You’re Not to Blame!

Children often blame themselves for the bad things that happen to them. As adults, we don’t have to keep blaming yourselves.

In working with trauma survivors for over 12 years, a common theme I have encountered has been that people who are abused as children often take responsibility for what happened to them. They think that if they were lovable, stronger, or better able to figure out what their adult caretakers wanted, the abuse would never have happened. The sad thing is that many perpetrators of abuse say things to encourage their victims to feel responsible for the abuse. Very often these are people whose personal developments are immature and do not allow them to take appropriate responsibility for their actions. Therefore, they project responsibility onto the people they harm. This is true for physical as well as sexual abuse.

Of course, we humans are very good at justifying what we do, and our memory is self-serving in most cases. We’ll remember many events in a way that favors us and makes us look good. However, a healthy, normal adult can also take a step back and look at their behavior, realizing that there are more than one versions of any story. Thus, we can see ourselves as culpable and capable of mistakes in most situations, and hopefully take corrective action accordingly. People who hurt others often find it too uncomfortable and painful to take responsibility, so they have a binary system of responsibility. What this means is that they generally see everyone else as wrong and at fault, and themselves as perfect and poor victims who are acted upon by all those wrong-doers. Other adults can swat away people like this like so many flies, realizing that this way of thinking is unhealthy and dangerous to be around. But children are often stuck in a one-down position in relation to people like this. Imagine being the child of someone who can never admit fault, can never say “I’m sorry” after inflicting physical or emotional pain on you. Or worse yet, who can make you feel as though you deserved to get mistreated. This is one of the horrible side effects of abuse that takes a long time to heal.

If you have come to see your own childhood abuse as your fault, I hope that you can reach a point where you realize that you did not deserve it. It may take a while to realize this, but it is a very important part of healing from trauma. If you feel stuck and believes that don’t work for you, professional help may be essential to your healing. Please consider calling me if you are in the Antelope Valley area; my phone number is 661-233-6771.

Loss of innocence

Childhood sexual abuse is hard to cope with, but it’s better dealt with while the child is young than when the experience has a chance to infiltrate the personality.

Sexual abuse, especially in childhood, is one of the hardest experiences I have helped people resolve. It is not always as brutal and acute as physical abuse or an isolated rape incident; in some cases people can be led to believe that what’s happening to them is normal and fine. I’ve heard a lot of people say that what bothers them most is not the sex act itself, although that is often disturbing (especially if it happened to them as children). It is the inappropriateness of the touch or sexual attention that bothers them, haunts them to the core.

I have seen mothers who have been sexually abused themselves as children become hypersensitive to any adult touching their children, even if it is not with sexual intent and is objectively appropriate. I have also seen the opposite extreme. Some parents thing that because what happened seemed “normal” to them, they disbelieve their children when the children tell them about being abused. Or they think the child is doing it to seek attention. I’m sure there are some children who do lie about such a serious matter, but I think that far more often, the child is telling the truth and the abuse goes unreported because they are afraid of getting the perpetrator in trouble. It is especially difficult for some parents to believe when the perpetrator is their own husband, wife, or romantic partner. There are also people who distrust the governmental agencies to whom they would report such incidents. I can understand that, and I don’t pretend that child protective agencies or the police always handle these matters well. However, they are still there to protect children from abuse and neglect, and if the abuse continues unabated it can have lifelong, damaging consequences.

Children need to be able to trust their environments and their caretakers to take appropriate action when they tell their parents they’ve been touched inappropriately. It wouldn’t kill us as a society to take them seriously until the facts have proven that they are not telling the truth. By their very nature, children don’t have the resources and awareness to protect themselves. We need to be in tune with our children to know when something is off with their behavior. We don’t need to necessarily jump to the conclusion that they’ve been sexually assaulted, but we do need to protect their innocence for as long as we can. If you think your child has been touched inappropriately, you can get them help: proper medical attention; psychotherapy; and legal and physical protection against the perpetrators. Don’t let it become their problem later on in the forms of depression; anxiety; PTSD; dissociation; and other psychological and behavioral problems.

Parents in Perspective

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are holidays that can bring up feelings of gratitude and appreciation for those of us lucky enough to have genuinely kind, loving and supportive parents. But for those who had parents who were emotionally, physically or sexually abusive or neglectful, it is harder to conjure up such positive emotions. Instead, resentment, grief and anger can be accompanied with family-oriented holidays. How can we deal with these negatively feelings constructively, especially when we’re reminded of not having had our developmental needs met well?

Sometimes it helps to put their behavior in perspective. There is an old adage that is almost a cliché at this point: “They did the best they could with the knowledge/understanding they had at the time.” This is true, usually, but it doesn’t do much for our hurt feelings. Let’s take it a bit deeper by considering what the parents might have experienced. What kind of people hurt others, intentionally or otherwise, repeatedly? Often they are people whose modeling for empathy, understanding, fairness and kindness were extremely flawed. These types of people learned to survive by being cold, self-centered, and ruthlessly dominant. They might have grown up in a situation where their survival depended on “dog eat dog” mentality and not had anyone show them that children deserve respect, dignity and kindness. This does not excuse their bad behavior, but it does indicate that they were disadvantaged from the start as parents, and as human beings. On the other hand, some parents were coddled as parents and never given any kind of realistic, consistent boundaries. They concluded that they could do whatever they wanted to whomever they chose, and would get away with it because their parents didn’t teach them any better. They may seem to have “had it good” because they were spoiled materially or in terms of favoritism, but again, they are disadvantaged in a different way. Having an unrealistic set of expectations about how others should treat them makes them entitled, narcissistic and very difficult to be around; as a result they were ill-prepared for socialization from the start. Having compassion for them is sometimes a stretch, but it’s ultimately more healing that holding onto grudges and lusting after revenge. Detaching from what they did this way might start the process of cultivating compassion for themselves and for yourself as well.

In either case, these parents lacked the basic empathy needed to be decent, loving parents and it doesn’t just affect their relationships with you. They are also unable to have truly deep, intimate relationships with mutual respect and enjoyment with other people as well. Their marriages and friendships likely have suffered from their limitations. When you consider all this, you realize that they have suffered as well, and while it doesn’t make your suffering any less or greater than theirs, you can acknowledge it as a damaging situation all around.

It also helps to think about how to protect yourself from being treated this way by them and other people as well. You might consider asking them to behave differently when interacting with you, for example. If they cannot do that, or do it consistently, then you might limit how much interaction you have with them. If they are particularly invasive and toxic, you might have to take a break from interacting with them until your boundaries become stronger and healthier, so that you can stand up for yourself when you’re around them and they do something objectionable. It’s important that you have options now, because you’re an adult and can support and protect yourself.

You may not have had the mother or father you hoped for, and Mother’s or Father’s Day might still be a difficult day. However, if you are able to step back from those hurt feelings, it might be an OK day in spite of your childhood circumstances.