse. I will be following this up with a post about when and how to report childhood abuse.
An article which I found extremely helpful was The Truth of Memory and The Memory of Truth: Different types of Memory and the Significance for Trauma: Stavropoulos P.A. & Kezelman C.A. This can be found on the Blue Knot Foundation website.
If this article has triggered a negative response in you – please seek help.
Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14 – Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention
You can call 1800RESPECT which is Confidential information, counselling and support service. Open 24 hours to support people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse.
The Blue Knot Foundation – National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma.
Blue Knot Foundation is Australia’s National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma, empowering recovery and building resilience for the five million adult Australians (1 in 4) with a lived experience of childhood trauma (including abuse), their families and communities.
Formed in 1995, Blue Knot Foundation provides a range of services including:
- specialist trauma counselling, information, support and referrals
- educational workshops for survivors and their family members, partners and loved ones
- professional development training for workers, professionals and organisations from diverse sectors
- group supervision
- resources including fact sheets, videos and website information at http://www.blueknot.org.au
“Abuse manipulates and twists a child’s natural sense of trust and love. Her innocent feelings are belittled or mocked and she learns to ignore her feelings. She can’t afford to feel the full range of feelings in her body while she’s being abused—pain, outrage, hate, vengeance, confusion, arousal. So she short-circuits them and goes numb. For many children, any expression of feelings, even a single tear, is cause for more severe abuse. Again, the only recourse is to shut down. Feelings go underground.”
“Violators cannot live with the truth: survivors cannot live without it. There are those who still, once again, are poised to invalidate and deny us. If we don’t assert our truth, it may again be relegated to fantasy. But the truth won’t go away. It will keep surfacing until it is recognized. The truth will outlast any campaigns mounted against it, no matter how mighty, clever, or long. It is invincible. It’s only a matter of which generation is willing to face it and, in so doing, protect future generations from ritual abuse.”
“So often survivors have had their experiences denied, trivialized, or distorted. Writing is an important avenue for healing because it gives you the opportunity to define your own reality. You can say: This did happen to me. It was that bad. It was the fault & responsibility of the adult. I was—and am—innocent.” The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass & Laura Davis”
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