Adult survivors of childhood trauma are misunderstood, misjudged, and mistreated. They face an ongoing battle of shame, stigma, and disbelief–not just from individuals but from society.
The following are real statements made about survivors:
- They’re adults now. The past shouldn’t still be affecting them.
- They just need to move on. Put the past behind them.
- After all, that happened 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.
- You need to forgive and give your pain to God.
- Why are you bringing this up now? You should have said something years ago.
- Nothing can be done about it now.
Then, there are the misinformed conclusions about survivors’ symptoms.
- What’s the matter with him? Why can’t he get his life together?
- Why does he always end up dating people like that?
- Why can’t she stop drinking, lose weight, keep a job. . .?
- She’s doing this for attention.
- He looks fine. (implied: there’s nothing wrong with him.)
- He’s just being lazy, passive, manipulative, a victim.
- She’s just making up her struggles with that illness. She told me the doctors can’t find anything wrong. There’s nothing really wrong with her.
These are real comments.
These are statements that I’ve heard, my husband, the survivor has heard, or other survivors I know have faced. (For some reason, people thought I needed to know what they thought of my husband.) Others weren’t so tactful and directed their accusations directly at him. I know from the survivor communities with which I am involved that he and I are not alone in battling this mistreatment.
This is the reality of what adult survivors of childhood trauma face.
In part 1 of this series, Here’s How I Became an Advocate for Survivors of Childhood Abuse (& How You Can Too), I shared my story of recovery from childhood trauma and my subsequent advocacy journey from self-advocate to advocate for my survivor husband to advocate for adult survivors.
This week, I want to talk about why adult survivors of childhood abuse need advocates. (Although I hope you’re already connecting the dots!)
I’ve put together a list of twenty reasons adult survivors need advocates. It’s certainly not extensive and I’d love to hear more reasons from you by email or through social media.
But here’s my list so far.
1. Childhood trauma occurs during early development. This means that the developing brain is especially vulnerable to the impact of trauma.
The greatest impact on the developing brain occurs from ages zero to three. – Lori Gill, M.A., Certified Trauma Specialist, Director of Attachment & Trauma Centre for Healing
The job of the brain is to keep a person alive. When a child lives in an abusive environment, the brain adapts or changes in response to the situation to keep the child alive. Although life-saving at the time, these adaptations ultimately prove maladaptive as the person grows into adulthood when survival is no longer threatened. These maladaptations create difficulties for the adult survivor.
2. Due to the trauma in childhood, key developmental stages may be missed.
A brain focused on survival is not concerned with acquiring the normal skills of childhood. The adult survivor may have missed out on areas like socialization, learning how to plan or make decisions, and how to manage stress.
These skills do not magically appear upon adulthood. Survivors who did not acquire skills as children must learn them as adults.
3. Survivors may have difficulty managing distressing emotions.
Learning to regulate or to calm oneself is a skill gained during childhood from caregivers. However, if caregivers are unavailable, neglectful, or abusive, the child does not learn how to self-calm. Adding to the dilemma is the heightened distress from the abuse.
Survivors who do not know how to regulate themselves are susceptible to developing addictions or other unhealthy coping strategies.
Dr. Gabor Maté writes in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts that the source of addictions is not to be found in genes but in the early childhood environment.
4. Survivors who do not know how to regulate themselves are susceptible to developing addictions or other unhealthy coping strategies.
A part of the brain called Broca’s region shuts down when trauma occurs. This region will continue to shut down when flashbacks occur or when survivors are asked about the abuse.
5. Forcing a survivor to talk about past trauma can retraumatize him or her and cause a resurgence of symptoms.
Please respect their privacy and their choice as to how much, with whom, and when they share.
6. Childhood abuse is relational trauma as it often occurs in the context of early caregiving relationships.
These relationships serve as the foundation upon which all other relationships are built. If trust and intimacy are broken in this context, survivors will deeply struggle with other relationships.
High rates of relational breakdown, including divorce, are common. Many survivors live in isolation due to fear of intimacy.
7. Many survivors cannot count on family members to believe or to support them.
This is different than other conditions in which family members often play a positive and supportive role during recovery.
Abuse within family environments is thought to make up two-thirds of all child sexual abuse, and as few as one in eight victims come to the attention of authorities, previous research by the commissioner’s office found.
Some survivors have now described feeling abandoned after telling their families about the trauma they had suffered, and in powerful testimonies they spoke of their frustrations at a lack of support. Child victims of sexual abuse in families let down by system: report. The Guardian. April 20, 2017.
8. Adult survivors may not able to detect the signs of unhealthy relationships.
This can lead to the formation of predator-victim relationships again.
9. Childhood trauma survivors often struggle with dissociation.
Dissociation is the brain’s way of protecting a child who has no escape. Once set in motion, through no fault of their own, the brains of adult survivors continue this once-protective mechanism when experiencing a trigger. Dissociation is not a choice.
10. They may have issues with memory, planning, and decision making.
Again, these struggles are rooted in brain development.
11. High levels of stress hormones from abuse may contribute to higher than average rates of physical health conditions including autoimmune diseases, heart disease, and cancer.
12. Treatment involves many modalities, which can be difficult to find.
Unfortunately, comprehensive trauma treatment, called trauma-informed and trauma-specific, is difficult to find.
13. Treatment is expensive. Wait times can be long.
The cost can prevent survivors from seeking help. The wait times for affordable care are often long.
14. Many therapists receive little to no training in trauma at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
15. Childhood trauma impacts employment.
Many survivors’ symptoms are so severe that they cannot work either short-term or permanently.
16. There are stigma and shame to the admission of abuse by those who should have cared for you.
17. There is not a separate diagnosis for the traumatic stress of childhood trauma.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V places childhood trauma of this nature under Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, trauma clinicians admit that this diagnosis is not adequate. Trauma experts Bessel van der Kolk, Judith Herman, and Martin H Teicher suggest diagnoses like developmental trauma disorder or complex PTSD as more accurate descriptions of the causes and symptoms of childhood trauma.
18. The medical system often does not ask about a childhood trauma history leaving patients vulnerable to misdiagnoses and a host of unrelated treatments.
When symptoms don’t respond because the root causes are not addressed, survivors are vulnerable to hopelessness, despair, shame, and suicide.
19. Abuse of all types is often minimized or dismissed by the legal system.
In addition, reporting to police or pursuing litigation can be retraumatizing for survivors. Most survivors do not take legal action even though they are victims of crime.
20. The impact of uuresolved childhood trauma does not diminish with time.
Without opportunities to heal and to recover in the context of trauma-informed therapists, coaches, support groups, partners, and friends, there is a high likelihood of the individual not moving forward.
Above all, adult survivors of childhood abuse are vulnerable.
What do vulnerable people need? They need protection, support, resources, funding, care, and advocacy. They need to be heard, understood, and validated. They need dignity and respect.
Adult survivors need these things too.
This is why adult survivors need advocates.
Why do you think adult survivors need advocates?
Let me know in the comments, send me an email, or drop me a note on social media. I’ll keep a list and update this one (all added comments will remain anonymous).