Adult Survivors of Child Abuse
The long term consequences of child abuse and neglect, means many children emerge into adulthood with dysfunctional behaviours and limiting beliefs. Some will seek therapy to correct those challenging behaviours and unsupportive beliefs they’ve developed as a response to the abuse, and many will not. Counsellor and author John Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You, discusses what a child needs from their caretaker or parent to develop into a healthy adult. He says children need a firm but understanding caretaker, who is having their own needs met with their partner. These caretakers need to have resolved their own issues from their childhood and possess a “sense of self-responsibility” to enable them to meet the child’s needs. Bradshaw claims that much of what ails people is a sense of toxic shame that comes from not being allowed to be their true self when they were growing up. To cope with not being able to be their true self they formed a false self to cover up the shame they experienced as a child. This cover up differs from having a healthy sense of shame which is normal and human. Healthy shame lets us know what our limits or boundaries are, that we are not God, and we don’t have unlimited power. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s ok. Healthy shame is connected to a state of humility and we don’t need to be shamed for making mistakes (Bradshaw, J. 1988).
For example, we maybe in a shop and accidently knock something off a shelf and then offer to pay for it. This experience can bring up a healthy sense of shame. Our face may blush with shame and embarrassment. This is different to a toxic sense of shame, of not feeling ok in our self or, not being good enough. Toxic shame feels very uncomfortable and wants to hide. People can spend a lot of energy creating a false self to hide their toxic shame. They can try to be perfect, or use food, drugs, alcohol or shopping to numb the emotional pain of the toxic shame they feel about themselves. Bradshaw says one of our basic needs is structure, to give our lives form. We need a boundary system to safely operate within and not wander off in too many directions. The boundary keeps us grounded, clear headed, and away from being confused and wasting our energy.
Erik Erikson, a German American psychologist who wrote, Childhood and Society (1950), says we develop a sense of basic trust with our caregivers and the world between birth and 15 months. His theory of psycho-social development outlines a need to be able to trust our caregivers more than we distrust them. The caregivers need to be soothing, affectionate, predictable, and mirroring our behaviours so that we develop a healthy sense of who we are. This formative stage is critical for developing a sense of self- worth. Babies are very dependent on their caregivers for helping them develop a sense of self. As basic trust grows, an emotional bond is formed and they feel the mutual love and understanding strengthened by many experiences with their caregivers. This enables the baby to be vulnerable, to need the caregiver and trust they’ll be there for them after they explore the world by taking risks. Without a foundation of basic trust and a strong emotional bond with the caregiver, the baby will fail to develop a healthy sense of self and self-worth.
The second stage of development begins around 15 months and is about developing a healthy sense of shame. By this time, infants are usually standing and moving around the furniture, strengthening their muscles and exploring their environment. They’re learning to hold on to things and take some risks by letting go and standing on their own two feet. As they find their balance, they take more and more steps and touch, test, and taste everything to add to their knowledge of the world. During this stage they learn to feel and be separate from their caregivers and assert their individuality. This stage is often referred to as the terrible two’s as the toddler can be very stubborn about wanting their own way.
Erickson says the purpose of the second stage of development is to create a balance between being autonomous and feeling shame and doubt. The infant needs a firm and guiding hand from their caregiver to set limits as to what they can safely explore. The guidance needs to feel reassuring for the child so it doesn’t block their natural sense of curiosity to continue to discover new things. Caregivers need to provide a healthy modelling of emotions so that when the child does have a tantrum, the caregiver can be understanding and loving in their responses to them.
A healthy display of shame is expressed when a child feels shy in the company of strangers. This is a normal response as the strangers are not part of their family. They are “unfamiliar”. Children can feel shame when they have failed at something and they feel too exposed. Their face may blush as a signal of their embarrassment. Bradshaw says, shyness acts as a kind of natural boundary that protects the child from being exposed to strangers who can be threatening and doing things that are unknown to them. Shyness protects the inner core and alerts the child to be cautious as they could be wounded by the stranger. Shame is experienced when shyness has become a serious problem. People can feel deeply flawed and worthless at a core level as this toxic shame goes beyond a feeling or state of emotional expression. Here the individual has adopted a belief that they are defective as a human being. This is usually due to poor treatment in early life from shame-based parents. They become over identified with this feeling and are ashamed of themselves. This deep sense of shame influences their whole perception of themselves, and their relationship to the world at large. It’s like having an internal bleed and the person guards against exposing themselves to the world. More significantly, they guard against exposing themselves to themselves. Their sense of self is something they feel contempt for, and a lack of trust. They feel an inner torment, a sickness in their soul. This sense of shame became internalised because they felt unloved and abandoned by their caregivers.
Children need caregivers to be able to mirror back to them who they are. Without that, children feel abandoned. Caregivers who are emotionally unavailable and shut down, cannot mirror back to a young child who they are. Therefore, they feel lost and abandoned. The abandonment can include, a neglect of developmental dependency needs, any form of abuse, and becoming entangled into the needs of the parents or the family. Bradshaw says if we become shame-based, then any time we feel a feeling, any feeling, then we feel shame. “The dynamic core of human life is grounded in your feelings, your needs and your drives. When these are bound by shame, you are shamed to the core” (1988). If we weren’t allowed to express certain feelings when we were growing up, then we became alienated to our core within, our true sense of self. That part of ourselves becomes disowned and cut off. For example, if you grew up in a family that didn’t allow you to express angry feelings, then that part of your self was left behind, undeveloped and disowned. In the future, when angry feelings surface, you experience feelings of shame instead. Maybe you have thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have these feelings”. This is more likely if you’re female and raised to not express anger. Maybe you were told it was “unladylike” and you had to be a “good girl.” This can leave you feeling alone and isolated with feelings of shame and disowned anger that compromises your sense of self.
Bradshaw says the basis of all addictions, co-dependency and compulsive behaviours is shame. Everyone has the capacity to be a bit neurotic, or have some character disordered personality traits. The neurotic tends to blame themselves for what is going wrong in their life, and the person with some disordered personality traits tends to blame everyone else for their problems. The major problem we have to deal with in daily life Bradshaw says, is to sort out what our responsibilities are to the challenges we face.
Dr Susan Forward in her book Toxic Parents, writes about how people can clarify what went wrong with the parenting they received and how to heal themselves. As a therapist she discusses;
- the inadequate parents
- the controllers
- the alcoholics
- the verbal abusers
- the physical abusers
- the sexual abusers
Forward talks about how people can make a new start by learning how to define themselves in terms of their beliefs, feelings and behaviours that is different from their parents. This process seems to be similar to Erikson’s second stage of child development – Autonomy versus Shame.
Unlike many religious, spiritual, psychological and philosophical doctrines, Forward says you don’t have to forgive your parents for the abuse. Nor does she advocate revenge, as that can inhibit a person’s well-being with obsessive fantasies and general unhappiness. Sometimes the forgiveness can act as a kind of denial and prohibits the person from getting on with their life. Many people rush into the process of forgiving their parents without dealing with the emotional healing that needs to happen first. People need to express anger about what happened to them and then grieve for the parental love they never received. After this, a forgiveness can that take place, particularly when parents earn it.
Forward claims there’s something wrong with unquestionably absolving a parent from their responsibilities. Particularly if they severely abused their child. Toxic parents need to acknowledge what happened and take responsibility for their behaviour to make amends. Otherwise, if the parents remain the same then it can negatively impact the emotional wellbeing of the person trying to recover from the abuse. It acts as a kind of denial that nothing wrong ever happened and therefore, no healing can take place. Forward recommends confronting the abusive parent even though it can be very unappealing for some. If you don’t deal with your anger, sadness, fear or guilt connected to the abuse, you will pass it on to your own children. Forward writes, “a toxic family system is like a multi-car pile-up on the freeway, causing damage generation after generation after generation. This system is not something that your parents invented; it is the result of the accumulated feelings, rules, interactions, and beliefs that have been handed down from their ancestors”. She says if you want to understand the chaos of the toxic family, just look at the beliefs they hold. Some families believe that a child’s feelings are important, and another family will treat them like a second class citizen. Some families believe that children should be seen and not heard and that children should respect their elders no matter what. These rules may be spoken or unspoken.
Forward says a healthy family is able to openly discuss problems as they arise. Toxic parents will cope by;
- being in denial of the problem
- projecting blame onto the child
- triangulate a child by enlisting them as an ally against the other parent
- sabotage the recovery of a family member as they return to a healthier state to maintain a system of dysfunction
- keep secrets about the abuse
All of these behaviours maintain the problem for the child who can feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of the problem. Understanding the values, beliefs and rules of a family system is the first step to changing the way someone can respond to them. Forward strongly advocates getting therapy if you were sexually abused. In her book she discusses;
- why someone may need therapy
- selecting a therapist
- having individual or group therapy
- the therapeutic use of writing letters to the abuser, the other parent, the damaged child, the partner (if you have one) and your children
The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, is a self-help book for female survivors of child sexual abuse. It outlines the effects of sexual abuse, a guide to understanding what happened to them, and why it happened. Bass and Davis claim that one out of three girls and one out of seven boys are sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old. The book provides a guide on how to make the decision to heal from the abuse, to process grief and anger, and improve self-esteem and relationship patterns. Over a dozen in-depth stories of women who survived their ordeal discuss how they overcame self-defeating patterns of low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy and sexuality.
Many people who’ve been abused in childhood have difficulties establishing healthy intimate relationships as adults. Psychologist David Richo, PhD., in his book, How to be an Adult in Relationships, claims that people need the “five A’s” to have a healthy relationship. They are; attention, acceptance, affection, appreciation, and allowing (to be ourselves). Richo claims these five A’s are genuine healthy needs that form the basis of secure, loving relationships. The opposite of the five A’s are; being ignored, not listened to, shamed or not loved for who you are, they abused you, withheld love, criticised you, controlled or manipulated you.
In Australia in 1995, a group of volunteers started an organisation called Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA). They began in the basement of a Sydney home and offered their first self-help group in 1996. In 2007, they moved to a National Office and started a program of workshops for survivors and health professionals in 2008. In 2009, they established a national help line with professionally trained trauma therapists and counsellors. In 2012, they launched Blue Knot Day to increase the public awareness of child abuse. More information about their support, education and services can be found at www.blueknot.org.au.
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began its national inquiry in 2013. As a result, the Blue Knot Foundation increased their provision of training programs and counselling services to respond to the needs of millions of adults who’ve been affected by the trauma of child abuse. People can call 1300 657 380 and receive information about services and referrals to a trauma General Practitioner, Health Professionals and agencies.
Bass, E., & Davis, L. (1988). The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Harper & Row Publishers, New York.
Bradshaw, J. E. (1988). Healing the Shame that binds you. Health Communications Inc, Florida.
Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and Society, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, London.
Forward, S. Dr. (1989). Toxic Parents: Overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life, Bantum Books, New York.
Richo, D. (2002). How to be an Adult in Relationships, Shambala Publications, Boston.