By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved
One huge misnomer in the issue of child abuse, particularly child sex abuse, is the unspoken idea that since children don’t tell, somehow they have either forgotten or the experience was less traumatic than the same event might have been for an adult. We love to talk about the resilience of children, and sweep a host of evils under a cute little blankie of minimization.
This misunderstanding is profoundly wrong, with devastating consequences. We fail to respect the fact that children’s souls and spirits are complete from the beginning, though those youthful minds, wills and emotions are under development. The fact that they are under development does not negate the fact they are fully active and will remain intact throughout life. That 3-year-old, 6-year-old or 8-year-old is the same person they will be as an adult, merely less developmentally mature. We confuse the fact that person is physically small and unable to function at an adult level, with their value as a person and their ability to be fully affected by experiences they do not understand.
There are three basic reasons children do not tell about the abuse they experience.
1. Child brains are not yet able to quantify or process what they have experienced.
Two things may happen when a child experiences abuse. First, brains have a limit of how much information, especially traumatic information, they can process. Dissociation, where the brain just says, “nope, can’t take any more,” is not even uncommon for adults under extreme duress.
There has been a lot of controversy over “repressed memories” because of the unconscionable actions of some practitioners. It is certainly possible for a practitioner to implant false memories in a client they are treating. However, the fact that some people have implanted false memories does not negate the reality of repressed memories for those who experience them.
Generally, the more horrific the abuse, the more deeply repressed the memories may be. Sometimes, when there is general and serious abuse, a child’s mind will repress only particular memories. For instance, a child may remember gross physical abuse and repress memories of sex abuse by the same or another offender because their brain just cannot bear that additional offense.
Memories may also be suppressed rather than repressed. I do not know if this is a clinical distinction; it is just one I have observed. Sometimes these memories are completely repressed from the conscious memory. Other times they are there in part, in shadows, in dreams, in day-mares (often associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that we attempt to deny, but are aware of. This was my experience. I always knew the memories were there, I just didn’t understand them and stuffed them back down out of sight every time they popped back to the surface because they were overwhelming.
The other thing that can happen because young brains do not know how to quantify or process what they have experienced, is that they do not have the verbal skills to express what has happened to them. We wonder why children don’t tell, but how can they put into words experiences that are completely out of their realm?
This comment was made by Katherine on another thread:
…A while back, I was talking about the childhood abuse with a friend. She asked what would have happened if I had told my parents what my cousin and my babysitter were doing. I thought about it and released that as bad as thinks were, if my parents had know what was going on, it would have been worse.
About a year ago, I laid out in plain language for my mother to read, the events as they happened. I asked her what she would have done if she had know. She had to think about it, then said she would have sat us down and told what w should and should not be doing. I think it would have been much worse than that….
Why don’t we tell? Hmm… the funny thing is, children do tell, in so many ways — addictions, changes in personality. I actually drew a picture when I was 3. And my mother sent it to her little (teenaged) sister. Neither of them got it. I didn’t have words, just pictures…. We do tell. People just don’t know how to hear.
This is extremely common. In my own case, I didn’t know how to say anything to my parents. What I came up with was to ask if my molester “was a good girl.” How is a parent going to realize that means something nefarious? When my parents said she was a good girl, I determined what she had done must not have been bad, even though I didn’t like it and didn’t understand it and fought her over it, and that was when I closed the door on the memories.
But as this commenter noted, people just don’t know how to listen. The adults responsible for children have to learn to “listen” with more than just their ears, while not either secondarily- or primarily-assaulting their children in their probes for information. Children who are being abused cry out – they just don’t know how to do it so they will be understood.
The signs are fairly obvious when you’re clued in to them. I wonder about various children a lot. There can be other reasons for those things, too — not everything means sexual abuse! — but here’s the thing – there are always reasons. They are not just “that’s the way that child is.”
When a child has a very low self-esteem, overweight (in a family where that isn’t a genetic trait or family-wide habit), hides behind their hair, wets the bed, escapes in fantasy or other escape mechanism to an unusual degree, rarely smiles or laughs, is very still and/or withdrawn, or conversely is very aggressive — these are all signs! Something is not right. There are other signs, too – and it’s hard to make a list because children can even have their own unique manifestations.
But bottomline – children are naturally trusting, open, rarely given to weight extremes (unless that is a genetic family trait), etc. When there is an obvious and persistent variation from this norm, something is wrong. Even children who are by nature more quiet and withdrawn, are that way in a positive and healthy way, not in a “something’s not right” way. The “something” may not be sexual abuse, but this pattern of behavior is a sign for parents and caregivers to pay attention and find out what is going on in the life of that child.
Children may also be attempting to cry out safely if they know they are in danger. This can further obscure the message. If they have been threatened by their abuser or they know their circumstances at home are not secure, children are even less able to clearly communicate they have a problem. In their child way, they have to try to figure out how to reach out without putting themselves or others in more danger. How much “odd” or unpleasant child behavior could be a cry for help?
2. Children have been trained in impotence.
We tend to train children that they are powerless. This is something we do with children as a general course, but it is particularly true of children who are experiencing abuse.
In the “normal” way of things, we treat children with disrespect. This is common in our culture and within Christianity. We express this in the way we minimize their thoughts, emotions and experiences. These are real people who have simply not yet reached adulthood. They are not “less” by nature of their age and size.
There is an additional factor which enters the picture with abuse. Abusers choose their targets because they are available. That availability is not just geographic. Abusers also know how to sense a child who is vulnerable to abuse.
Unfortunately, in families where abuse is in the family tree – where parents have experienced abuse, too, or were raised by parents who experienced abuse, there is a whole subset of patterns of behavior that are built in, which leave children vulnerable to abuse.
One of those patterns is a pattern of powerlessness. The idea of standing up for ourselves is utterly foreign. Literally, if an abuser were to ask for permission to assault one of us, we wouldn’t know how to say no! Parents do not stand up for their children or for themselves, and they will actively teach a passive, fatalistic, perspective of life.
Another way this is taught to children is by the way we parent, even from birth. This pattern of parenting is actively taught in several popular Christian parenting programs. There is a belief that parents must establish dominance over their children from birth, under the guise of “breaking the will” of the sinful child.
However, what this does is teach a child from birth that their parent is inaccessible and will not come when the call. Parents are not available except on their schedule and children’s “needs” are never really important. We also end up punishing children for behavior that is age-appropriate and simply needs training, or when they are attempting to express a need – and don’t know how to do it “right.” Both of these teach a child she is powerless and/or will be punished for speaking out.
So, when a child is 3 or 6 or 8, and she is being abused by a family friend, she just knows “instinctively” that nothing will happen if she tries to tell her parents. Her parents have been unavailable to her cries when she felt she had a need they couldn’t see – that is simple reality.
And when her abuser says she must not tell, or all these threatened results will happen, she knows the abuser is more powerful than she is – because he is. She has no power at all and, obviously, the abuser has all the power because he has been able to force this behavior on her against her will already. This is simple, unassailable child logic.
3. Children need to be loved and will not tell if they believe the price will be loss of love.
Katherine pointed this reason out when we talked about this issue further. She said,
There is another reason…that children don’t tell. They know, instinctively, that what has happened is bad. And, especially if the parents aren’t that loving to begin with, the child may fear that if known, this would make them unlovable. This was what I thought. Based on the way my parents already treated me, I could not imagine that they would still love me if they knew how damaged I was. And I had no idea what the consequences of that would be, but I knew they wouldn’t be good…
This is so true! If telling about their abuse is going to jeopardize the love they do have, such as it is, children will not tell. This is actually a powerful motivator, even for adults. I see this motivation in action when people do not want to divorce an abuser, even after years of severe and persistently unrepentant abuse — and the real reason is because they know they will lose the one loving haven they still have — the church. They will literally rather choose to continue to live in torment, even if it costs their lives or the lives of their children, to preserve the illusion of one place of acceptance. Children can hardly be condemned for having the same motivations as adults!
The even more unfortunate results of these realities is that a child is set up by them for further abuse. A child who has been abused becomes a walking target for further abuse. Every instance of abuse builds the child’s vulnerability to abuse because of these facts. And abused children, frequently become abused teens, and then abused adults – because these patterns are in place, setting them up as targets for abusers.
It is critical that we stop minimizing the profound impact of abuse on children. This article doesn’t even touch on the extreme consequences of abuse in the lives of children. But, it is up to the adults to become aware of the realities surrounding abuse – why children do not tell, how we set them up not to be heard, and how we can learn to “listen” to their cries.