A Psychoanalytic Approach to Helping Adults who are Healing from Childhood Abuse
What is Childhood Abuse
Childhood abuse consists of mistreatment of a child and this can be emotional, physical or sexual. It is often perpetrated by a family member, but could be by someone from outside the family. Below, I’ve listed examples of childhood abuse.
Childhood Physical Abuse
- hair pulling
- physical restraint by tying up or locking in a room
Childhood Emotional Abuse
- threat of violence as an ongoing implicit undercurrent at home
- excessive yelling
- criticising or ridiculing repeatedly and excessively
- failing to provide guidance and love
- threatening abandonment or physical harm
- emotional unavailability due to parental substance misuse e.g. alcohol
- emotional unavailability or intrusiveness due to parent’s own emotional difficulties or emotional illiteracy
Childhood Sexual Abuse
- seductive behaviour
- indecent exposure
- sexual touching
- fondling or game-playing
- oral, anal or vaginal intercourse
- photography or filming of a sexual nature
Boys as well as girls may have been sexually abused. Incidents may have occurred just once,or many times.
How does Trauma due to Childhood Abuse Impact a Person’s Adult Life?
The experience of being abused in childhood is traumatising and can adversely affect people in many ways, such as the following;
- low self-esteem
- violent or destructive acts
- drug or alcohol abuse
- difficulties with relationships and marriage
- problems raising children
- problems at work
- thoughts of suicide
- eating disorders
- sexual problems
- sleeping problems
Abused Children Use Survival Strategies
One of the main reasons why abused children have the above listed difficulties as adults is that, when they were being abused in childhood, they, consciously or unconsciously, developed survival strategies / defences, which helped them to very usefully survive tremendously difficult circumstances in childhood, but which have become unhelpful or harmful when the use of these strategies is extended into adulthood. In other words, childhood survival strategies have gone way past their sell by date.
Examples of these strategies are:
Denying that the abuse is occurring.
Some children daydream that they're elsewhere, or that the abuse is happening to a stranger. Others block out the memory of the abuse. Denial, carried forward into adulthood can be very damaging. If we turn a blind eye to bad things which are happening to us - a partner having an affair, a partner being violent to us - we’ll be unable to even see that we have a problem, let alone resolve the problem.
Taking the blame
The child pretends to themselves that their abusive parent is good, loving and kind. The child’s desire to do this is understandable. However the result is disastrous, because, in order to maintain this illusion of the parent’s goodness, the child has to pretend that the abuse they suffered was deserved. They take the blame. They have to pretend to themselves that the parent abused them because of some supposed evil within themselves - the abused child. The abused person thus mistakenly carries around with themselves all their lives the impression that they are not OK, that they are fatally flawed and that their emotions - particularly those of anger or eroticism are dangerous and that they deserve the self harm such as alcoholism which they are inflicting on themselves.
Not trusting people
A child who is neglected or beaten or sexually abused or emotionally intruded upon will tend to be distrustful - once bitten, twice shy. The abused child often carries this strategy into adulthood and may have attachment issues - difficulties with forming close, trusting relationships. They may avoid close relationships entirely or establish relationships with unavailable or inappropriate people or go for second best, because the best would feel too dangerous.
A child who is abused will often seek some kind of validation from wider society - for example at school, either academically or in a sport. They may dream of becoming a famous actress or marrying a prince or writing a successful book. Usually, even if they find some kind of acclaim, this need is not satiated and the person continues striving for recognition of their excellence. It’s not clear why this happens - perhaps they’re looking for the love and appreciation elsewhere that they never had as a child, perhaps it feels safer to get appreciation in this anonymous way rather than from a specific adult, perhaps it’s a way of messaging the parents - “Look, you were wrong. I am valuable. Look what you missed out on.”
Numbing and dumbing feelings
It’s very understandable that, if something terrible happens, a human being will try to diminish the impact of that event. In stress management theory they speak about the “Fight, flight, freeze” response. This numbing and dumbing down of feelings is the freeze part of the normal, human stress management response. A child who is being abused will tend to cut off from their feelings as a natural self protection mechanism. Something overwhelmingly awful is happening and the child understandably doesn’t have the mental or emotional equipment to deal with it and so they go into some form of self hypnosis - dissociation - or the feeling remains hidden in the unconscious. This is similar to denial in that the person is pretending that the abusive external event is not happening or is of no importance and that the internal events ( feelings of anguish, disillusionment, despair, emotional or physical pain ) are not happening or are of no importance. In adulthood this tendency to deny or anaesthetise feelings is usually unhelpful. Feelings are useful. If someone is messing me about, it’s useful for me to feel upset and angry or frightened so that I know there’s a problem and I can try to sort it out. Similarly, if something nice is happening to me, it’s useful for me to know that I’m feeling joyful, happy or pleased, because I can then try to identify and obtain more of whatever is leading me to feel good - as long as that is in my own long term best interest.
It is common for abused children to be impulsive. A child who has been beaten may become violent to children at school, a sexually abused child may become promiscuous. These behaviours can persist into adulthood. The person has overwhelming feelings and tries to get rid of or diminish these feelings by doing something. In psychoanalysis, this is called acting out.
It is common for people abused in childhood to become rescuers. The child may become very protective towards a sibling or may take on the role of “go between” - attempting to calm down any difficulties in the parents’ relationship or they may take on the role of carer for a depressed mother. As adults, they may have friends or a partner who they take care of or help - usually in a very one sided way. It’s difficult to know why this happens. Perhaps it’s because an abused child has such a low self esteem that they need to justify their existence or value by being the helper. Or perhaps it’s because the abuser has allocated to the child the role of useful child - ie. a sexual object or an assistant to the parent’s narcissism and the child carries on this role into adulthood forming relationships where they are the rescuer of someone who is a loser or a user.
Deference towards the abuser
Due to fear, low self esteem or lack of self confidence it is common for abused children to behave in a self defeating way towards the abuser - the abused tends to set the abuser on a pedestal above them. And then the abused has some kind of reluctance to knock the abuser off their grandiose perch. Whatever the reason, it is very common for the abused child to be subservient and deferential towards their abuser. This persists into adulthood and the abused person tends to choose abusive friends or an abusive partner and is frightened and reluctant to knock them off their perch.
Healing from childhood abuse.
This usually involves work and there usually will be scars.
Often people who were abused as children are reluctant to work on themselves. This may be because they think they don’t deserve it - due to the low self esteem caused by the abuse. Also, it’s very common for adults abused in childhood to be unwilling to say anything or think anything bad about a parent. They may also be reluctant to work on healing from the abuse because they are concerned that raking over these painful memories from childhood may be too traumatising.
This healing can take place through self help or through therapy. Often, people use both these methods in conjunction with each other.
Self Help Strategies to Aid Healing from Childhood Abuse
Know that you are not alone
Millions of today's adults were abused as children. Read books on the subject. Get support from fellow survivors who are ready and willing to help you
Recognise the seriousness of what happened
Let the memories surface, despite the pain. Don't downplay the abuse ("it only happened twice"). Events that seem minor in your adult eyes could have been major to a child.
Deal with your anger
- TALK with a good friend.
- WRITE your feelings in a journal.
- EXERCISE to reduce tension
Be patient with yourself
Just talking about your pain and anger won't change things overnight. Healing takes time.
Know who was responsible
Place responsibility for the abuse where it belongs: on the abuser, not on you. Don't make excuses for the abuser ("he was under a lot of stress").
Acknowledge your courage
You worked hard to survive a terrible time in your life. Now you can use that energy to move toward a positive future.
Try something new
Do things you never had a chance to do as a child: ride a horse, take music lessons, go fishing, etc. You may learn to take risks in the process.
Identify your strengths and abilities
Abused children often don’t receive the praise and recognition they deserve. They’re often unaware of their idiosyncratic strengths, weaknesses, abilities and interests. As part of the process of developing a non-abused personality, it’s often useful to explore yourself - what you’re passionately interested in - what you are good at. To do this it can be handy to experiment with things you might be interested in or might have abilities in. Also, it can be handy to use Tony Buzan’s methods of mind mapping, as outlined in his book, “How to Mind Map”. Also, you can use creative processes to access your true self. This is discussed in my page on Insight on this website.
How psychoanalytic psychotherapy can help adult survivors of child abuse.
The main way in which Psychoanalytic and Jungian therapy helps people to heal from having been subjected to childhood abuse is through insight - getting a better map of what happened to you and how the abuse you suffered continues to affect you today. Through therapy you can feel safe and valuable enough to highlight what happened - to name it for what it was and to feel justified in naming it that way. You can become aware that what happened was wrong, that it wasn’t your fault and that the perpetrators were using and abusing their position of power over a child in a bad way. These kinds of insights are likely to lead you to go through powerful emotions and processes - some optimistic - some difficult. This is normal and understandable under the circumstances. These emotions and processes might be;
- Feelings of anger
- Feelings of sadness
- Feelings of anxiety
- Mourning for the parent you didn’t have - the other one who would have loved you and taken care of you - protected you from abusive acts rather than perpetrate them against you or stand by, watching another person abusing you
- Feeling for the first time in your life that you’re OK and didn’t in any way deserve to be abused
These kinds of emotions and processes are usually very difficult and very painful. However, the end result of feeling better about yourself, diminishing self harmful, impulsive behaviour and making better life decisions is an extremely valuable outcome for that hard work.
Accessing Psychotherapy to Aid Healing from Childhood Abuse
To access the type of Psychoanalytic / Jungian approach to aid healing from childhood abuse, as outlined on this page, you can use Michael Friedrich's page.
Monika Friedrich includes similar ideas to those outlined above in her work, but she mostly uses EMDR to help people heal from their traumas. Please see Monika's page.