One of the most harmful legacies of childhood trauma is the survivor’s incapacity to develop trust in others.
When we were children, in the face of abuse, we felt powerless. This may have been because, in our home environment, the parent exercised power in a way that was inconsistent, arbitrary, chaotic, erratic and grossly unreasonable; in other words, the parent abused their power.
Because, when young, we may have found ourselves living in a perpetual state of severe fear of what our parent might do next, many of us would have become HYPER-ALERT to any signs of danger; indeed, it is likely we became extraordinarily adept at sensing our abusive parent’s inner psychological/emotional state, leading us to develop the ability to perceive, to an almost uncanny degree, even the most subtle changes in our parent’s tone of voice/body language/facial expression.
Indeed, when I was still extremely young, I could detect, on a subliminal level and almost instantaneously, I think, the tiniest change in my mother’s countenance, thus enabling me to accurately infer and assess her dramatic, totally unpredictable and frightening shifts in mood.
In order to protect themselves, some young people who find themselves in such a terrible situation develop the psychological defence mechanism of DISSOCIATION (click here to read my article on this).
In my own case, when I was about eight years old, I started to blot out from my conscious awareness people’s voices, at times, if what they were saying posed an overwhelming psychological threat – for example, if the teacher was talking to the class about family life, my brain would stop registering what was being said; this was so extreme that even if my name were called out several times I did not (indeed, could not) respond. Eventually, the school put me in touch with a doctor to determine if I was going deaf. However, my hearing was fine – my utter inability to hear on these occasions was just a powerful psychological defence mechanism.
Nobody, however, saw fit to do anything about this (surely?) alarming state of affairs.
I have been informed of this phase of my life by people who knew me then. However, I have no memory whatsoever of the period, including no recollection whatsoever of seeing the doctor who carried out the hearing test.
I should note, too, that research now shows that the more severe the abuse, the more adept the young person being abused becomes at unconsciously employing dissociative psychological defences, such as the one described above.
Because s/he is living in constant fear, the child learns that the very adult who is supposed to care for/protect/nurture him/her is, in fact, the very source of danger. S/he also learns that other people, who have a duty to protect him/her, cannot be relied upon or trusted (assuming that none of these people effectively intervene). Often, this will be the other parent who may, therefore, be considered to be complicit in the abuse (in the sense of being negligent and also in the sense of essentially enabling the abusive parent to continue their abuse with impunity).
In response to this parent’s non-intervention, the child feels abandoned and betrayed – as if s/he has been thrown to (or, at least, left to) the wolves.
In fact, the child may be even more hurt, and, therefore, angry and resentful, about this abandonment and betrayal than about the actual abuse itself; indeed, to the child, it is as if the scale of the betrayal has not been merely doubled, but squared. Or cubed.
As a result, rage and fantasies of revenge against the parent, even fantasies of patricide or matricide, are normal (although, of course, such fantasies are virtually never carried out, I hasten to add!).
HOW DO WE, AS CHILDREN, MAINTAIN HOPE IN SUCH A SITUATION?
In order to maintain hope, which is psychologically essential, as children we very frequently develop, as a defence, a profound and unshakeable belief that we must be ‘innately bad’, or, even, ‘innately evil.’ This serves the following purposes :
a) It follows from this belief, we can reason to ourselves, that we ‘deserved’ the abuse because we are bad, not our parents. This self-deluded belief system is, in fact, less psychologically damaging to us than having to confront the truth that our parents are an active danger to us – we are unable to assimilate such an appalling truth.
b) Believing that we are ‘bad’ and deserving of our abuse gives us both hope and the illusion of control, as it follows that if only we corrected our faults the abuse would end.
The child’s feeling of being ‘bad’ may be ‘confirmed’ by the family SCAPEGOATING the child (click here to read my article which goes into this in greater detail). Indeed, a whole family legend may be created by this means of scapegoating.
In such an extraordinarily complex family situation, as children we are left deeply confused and will certainly lack the verbal skills and articulacy necessary to explain what is going on – indeed, what is happening is so exquisitely complicated it will, too, surpass our understanding.
We are, therefore, unable to defend ourselves verbally so will, in many cases, ACT OUT OUR ANGER AND DISTRESS. Unfortunately, this will confirm, in our own minds, our belief that we are ‘bad’. Furthermore, such behaviour may be used as evidence by the scapegoating family that it is, indeed, us ourselves who are at fault, thus perpetuating the family mythology and used against us.
This problem is compounded if we do not only direct our anger at our parent but, also, displace it onto those who do not deserve it. By so doing, we incriminate ourselves further in the respective (and, in a sense, possibly collective) minds/mind of our family, and, indeed, in our own minds.
SOME EFFECTS OF NOT DEVELOPING TRUST:
Because our experiences prevent us from developing the capacity to trust others we also fail to develop a sense of inner safety. We may feel constantly in danger, even years or decades after the abuse has stopped, and therefore turn to external, self-destructive forms of temporary comfort such as excessive drinking, drug taking and promiscuous sex.
Ironically, too, we may cling to the parent who damaged us in the desperate, yet forlorn, hope that we may, finally, come to be able to depend on them.
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David Hosier BSC Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).