Survivors of adverse childhood experiences way too often struggle with the confusion about those experiences.
As a childhood trauma psychotherapist, particularly in the beginning of the treatment, I see many people who wrestle with reality and narratives around the past events of their lives. They struggle to name what happened, how often, who was involved and what it felt like at that time.
Often this confusion poses a great barrier to healing from the trauma. Traumatic memories pop into our minds, with or without triggers, forcing us to overreact to the present situations, and limiting our abilities to stay in the present.
Memory flaws and imperfections make recollection difficult. People are often unsure of what exactly happened to them in childhoods. Was there physical abuse or just verbal? Was there just neglect and lack of emotional nurturing or also violence and fear? But even after recalling events clearly, people inevitably begin to struggle to make sense of them. They don’t know how to feel, how to think of those, how to reconcile and integrate the trauma into their past, so that it ceases to affect them in their present.
So where does the confusion come from? Why is it so difficult to remember, narrate and achieve a clear view of what happened to a traumatized child? What would help making things clear? And how important such clarity would be for the healing process?
As I have been accompanying many people on their psychotherapy journey, I found some striking similarities when it came to the difficulties remembering and making sense of the past. I am aiming to outline some of them here, hoping that by reading about them, some survivors will find it familiar or helpful.
People struggle to recall incidents of abuse and neglect from their childhoods because talking about it feels like “judging the parents”.
Unfortunately it is still a taboo in many cultures and religions to look back at your parents‘ actions and evaluate them. Somehow it is okay if you can judge a killer/rapist/stalker/robber/terrorist and nod your head, acknowledging: “yeah, what that person did was wrong”. However, when it comes to our parents doing similar things to us (sexual abuse, hitting, robbing us of our sense of self-worth) this is somehow forgivable and should not be judged too harshly. It pains me to see these responses in my clients time and time again. And it is very important to work on this guilt and overcome it in therapy sessions, so that the healing can be under way. When fear of judging one’s parents creeps into a therapy session I try to remind my clients that our discussions are confidential and “I wont be telling anyone”. The client may (if they wish) proceed with having good relationship with their living parents, and confine the “judging” to the consulting space alone, but it needs to take place nevertheless.
Once the sense of guilt and taboo is removed, it allows people to speak freely, and the recollection and the work on traumatic memories can begin.
People struggle to differentiate between “right or wrong” things their parents did or did not do.
Often my clients say: “My Dad used to smack me sometimes, but no big deal, I mean, I did something wrong, so I used to get in trouble”. It is striking how we get used to abuse and even normalize and minimize it. Survivors of childhood trauma, despite recognizing the detrimental effects of harsh treatment, still remain unsure about how much of “just smacking” is too much. To help my clients get a sense of what can be considered too much and what is unacceptable I use this example.
Imagine you come to a performance meeting with your manager at work. Your manager tells you that you did something wrong. How do you expect the manager to behave in this situation? Would it be okay if your manager smacked you? Probably no, you would be very angry and complained to HR if that happened. Then why do you come up will all sorts of excuses when it comes to your parents?
When we work with hazy and skewed traumatic memories, getting the clarity about right and wrong is definitely helpful. So is understanding that your parents are no different when it comes to the way you allow others to treat you.
People struggle to recognize the paramount power imbalance between children and parents.
Survivors of childhood traumas often feel like they owe their parents for being born, for being raised, being provided with a roof over their heads and food, clothing, etc. They basically carry a huge guilt for being born. To them, the picture of parent-child existential given is distorted.
Restoring the survivors belief in the normal setting would definitely help to remove the feeling of being forever indebted in front of their parents. To facilitate restoration of such belief I often help the clients recognize that, when they were growing up, they had no choice whether to love their mother or not. Biological need has decided it for them.
Regardless of how they were treated, they continued to love and need and reach out to their mother. Sadly, children have no choice and they must survive with what they are given. They are indefinitely born into a situation where they are entirely dependent on the adults around them. In a healthy/normal setting, parents are responsible adults and must provide for the children simply because parents choose to have kids and kids cannot fend for themselves. Thus, provision of basic needs (including emotional needs!) is every child’s right and every parental responsibility. Emotional needs are often forgotten and survivors of childhood abuse feel they demand too much from their parents by needing emotional support.
Only by gradually recognizing the emotional nurturing as most basic and necessary, people are able to shift their focus and assess more of their past: what they actually had and what they missed out on.
People believe it may be necessary to be “strict” with children, so that they can learn to do better in life.
Sometimes my clients say to me: “But I am grateful to my parents for being strict with me, thanks to them being so strict, I learned self-discipline, and studied, and had achievements”.
We might recognize, that being beaten into doing school homework might have worked for some, but at what cost? If you believe that worked for you, ask yourself how much you ended up hating the activity (maths, piano, sports, you name it) because you have been forced to do it? If you have persevered at maths/piano/sports and you are successful in whatever you do, I bet that critical voice is still running in your head, every day, forcing you to perform.
Often high achievers that were criticized and judged by parents live on the edge of depression and with constant anxiety, as self-critic is running negative messages in their head, judging everything they do. It is often difficult for these people to relax and enjoy spare time as the critical voice immediately speaks up: “move, lazy bastard!” Once people understand that the way they were punished and pushed, and put down, and criticized, has played detrimental impact on their functioning, they can begin to cultivate compassion for themselves and learn other ways of being successful and productive. They can also begin to differentiate between being helpful and damaging.
Going back to the example with the manager at work also helps. I ask clients to imagine what management style would work better for them and allow them to achieve better results? Will you work more creatively and willingly of your manager beats you regularly (or humiliates you verbally)? Or are you likely to be more creative if your manager encourages and supports you?
Overall making sense of memories from our childhood is not only about the events recollection, but also about making meaning. This is a process that helps defining us as adults that break free from the abuse and become people of their own values, that can say what is right and wrong for them.
Sadly many societies in the world are still slow to recognize children’s rights and childhood traumas. In Australia I see many people who were raised within the cultures that to this day continue to practice physical punishment of children and even strongly advocate for it. Their healing may be further complicated by the values of the culture they still belong to, where they would be considered as an outcast, if they were to speak up as survivors of the childhood abuse. Raising and discussing these matters is still a taboo and it is only in the safety of a counselling session that these people find their voices.
Nevertheless, speaking out loud about the humiliating experiences of childhood abuse is necessary part of healing that can allow us to break free from the past, so that we no longer allow it to influence us.