Speaking as an adult survivor of abuse that I suffered as a child, I know firsthand that it’s impossible for children to comprehend why the abuse is happening to them.
As a result, we see three common reactions from children who’ve been abused:
Confusion: you can’t understand why someone you trust is hurting you
Shame: you conclude the abuse must have somehow been your fault
Repression: the memories are so painful, our brain buries them
In this article, we’ll look at each reaction in more detail, starting with confusion.
Reaction #1: Confusion
Abuse and maltreatment wreak havoc with a child’s mind. The confusion that goes along with abuse threatens the most basic ideas of who we are.
When I was a kid, I felt unloved for most of my childhood. Then my abuser, Bob, showed up and gave me the attention I’d always wanted.
He was fun, he was a cop, he got along with my parents—he was my hero. He earned my trust and love, and made me feel like I had real worth. But then he took that trust and my need for him, and used it for his own sexual gratification.
I couldn’t put that together in my head. I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know how to understand Bob, I couldn’t understand what was happening in my body.
Put simply, I couldn’t comprehend any of it. Because of that, I struggled for years with the next reaction—shame—and it led me to make some terrible decisions.
Reaction #2: Shame
A child is innocent and defenseless. Unlike most animals, who launch their young out into the world within a year, human babies take a long time to mature. For many years, they’re vulnerable; they don’t have the information they need to fend for themselves. Children are born expecting to be loved and cared for—abuse rips all that away.
Abuse denies children their protection, their nurturing environment, and most of all, their innocence. On top of that, abusers put the blame for his horrible act on their victims.
This is what messed me up for years. I believed the abuse I suffered was my fault because my abuser, like many others, placed his own guilt onto me, a child.
Over and over, abused children are blamed; they’re made to feel they did something wrong. The predators who abuse them do this to justify their own criminal behavior. And, because abuse victims are looking for a reason to understand why they were abused, they accept the explanation that it was their fault.
If you are reading this and recognize similar feelings of blame and shame in yourself, you need to know two crucial things. One: you're not alone. Two—and this is critical—it was not your fault. Abuse survivors need to understand you did nothing wrong.
Even more importantly, you can heal, no matter what happened.
Reaction #3: Repression
An experience of abuse like this causes so much horror, such massive terror, that the mind blanks it out completely. As a form of protection, the memory is repressed.
Abuse victims don't want to feel the pain of their attack through relived memories—so the mind shuts off. It stops. I repressed my memories of abuse for years, until extensive counseling drew them out of me. But even so, the memory of going to Bob’s neighbor’s house and being alone with two men remains a black spot in my mind. The mind is a powerful instrument; it can make you believe nothing ever happened.
As a child, you’re powerless to stop the pain of abuse, so repression is a tool you can use for your protection and survival. But as an adult, repression no longer serves you.
Sure, it may feel a lot tidier, but it’s like being in jail; it holds you in bondage.
You can’t actually heal if you continue to repress the memories. Although it’s painful, the first step to healing is to confront the memories connected to your abuse.
When you work with a professional or within a safe space to share your story, that’s when you can begin to deal with the confusion and shame you feel.