Childhood Abuse and Trauma
Prolonged and repeated abuse during childhood will affect the formation of the child’s personality, and his or her relating and relationships with others and the world… a formation that he or she will take into adulthood.
Children who develop in a climate of domination develop pathological attachments to those who abuse and neglect them. Experiencing an overwhelming sense of helplessness, and often unable to find any way to avert the abuse, the child commonly learns to adopt a position of complete surrender (Herman, 1997, pp. 98-99).
Having to adapt to a climate of constant danger, involving a state of constant alertness, the child becomes attuned to their abusers’ inner states. This becomes highly automatic – outside of conscious awareness. Where the individual comes to respond without knowing the signal. Responding with avoidance, or by placating. This becomes compliance… ‘trying to be good’ (Herman, 1997, pp. 99-100).
The child must construct some system of meaning that justifies the abuse, inevitably concluding that his or her innate badness is the cause (Herman, 1997, pp. 103). The child takes upon himself or herself the shame and guilt of his or her abuser. According to Herman (1997), “the profound sense of inner badness becomes the core around which the abused child’s identity is formed, and it persists into adult life. This malignant sense of inner badness is often camouflaged by the abused child’s persistent attempts to be good” (p. 105). There can be an inauthenticity or falseness to one’s experience and relating with others, from having to keep one’s true ‘bad’ self a secret from others for fear of being shunned. Often there is likewise a need to keep this ‘bad’ self (and associated feelings of shame) away from oneself – achieved through detachment and dissociation.
Major forms of adaptation that helped the child survive in an environment of chronic abuse – such as an elaboration of dissociative defences; the development of a fragmented identity; and the pathological regulation of emotional states (Herman, 1997, pp. 110) – will persist into his or her adult life.
The survivor is burdened by major impairments in self-care, in attention and consciousness, in identity, in affect regulation, and in his or her relating with others (Herman, 1997, pp. 110). He or she experiences repeated enactments of past trauma – where minor slights or hurts evoke past experiences of neglect or cruelty. Given past intrusion and violation, it will be difficult to establish safe and appropriate boundaries with others. The vigilance for, and attunement to, the wishes of others, and the unconscious compliance, make him or her vulnerable to look after other’s needs ahead of one’s own. As Herman (1997) states, “the adult survivor is at great risk of repeated victimization in adult life” (p. 111).
While it is commonly recognized that sexual abuse and physical abuse constitute ‘trauma’, we have more recently come to understand how emotional abuse can also be traumatic. That cumulative trauma can result from a child experiencing repeated emotional misattunements in the relationship with his or her parent (Meares, 2000, pp. 79-80).
It is fundamental to a child’s emotional development that his or her experience (particularly emotional experience) is empathically responded to or ‘attuned to’ (with understanding and acceptance) by the parent (Lynch, 1993, pp. 17-21).
Repeated misattunements (particularly in the critical early years of a child’s development), ranging from the child’s emotional needs being ignored or neglected (undervalued), to being devalued or invalidated through dismissiveness, ridicule, and/or the impingeing of the parent’s needs, not only leads to the individual not developing a healthy sense of self, but may lead to the development of a self disorder (Lynch, 1993, pp. 21-22; Meares, 2000, pp. 43-117; Wolf, 1988, chap. 5).
This can result in difficulties with emotional capacities and regulation; with low self-esteem; and with disordered relatedness and attachment (an inability to know and have healthy relationships, and a vulnerability to repeat unhealthy harmful relationships).
Psychodynamic psychotherapy is an essential approach for helping adult survivors of childhood abuse and trauma. According to Herman (1997):
The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. (p. 133)
It is a fundamental goal of psychotherapy to establish and maintain a safe and respectful ambience, where the therapist endeavours to understand and empathize with the individual’s experience. A relationship providing safety, trust, reliability, respect, understanding, and acceptance, is essential to enable survivors to explore and work through the very painful issues, meanings, and feelings that relate to the abuse/trauma. As well as providing the necessary attunement for the development of a healthy sense of self – involving adequate capacity for affect regulation, healthy self-esteem, and being able to form and maintain healthy intimate relationships.
Herman, J.L. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Lynch, V.J. (1993). Basic concepts. In H. Jackson (Ed.), Using self-psychology in psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.
Meares, R. (2000). Intimacy and alienation. Memory, trauma and personal being. London: Routledge.
Wolf, E.S. (1988). Treating the self. Elements of clinical self psychology. New York: The Guilford Press.