t's a strange concept. Bizarre to say the least.
You'll be sitting there, talking to the survivor, when all of a sudden you realize she isn't even listening. Instead, she'll be staring at some faraway object as though deep in thought.
At that moment, you wonder if she's losing her marbles. But, she's not. And neither are you. The survivor is merely getting in touch with a part of herself that hasn't healed. It's something deep inside her called the child within - something that's been with her for years.
She's never seen it, probably never talked to it and likely didn't know it existed. But, it's probably always been there - locked somewhere in the crevices of her mind. And now that she's started the healing process, it's come to the forefront. It wants attention and it wants it now.
The child within is one of the most difficult things for supporters to understand, but it's also something you'll probably have to come to grips with.
For the survivor, the child is a real thing, although not in the physical sense. The survivor is able to feel what the child feels, talk to it, even console it. Sometimes, the survivor can picture the child inside her. She can see her sitting in a room, playing with her things.
Usually, the child resembles what the survivor thinks she looked like as a child. At times, the survivor will be totally in touch with the child within. Other times, she'll be completely at its mercy.
I've been told by some therapists that survivors sometimes don't have a child within. In other cases, the child just doesn't come out. It depends a lot on the severity and nature of the abuse. Usually, a survivor can only be put in touch with the feelings of the child through therapy.
One time Liz was having such trouble dealing with the child within that she got angry and literally yelled at it. She just wanted the child to go away and never bother her again. The child did disappear but only for a while. I remember how worried we were at what had happened. Liz and I both knew that the child within would return. We just weren't sure what damage we had caused. We were worried what would happen when it did return. Sure enough the child did come back with a vengeance. Like a spoiled child, it demanded more attention than ever.
ACCEPTING THE CHILD
There are many supporters who have trouble accepting this strange phenomenon. It's no small wonder. If you ever told anybody about it, they'd think you're crazy to say the least. They'd probably think the survivor is crazy too.
For them, it may conjure up images of Sybil, the girl with the umpteen different personalities. It doesn't exactly work that way, but try and tell that to those who don't know much else about child sexual abuse. They won't understand.
I remember countless times when Liz would be dealing with the child within. At first, I just shied away from the whole thing and trusted her to deal with the situation. But eventually, she began to trust me enough that she'd let me in on what was going on. If Liz was in the process of dealing with the child within, she'd talk to me about it and ask for my opinion. I was always careful not to insult the child. After all, this was an entity that had been abused and there was no point in ridiculing the child for something that wasn't her fault. The child eventually grew such trust for me that I could talk to it. Sounds a bit nuts, doesn't it? But, I'd talk to Liz who would relay the message to the child and give me an answer. I wouldn't recommend this for every supporter, but if you feel comfortable enough doing this, I don't think there's any real harm in it.
If you think about it for a moment, it's not all that complicated or startling. Think about how old the survivor was when she was abused. Now picture yourself about that age. Now ask yourself how you would have felt if someone you had trusted came into your room in the middle of the night and abused you. Remember, you didn't know anything about sex. You didn't know if it was right or wrong. How would it have affected your emotional development? How would it have affected your trust for people? How would it have affected your self-confidence and your own self-worth?
The extent of psychological damage can vary widely, depending on the abuse. It depends, for example, on how long the abuse continued and the relationship of the offender to the child. It also depends on such things as the kind of and degree of sexual abuse, the age of the child, if others were involved and whether or not the child disclosed the abuse and how it was handled. Each person is different. Each situation is different. Some trends have appeared though.
- Psychological effects of child sexual abuse are usually greater when the abuse has involved physical violence.
- The psychological distress is usually greater if the child was abused by a trusted person rather than a stranger.
- Brief incidents of child sexual abuse usually have less of an impact than abuse that continues over a long period of time.
- Children abused when they are very young usually show fewer psychological effects than children who are abused when they are older.
HOW THE CHILD FORMS
The child within forms because the abused child is unable to handle emotions like an adult can. Although the child may feel the abuse is wrong, a young child gets very confused because the perpetrators enforce the notion that what happens is right. Plus, the child is usually rewarded for all the actions. Because they get so confused about it all, abused children lock the emotions deep inside. It's sort of like forming a child within a child. In the end, the abuse may have caused them to feel guilty and believe bad things about themselves.
The child may carry around feelings of anger, fear, shame and guilt. The survivor might feel angry at the perpetrator for putting her through the abuse. She may also be angry at herself for letting it happen. She could carry a lot of anger towards her parents for not stopping the abuse. She may just be angry at anybody and everybody for what happened.
Sometimes, a child who is being abused may tell somebody about what is happening. But many times, the older person she tells either refuses to believe her or doesn't want to get involved. If a child tells the mother, the mother will sometimes blame the child for what is happening. Other times, the mother tries to stop the abuse but finds out she can't without letting other people know. She may choose to do nothing because she's ashamed or doesn't want to break up the family.
Children who are sexually abused are usually afraid because the perpetrator may have made threats or the child feels nobody will believe her. The child may also be afraid the family will break up if she tells about the abuse. She may also be afraid of losing the love, friendship or security of the abuser. The child who is a victim of abuse may also feel shame that other people will find out what happened. The child may think that people will regard her as dirty or bad if she tells.
Guilt is also common among abused children. The child may feel it's her fault, especially if she was rewarded for her actions. She may feel like she is betraying the abuser if she tells on him. The child may also carry guilt because she may think she could have done something to stop the abuse.
Because of their age and inexperience in life, children don't have the capacity to cope with the feelings which overwhelm them from abuse. So, when a child gets overwhelmed with emotions, the child shuts out those feelings. Instead of letting them out in a healthy manner like an adult, the feelings go deeper inside the child where they churn around for years on end. That bottled up anger and frustration affects the child's emotional development. In later years, it's like having a child's emotions locked inside an adult's body.
Children often lack the skills to objectively assess what they're learning. So, if they get mixed up messages as a child, they are unable to determine what is right and wrong as an adult. Although a child may have sensed that the abuse which took place was wrong, the child doesn't know any different or how to avoid it. When a child is being abused by someone that she is supposed to respect and listen to, she tells herself: ``I know this is wrong and I hate this feeling, but he is telling me that I have to do it.''
Often, the only way for a child to hang on is to dissociate herself from the abuse. The dissociation results in a child self being formed inside the subconscious of the survivor. The abuse may stop and the child may grow up, but the child within does not. All the thoughts and feelings that were there during the abusive years are still inside the person. So, if the abuse took place 20 years ago, the survivor has been carrying around the thoughts and feelings for 20 years.
The child may use a number of methods to disassociate herself from the abuse. In Liz's case, she used music. She remembers disco music playing when the abuse took place. She would focus on the disco music as a way of disassociating herself from what was happening to her body.
This disassociation can manifest itself in a number of ways later in life. I remember one day shopping with Liz. She insisted that we get a disco tape. It sounds silly, but since I wasn't a big disco fan, I questioned why it was so important. Well, I got my answer when she stormed out of the store in anger. I didn't know what I had said or done that had made her so mad. Later, when we visited our counsellor, we explained what had happened and she pinned it down to the fact that the disco tape was important to the child within Liz because it was her only way of disassociating from abuse.
Survivors cope with the abuse and adjust to its effects in different ways. But ignoring the situation and hoping it will go away usually ends up backfiring. All the bad things that got locked away when the survivor was a child eventually come up in some way. And they can be triggered by a number of things.
An adult survivor of abuse may end up with a deep lack of trust for everyone, low self-esteem, depression, sexual and parenting problems. The survivor can also have memory blocks of their childhood years, recurring depression and suicide attempts. They may also have their feelings completely shut down, shut off or made inaccessible to anyone. Sometimes, the survivor disassociates herself from any stressful situation or perceives the adult self and child self as two separate individuals.
As an adult, feelings of self-hatred, guilt or shame may lead to high-risk activities such as alcoholism, drug addiction or sexual promiscuity. One common symptom among survivors is eating disorders. In a 1990 study of 158 women with eating disorders, more than half divulged they had suffered some form of earlier sexual trauma. Others go in the opposite direction and end up starving themselves.
Sometimes, survivors don't manifest symptoms until they marry or have children. Occasionally, powerful, overcoming feelings may arise from sexual activity or other things like diapering a helpless baby.
It is important that the survivor learn how to talk to the child within. A good professional counsellor should be able to help the survivor get in touch with her inner self. The counsellor will also be able to help the survivor manage and cope with this newfound entity.
It's equally important that you also learn how to cope with the child within. Rest assured, it is not something the survivor is making up. It is best if you accept the fact that the child exists and help the survivor learn how to handle it. Sometimes it could mean leaving the survivor alone for periods of time when she decides to deal with the child. Remember, the child is like any child. It wants attention and it wants to be assured it is safe. At times, the child will demand the survivor's complete attention and that's when your feelings will just have to take a back seat for the time being.
You can slowly establish a relationship with the child too, although this can be a bit tricky. The child probably doesn't trust anyone, especially males, so don't expect immediate success with this approach. Patience is a virtue here. If you feel you aren't able to handle the whole episode of talking to the child within, don't try. It's best not to offend the child and have to start from scratch again.
It all sounds rather strange. But, when you're talking to the child within, what you're actually doing is talking to the survivor. The survivor may say things like, ``The little girl doesn't like men. She doesn't trust them.'' You may want to respond with something like this, ``Well, she's right to think like that. She's been abused. But all men aren't like the one who abused her.'' Remember, trust has to be earned. The child within doesn't trust easily and it's going to take a lot for you to earn her trust. Remember, the child within has been abused so don't expect miracles too fast.
If you're trying to talk to the little girl and you don't know the answer to something, don't try and bluff her. It's best to let her know that you don't know something and be honest with her. She'll respect honesty. Never try to trick the little girl. She'll be too quick for that and when she finds out it will take a long time for her to trust you again.
Think of the child within as a real child and treat it with that same respect. Assure her that you'll protect her, that you'll try to help her and that you'll never give up on her. Don't yell at her if you get mad because she'll just disappear and not come back for quite some time. Assure the child that you do believe her, that the abuse wasn't her fault and that you're not angry at her for it.
It doesn't happen all the time, but the child within usually disappears as the healing process nears an end. There's no time limit on all of this. Like the other parts of the healing process, it doesn't happen overnight. In the majority of cases, the adult and child become one. That's because, as a survivor heals, the child's emotions will heal too. In the end, the child no longer exists.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
- The child within is real.
- The child acts and feels like a real child.
- Children dissociate themselves from abuse.
- Learn to accept the child within.
- The child within usually disappears.
To order a copy of the book What About Me? Contact:
Creative Bound Inc.
151 Tansley Drive
P.O. Box 424
Carp, Ontario Canada
The book retails for $15.95 Canadian $13.95 U.S ($3.00 shipping cost)
Copyright © 1997 by Grant Cameron. Placed here with permission.