When childhood is disrupted by trauma, there is only the unbearable heaviness of remembering
As I sat gazing out of my Flatiron office window, sipping my last drop of coffee, I began the process of emotionally unpacking and understanding the experience of my 4 year-old client. I recall how well emotionally masked she was on the outside, waltzing into my office in a black and white dress, her perfect cherub curls dangling, while her pleasant smile brought out her dimply round cheeks. Her name was Becky and although she carried a flawless outer appearance, it was quickly apparent this was a mask she perfected (even at such a young age) and wore so well. As Becky explained, in later sessions, her pain and confusion were “a lot,” so she kept it tightly locked away because “not feeling was better than feeling.” Yet, when triggered her story and would surface and break the silence of a reality she tried so hard to bury.
Becky was no stranger to the psychotherapy setting as had already spent a bigger part of her life needing support in various therapeutic spaces. I began treating *Becky at age 4 after she was sexually abused by a family member. During psychotherapy, Becky vacillated from appearing emotionally fragile, explosive, and vulnerable from even a small degree of stress or triggers connected to her past memories, fears, and any associations with the perpetrator (e.g., fruit, color blue, number 9, men in pea coats & office wear, puzzles & board games, play dough, certain types of paintings/artwork, and the words “clean up”). This was exhibited when she drooled or spit, bit her hand, yanked at her eyelashes, or attempted to flee the room. On the other end of the spectrum, she emotionally withdrew during intense times of emotional arousal or curled up on the couch to hug her stuffed animal to seek comfort.
When reflecting on childhood experiences, many put on rose-colored glasses and remember fun-filled summers consisting of birthday celebrations, block parties, sand castles, and the never-ending revolving door of joy. While memories are not precise reflections of our realities, they also act as emotional markers in time. On the darker flipside, when childhood is disrupted by trauma and sexual violence, there is only the unbearable heaviness of remembering.
1 out of every 7 victims of sexual assault cases reported to law enforcement agencies are under the age of 6.
Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and filled with emotional landmines. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the symptoms that follow have its greatest impact on children. Often unable to give voice to the unimaginable and unspeakable, children are silent sufferers of posttraumatic stress.
Traumatized children, and adults, get stuck in flight, fright, or chronic shutdown mode. Abused children have their own unique way of understanding, coping, and navigating through their physical and emotional world. For example, Becky says the “Angry Monster” sometimes appears. She describes a big, tall, and hairy monster that pulls on an invisible rope attached to her chest and yanks out her anger, sadness, and rage. Becky reports having no control over what comes out. Nor does she have awareness of specific situations or events that make the monster appear. During these moments, Becky’s mother describes Becky “raging out” — crying and screaming uncontrollably and physically violent towards mom or grandmother for several hours, until she becomes tired.
The imprint of violence not only consists of distorted perceptions of information coming from the outside, the body has forgotten “how” to feel safe and safe with “anyone” – everyone becomes Stranger Danger
A CRIME OF ACCESS
It is crucial to understand that child sexual abuse is also a crime of access. The abuser often has carte blanche access to the child, without suspicion and may be a trusted and respected member or friend of the family. When a child’s sense of trust has been undermined, rebuilding safety is the number one priority for a parent or caregiver.
WHEN PARENT AND CHILD NOW HAVE A HISTORY OF SEXUAL ABUSE
Becky’s mom had her own history of sexual abuse. Subsequently, the abuse of Becky triggered strong memories and feelings that she had not fully processed or worked through herself. Parents or caregivers who were sexually violated as children are in particular need of support. They often feel overwhelmed and unable to control what emotionally and physically surfaces for them.
For any parent who was a victim of abuse as a child, healing your own psychological wounds, not denying the sexual abuse of your child, and reassuring your child they did nothing wrong is critical in breaking the cycle of abuse so it is not passed onto the next generation.
PHYSICAL & EMOTIONAL SIGNS PARENTS/CAREGIVERS MUST NEVER IGNORE
If you suspect your child has been abused, seek immediate help through your pediatrician and local child protective agency.
• Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained
• Genital pain or bleeding
Restoring safety also means being keen observers of behavior and understanding the language of trauma, which manifests differently in children than adults. These are several common reactions and symptoms:
• Social withdrawal or clinginess
• Emotional numbing
• Tummy aches, headaches, bedwetting (after child has been potty trained)
• Sleep problems and sudden increase in nightmares
• Marked change in play (i.e. more aggressive or sexualized)
• Sudden mood changes or lower frustration tolerance
• Change in eating habits
• Academic decline
• Persistent fears about another disaster
HOW DO CHILDREN WITH HISTORIES OF SEXUAL AND PHYSICAL ABUSE REBOUND?
Most children and teenagers will recover from sexual abuse with a front line of support from family and the assistance of a mental health professional. The challenge of trauma treatment is not only dealing with the past, but enhancing the quality of day-to-day experiences. Regardless of age, if the aftermath of trauma is not worked through, it becomes the shadow, the self-destructive and possessive BFF that follows you into adulthood – never allowing you to truly feel alive.
Overall, Trauma leaves a trace, a filmy residue, that impacts a child’s capacity to thrive, and can paralyze both emotionally and physically. Not uncommon, memories of sexual violence are exiled to the deep and hidden crevices of their minds. As with adults, children can have extreme reactions to trauma, but developmentally may not be able to identify or express how they feel in words.
After the experience of violence, feeling “comfortably” numb and disconnected protects survivors from pain and becomes their legs, helping them walk through the daily routine of life. I always say, “When we numb the dark, we also numb the light.”
For instance, Becky lost the ability to identify even basic positive or negative emotions (e.g., happy, sad, or angry). Becky is now 6 years old. Working to expand her emotional intelligence and “feelings” vocabulary was essential in the healing process. Understanding and expressing what she feels and how she feels it, has opened a pathway for gaining control and learning ways to cope when the memories of her past rush to the present.
THE ANGRY MONSTER IS ON VACATION
After 2.5 years of being Becky’s partner during her trials and tribulations, stepping into the dark crevices of her memory, figuring out what coping strategies worked for her, collaborating with teachers to provide education about the aftermath of trauma in children, preparing her to begin school and safely navigate through her world, and incorporating body-based healing practices, Becky tells me, “The Angry Monster is on vacation in Miami.”